collaborative science

Better labeling will allow architects to make more informed decisions about what goes into the homes they design. Even so, sustainable building is a multi-faceted science that ranges from design and construction techniques that make sense for every project and budget, to solutions for clients who want to invest in a higher-tech, long-term vision of their home. One deterrent to investing in sustainability is the lack of a nationally accepted definition of what constitutes a green home. The several dozen local programs that offer ratings for green buildings are all different, so there are few standards homeowners trust, and there's no buy-in from nationwide mortgage lenders. This lack of standards, however, has not stopped some architects from playing all along the tonal spectrum.

Although Siegel & Strain may use ecologically hip PVs on high-end projects, it starts with a low-tech approach to sustainability. The firm uses old-fashioned bioclimatic design as a way to innovate, so that the building's orientation, shape, and massing provide energy for free. It's an approach some architects give lip service to, but few rigorously follow. “In our experience, a lot of people start off that way, but if they have a great design idea they think is new and cool, all that stuff goes out the window,” Siegel says. “We think you need to do everything to get a building climatically right before you put in heating and cooling. With this approach, all the mechanical systems get smaller.”

New York City architect Dennis Wedlick, AIA, also practices what he calls resource-first design. Once the project gets past programming and site analysis, he searches for sustainable design ideas. Architects who preconceive a building's form and materials and then look for alternatives are limiting themselves, he believes. “By looking at resources first, you get an opportunity to find flooring made out of coconut shells and mechanical systems that are more efficient and comfortable to be around,” Wedlick says. “You get to find options that the design could possibly take advantage of.”

Staff interior designer Kate Splane keeps the samples library and database current with notes on material content, life cycle, and how far a product has to travel. Wedlick ferrets out other eco-information early on in a project by involving consultants, suppliers, builders, and the clients themselves. “We're all grateful for things like LEED ratings and sources that have neatly collected information,” Wedlick says. “But we'll be in a lot of trouble if we use them as a crutch, because we won't have accomplished the objective of a sustainable society, which is more of an organic process.”

Vivian Loftness, FAIA, a professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, and chair of the AIA Committee on the Environment, agrees, pointing out that the goal of residential architecture should be buildings that are environmentally superior and also beautiful to look at, that demonstrate both technical and sensory prowess. “Architects have to become more versed in interiors, engineering, and construction, and they need to internalize that knowledge base but also collaborate more,” she says. “You can no longer pitch the drawings over the fence. You have to work it out together.”

Indeed, it's not enough to simply design for sustainability. All too often, construction detailing and follow-up are overlooked. Steven Winter, FAIA, Steven Winter Associates, Norwalk, Conn., says architects sometimes permit contractors to install mechanical systems incorrectly. Ducts should be kept inside the thermal envelope rather than run through the attic. And just as cars get annual exams, due diligence requires periodic checkups to make sure the high-efficiency mechanical system is operating properly.

spend to save

With checks and balances firmly in place, it's easier to convince clients that they'll save money in the long run by paying more for better insulation, more efficient air conditioners, and structural innovations. To owners who are risk-averse, the upfront costs of new technologies are a barrier, and architects who don't know how to think about the project holistically can't translate the cross-ramifications to clients. David Hertz, AIA, of Syndesis, Santa Monica, Calif., says green design requires an art of the long view. “High-performance glass will be 30 percent to 50 percent more expensive as a first cost than if you used an inefficient glass. If you do an energy calculation and model the building, you can immediately offset that increase in cost by specing a smaller mechanical system, not to mention the space you save on housing the equipment. On every project we build, we work with consultants who have those energy modeling programs.”

Winter endorses the use of such software, which crunches data on how much energy different design schemes will consume. “The software is available at modest costs,” he says. “Just have someone in the office get smart about it. This stuff isn't that complex, and it's a service that architects can sell.”

Fortunately, as interest in sustainability builds and the supply stream turns greener, premium costs are dropping precipitously. Bob Berkebile, FAIA, BNIM Architects, says a lot of the higher projected costs were due to fear of the unknown in estimating. He cites a 2003 study showing that the average capital expense for all LEED-certified projects in California was just 1.8 percent more than the cost of conventional buildings. “Our experience is that it costs us more money to do this education and research, but it doesn't cost more money to construct an intelligent house once you have done all the right things with the envelope,” says Berkebile. He notes that high costs usually occur in one or two categories: Either the clients insist on a pricey product or material because they love its quality, or they're off the grid and want their south-facing roof to be photovoltaic.

With so many smart, affordable technologies flooding the market, Winter predicts that 10 years from now the term “green” will be obsolete. If so, architects have an important role to play. “One of the barriers to green building is lack of confidence,” Wilson says. “There's a very reasonable skepticism as to whether a product will hold up. Architects and builders won't use something unless it's been on the market 10 years. With that approach, it takes a lot of time to get new products into widespread use. There's also an investment of time required to keep up with what's going on with these products. Investing in ongoing education should be a higher priority.”

cheryl weber is a contributing writer in severna park, md.