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Posts Tagged ‘Green architecture’

I have been interested in sustainable architecture since the energy crisis of the late 1970s.  Back in the day, nobody used the word sustainability, but it was the direction that Bob Schubert of Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture was guiding his students.  Recognizing that the earth is a finite system, the practice of responsible utilization of resources was simply a no-brainer.  When the words “green building” and “sustainability” became buzzwords in the 1990s, I thought of what Bob was preaching some twenty years earlier.

Fast forward about 35 years, and an old friend approached me about designing a house for her.  I jumped at the opportunity, because we share similar views on stewardship of natural resources and the environment.  We talked off and on for a couple of years until she was able to find the perfect piece of land on which to site the house.  The land slopes almost due south which is an ideal setup for passive solar design.  By coincidence, this is also the direction of the best views, so the house took on biophilic characteristics before we laid down the first line, connecting the owner with nature.20170227_161933

During our conversations, we talked about utilizing a small building footprint of approximately 1,200 square feet.  As a matter of resource conservation, I typically design around a 4’ x 4’ module (6 bricks, 3 concrete blocks, 3 joist spaces @16”, and half a sheet of plywood) to optimize the use of materials with minimal waste.  This house grew out of that paradigm.  As a result the footprint is exactly 1,200 square feet.

The house has south facing glass with appropriately positioned overhangs to keep the summer sun off the glass, but admit the winter sun when the solar gain reduces run time of the HVAC system.  Additionally, there is an operable clerestory that combined with low operable windows in the great room creates a chimney effect which keeps the house more comfortable in warmer weather without resorting to air conditioning on all but the hottest days.  The clerestory floods the house with light which elevates the mood of anyone occupying the space.

At a more personable level, the walls at the entrance are painted a contrasting color to draw attention to the entrance, since the front door is perpendicular to the street.  Because the public spaces face south, the more private areas by default need to face the north, which happens to face the street.  Again, this was ideal, because of the symbiotic need for smaller glass areas due to the function and orientation of the spaces20170227_161923.

The functionality of the design resulted in a prairie style house nestled into a hillside in central Virginia.  When viewed from the north, the horizontal lines suggest a symbiotic relationship with the Earth and that the house is of the site not on it.

 

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I spent this weekend attending the CSI Middle Atlantic Region Conference in Gettysburg, PA. My time was well spent, as my membership once again paid for itself.

How so, you might ask?

The conference included a slate of excellent technical seminars. This in and of itself is a good value. More to the point, getting up and into a seminar at 8:00 AM on a Saturday resulted in my picking up a bit of information which will result in a revised detail on an upcoming project. The owner is thrilled that this subtle change will add value by saving maintenance costs in future years with little or no additional up front cost.

That said, we need to think out of the box in terms of how we do things. A professional standard of care is normally met when we do things the way we’ve always done them, particularly when it comes to keeping water out of our buildings (assuming we did it correctly in the first place). This alone should keep us out of court. This kind of thinking is about the same as saying “we’ll build it to code”, which is often touted as quality by some members of the construction industry. It is also the crummiest construction that is legal. So what happens if you do just a little bit more and, in the process, add value?

This is exactly what came to my attention because of the efforts of the Central Pennsylvania Chapter who hosted the conference. I would have missed this had I not been a member of CSI.

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It never ceases to amaze me how many construction proposals contain the very short specification “to code”. What amazes me even more is that there are actually consumers who believe this statement or some variation thereon assures them of a quality project.

Wake up folks! The building code is the crummiest construction that is legal.

So you ask: “How can I get better than the worst that’s legal?”

Better quality construction starts with better construction documents. Good construction documents are usually produced by a licensed design professional. For certain occupancies, a licensed design professional is required to seal and sign the construction documents before a construction permit can be issued by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). In such cases, simply having the seal of a licensed professional on the drawings is in the same category of “built to code”.

Better quality construction documents often involve the services of a Certified Construction Specifier (CCS). The CCS is a certification issued by the Construction Specifications Institute more commonly known as CSI. Holders of the CCS are required to have a minimum of five years’ experience preparing construction documents and at least two years of writing construction specifications. In addition, a CCS will have passed a rigorous exam to receive the certification.

Unofficially, a CCS is an experienced professional with a vast body of technical knowledge. As a member of the building team, the specifier will often prompt the other members of the design team to think about issues such as constructability, compatibility of materials, watertightness, and similar issues.

Once a project is documented, it will need to be constructed by a qualified contractor. One characteristic to look for in the course of selecting a contractor is whether or not he/she has a CDT on staff. A CDT knows his/her way around a set of construction documents. They understand the information presented and know where to look for certain information within the set of documents. Additionally, a CDT has a basic understanding of the relationships called for in a set of construction contract documents.

With this in mind, when shopping for construction services, hire someone who holds a CSI issued certificate or a CSI certified professional.

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In making major purchases, the popular tendency is to solicit multiple bids in an effort to obtain the lowest price.  That lowest price, however, comes at a price.  I have to say that seeking the lowest price isn’t always the most economical in the long term.  In fact, the opposite is often true.  The life cycle cost of any purchase should be considered.

 Several years back, a major local subdivision opened up to cater to mid to upper middle class families.  In the interest of appearing to deliver a lot of square feet for the dollar, several decisions were made, including installation of the least expensive windows the builders could find.  Within five years, many of the homeowners were replacing their windows.

 Now, what is economical?   On the surface, saving about twenty five percent on the windows at the time of construction enabled the builders to sell at low dollars per square foot.  Presumably this savings was passed on to the consumer.  The actual cost of this is an initial savings of 25% to install a cheap window plus the cost of a quality replacement window, plus the labor to remove and replace the windows when they fail.  So if the cost of the initial windows was .75X, the real cost within a few years becomes .75X plus X plus 2L (labor to remove and replace the windows) plus W (the cost of wasted energy) or 1.75X + 2L + W.

 This is but one example.  When making a major purchase, consider the long term cost of ownership before making a decision.  Premature replacement is far from sustainable.

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Sometime back, I posted an article called “It’s Easy Being Green” to this blog.  It seems appropriate to come back to that topic, because it bears repeating.

Green building is the application of common sense to the way we build.  For every project, one starts with a palette of materials.  If a designer/builder uses them wisely and respects what each specific material wants to do, there will be little waste on a project.  Let’s see: little waste, little shipped to the landfill.  Check.

As a plant follows the sun, so should we.  If we pay attention to how a building is sited, we can take advantage of the sun’s position and the energy that is available at no cost to all of us.  Proper placement of glass, overhangs, and appropriate allocation of interior spaces will result in spaces that are heated by the sun in winter, but shaded in summer.  In my part of the country, these considerations are particularly important for outdoor spaces.  As an example, a west facing porch is worthless late in the day when most of us have time to use it.  An east facing porch, on the other hand yields a wonderful place to enjoy breakfast and most days, dinner, particularly if there is a stream or river nearby.  Absent a body of water, a screened porch with appropriate landscaping around it will allow one to enjoy the sounds of nature.  Let’s see: passive solar design; a little common sense.  Check

Now that we have a house that’s built to common sense metrics, we need to install a high performance thermal package consisting of insulation, air barriers, and a high efficiency HVAC system.  There are many ways to insulate and air seal a house, and I’m not out to promote any particular system, particularly since there is no “one size fits all” system.  Nowadays, efficient HVAC equipment is readily available and not terribly expensive.  A little common sense in the design and construction of the duct system along with the introduction of the appropriate amount of fresh air and removal of the appropriate amount of humidity should have interior comfort exactly where it should be.  Thermal performance.  Check.

 Fold in a high efficiency lighting system incorporating as much daylighting as possible.  For daylighting, refer to paragraph three above.  Daylighting.  Check.

 Finally, make common sense choices of materials.  After all, we don’t want to poison the occupants of our buildings, nor do we wish to poison society at large through the environmental impact of extracting, manufacturing, and transportation of materials.  Green products.  Check.

 Stir it all together and the result should be a green building that will last for generations to come.  Satisfaction for doing the right thing.  Check.

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As I sit here beside the Cowpasture River listening to the rapids and tree frogs, I can’t help but be reminded why I endeavor to practice green architecture.

 I have always considered myself a conservationist, even if I don’t look like one at first glance.  Recognizing that the earth is a finite system and our resources (including open space) are finite, it is my goal to leave the world better than I found it and to bestow a legacy to my children where they can experience the same joys in life I have.  Among other things, this would include being able to stand quietly and contemplate the rapids or to ride through them in a canoe or innertube.

 By practicing good planning; small lots, small footprints, keeping development within reasonable urban boundaries, we will preserve the open spaces.  By making the best possible use of materials we can build utilizing fewer trees.  This has a twofold effect.  First is that the countryside can stay forested longer.  Secondly, the trees improve the quality of the air we breathe.

 I could go on with the litany of things we can easily do to make our buildings and cities greener, but most of us are pretty well immersed in greenness these days.  Suffice it to say, it is up to us to be good stewards of what we have, and what we have is a small, green planet which provides a habitat for all of us.

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Late this past week, I had a lengthy conversation with a client about how her windows should be flashed.  Specifically, she was looking for my thoughts on pan flashing below the windows, as the flashing pan below the window is the last bastion of defense against water getting into the house around the windows.

 I usually begin a conversation on flashing with the following statement:  “There is only one basic rule when it comes to flashing – Water runs downhill.  If this fact is respected, your home will stay dry”.

 Flashing is the most important element of an enclosure system.  It is the single element that makes a rain screen system work, whether that system consists of siding, brick veneer, EIFS, or any number of other types of systems.  If the enclosure system isn’t properly flashed, the framing behind it will ultimately rot out and there will be mold problems in the house.  Left unnoticed (this is usually a concealed condition), the very structure of the house will be impaired.

 A properly installed flashing system should not add to the cost of a house.  You will find, in fact, that most codes require it.  Simple attention to doing it correctly and providing a means for drainage caught by the flashing to be diverted from the structure will save headaches and the costs associated with correcting them for the life of the structure.

 As time goes on, I will post more specific writings on this topic.  Green construction depends on getting the moisture control right, and flashing is the most important component of moisture control.

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