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Posts Tagged ‘Green building’

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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The green building movement has garnered a lot of attention in the last dozen years or so with many sexy new buildings gaining LEED Certification from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).  In the 1970’s when I was studying architecture at Virginia Tech the green building ethos was already alive and well and championed by the likes of faculty members Bob Schubert and Dennis Kilper.  The need for environmentally responsive architecture was reinforced by the first and second oil crises (1973 and 1979) during which time the price of a gallon of gasoline tripled.  The environmental geology faculty emphasized the finiteness of the earth’s resources, although logic would lead any reasonable person to recognize this.

Within four months of my graduation, I found myself involved in the reconstruction of the Greene County Courthouse in Stanardsville, Virginia following a gas explosion and devastating fire which burned the roof and original cupola off of the building.  This, of course, piqued my interest in preservation of historic buildings.  During the interim period while the historic building was being documented and reconstructed, we converted an adjacent building into a functional temporary courthouse.  It wasn’t at all attractive, but was functional and because the bricks and mortar were already in place, the county courts were back up and running within a few weeks.

It is at this point that the green movement and the historic preservation movement intersect.  Reusing existing buildings makes use of the massive amounts of embodied energy that is in all existing buildings.  Granted, older buildings require more energy to heat and cool than newer structures, but there are many energy related improvements that can be made to the existing building stock.  Because there are so many existing buildings, even moderate improvements in energy consumption in the existing building stock will have a huge positive environmental impact.  Think about the magnitude of the savings if we can improve one hundred percent of our existing building stock.  Additionally, we will be able to preserve our historical heritage.

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I recently took a walk through a local townhouse community and walked to the end of a cul-de-sac at the top of a hill.  The view from the end of the street was one of the better views inCharlottesville.  From that vantage point, one can see several miles of the blue Ridge, as well as most everything in between.

 After admiring the view, I turned to return in the direction from which I had come.  I was most disappointed that the end unit in the townhouse block had only one small window facing the view, presumably in a dining room.  The rest of the end elevation was a massive blank wall.  When the residents of the end unit are inside, they cannot enjoy the view unless they are in one particular spot within the unit.

 This is a classic case of a developer putting up the cheapest thing he/she could, ignoring the context into which the unit was placed.  For a few hundred dollars, there could have been several windows in that west wall.

 A little more care on the part of the developer could have resulted in a clubhouse placed on this site, so that all of the resdents of the community could have enjoyed the spectacular view.  An investment in an amenity such as this would have raised the appraisals of every unit on the site, increasing the gross profit on each unit sold.

 So a tremendous opportunity was missed.

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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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I have posted twice before arguments for sprinklering buildings.  The first, which I posted last August dealt primarily with protection of lives.  The second posting from last week addresses the loss of livelihood.  With this post, I will address the relationship of fire protection to green construction and environmental stewardship.

 The National Trust for Historic Preservation has long advocated that preservation of old buildings is the ultimate in green because of the embodied energy in the existing structure.  Folded in with the energy required to demolish the building and dispose of the debris and other related environmental (and human/cultural) costs and the energy required to redevelop the site, there is something approaching a threefold disadvantage to replacing buildings rather than reusing.

Fast forward to the topic at hand.  When buildings are destroyed by fire the embedded energy of the building is lost.  Again, the cost of cleaning up the rubble (no hope of recycling/reusing most of it) and the resources required to rebuild in essence triple the embedded energy of the facility.  Couple that with the environmental damage caused by the fire itself (metals melting, materials decomposing and/or off gassing during combustion, etc., and you could have a bona-fide disaster which could have been averted.

Given that we see about half a million structure fires annually, doesn’t it make environmental sense to sprinkler the buildings?

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Our local congressman recently attended an event promoting a local energy saving assistance program.  The aim of the program is to assist homeowners in identifying strategies to save energy through energy audits.  Under the program the energy auditor will hand the owner a list of things they can do to improve the energy efficiency of their home.  The program is a great community asset, and I applaud Congressman Perriello for supporting it.

 Once the energy wasting areas are identified, the homeowner will need to make some decisions about how to address the problems in a cost-effective manner.  All too often these days, such recommendations are made by a contractor who may be interested in selling more insulation or perhaps an HVAC system.  While doing this kind of thing can save the homeowner money, many energy saving projects have the potential to involve major renovations to one’s home.

 This is why the homeowner should hire a licensed architect or professional engineer, depending on what it is that they are trying to accomplish.  Often times, the addition of energy saving improvements can coincide with adding to or renovating space which will address the homeowner’s changing needs while improving the energy performance of the home.  Additionally, the architect or PE doesn’t have a financial interest in what strategies are utilized, so a thorough analysis of product choices can take place so the homeowner should get the most for his or her money.

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