Dennis Wedlick, AIA, is co-owner and founder of BarlisWedlick Architects. As part of the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council for 2014, he will co-lead the Vision 2020 initiative in Building Performance + Design.
Design and performance: Let’s talk about how the two exist in tandem. Your homes, such as the Hudson Passive Project, balance efficiency and elegance. How do you do that?
We put the client’s aspirations first and we don’t box them in by what building system or mechanical system they pursue. I think people appreciate our work because the projects have soul and that comes from working with the client to create a narrative based on the persona the project should express. Behind that, we pick the building system that can best adapt to the character and that’s how we tie performance and aesthetics.
What is your process when you talk about systems?
Every architect says, “Oh, we listen to our clients,” but that's not the same. We believe the way a home or building has character is by basing it on a narrative, whether that comes from a person, a community, or a committee. Let’s say the narrative for a home is to be historically correct. The architecture is driven by its historic context, and it may tell us we’re going to do something based on Greek revival. That limits our working palette. Then, we’ll bring in advanced building materials, ones that don’t change the aesthetics but enhance the efficiency. Behind that, we bring in structural systems that we also know will not change the aesthetics but will enhance the efficiencies. But we first start with the architecture.
How do you then determine how far you can push a home in terms of efficiency?
Some clients prioritize efficiency of the system. That’s how we can achieve maximum efficiency.
Do you anticipate those types of clients growing in the future?
They’re definitely growing. Think about where the word "green" now comes up in conversation. Twenty years ago, it was never. Then, 10 years ago, it was after everything was discussed, after a three-hour meeting on the way out the door, they’d say, “Oh, and make it green.” About five years ago, it came up in the middle of the conversation. Now, it’s getting closer to the front of the conversation, and that’s a really big difference.
It’s not a new thing that people are asking for, but green used to be a tag line that was delivered as an afterthought or out of guilt. When it’s done that way, you know it’s not a priority and that put limitations on what performance we could achieve for two reasons. First, as a tagline, it meant aesthetics were really driving the bus. Second, we didn’t have the science and materials to push the envelope like we do now. I have more ways of making things more efficient now without people even being aware of it. So even whenclients dont' ask for it toward the beginningof the conversation, I can do more.
With that in mind, how far do you think we can push designers, architects, and builders?
My hope is that with the advances in building systems and materials, designers could just not worry about it. I see the potential advances in building materials and building science as a way for architecture for be free from limitations in order to improve efficiency.
Architects will need to rely on building scientists more than on structural and mechanical engineers. That’s a sea change. As architects, we’ve always had team members and consultants. We just didn’t have building scientists joining us. It’s a relatively young and growing field because now building scientists have software and data that wasn’t available in the past.
How has that development affected the way you design?
I now think, “What is my building scientist going to say?” the same way I used to wonder what my structural engineer was going to say. When you think like that, it holds your hand back a little. You think. "I’m not going to detail it that way because it’s a thermal bridge and Jordan [my building scientist] isn’t going to be happy."
Do you think that there are any challenges out there to getting designers, architects, and builders and building scientists to work together?
There are no issues with structural engineers, contractors, or building scientists. It’s mechanical engineers. They have been working and refining equipment, when all of a sudden you’re saying, “I don’t even need that equipment.” Our goal is not to find more-efficient equipment. Our goal is to have less equipment. And we are cathing them off guard.
Do you think that opens up a leadership opportunity of sorts, for designers and architects to help educate them?
It definitely opens up a leadership opportunity for a mechanical engineer to carve out a niche as a systems-first engineer. For example, my nephew is a mechanical engineer who works for the kind of companies I used to work with at [Philip] Johnson’s office. He showed me a high-rise project where they had to do value engineering and tell the architect to cut $150,000 out of the exterior wall. I asked him, "What if you gave the architect $150,000 more to spend on the skin and by doing so cut $300,000 out of the mechanical systems?" It turns the industry on its head, and there’s no line of communication to do that.
What are some of the things that you’d like to see accomplished in the next six years?
I would really like the building supply industry to learn more about what their materials can do to improve the thermal boundary between the inside and the outside. I think that they would be amazed at how quickly they could adapt their products to generate higher-performing buildings, and I think they would be thrilled at how easy it would be to produce higher-performing materials without a lot more cost.
If we’re talking about carbon footprint and energy consumption as our biggest enemies and we, as building industry, can have as much of an impact on this as the automobile industry, we need the products to do so. The car industry went from getting 13 miles per gallon to 45 miles per gallon, which gave the auto supply company new products to sell.
So it opens up new markets.
Right. Let’s convince the general public that advanced thermal envelopes and higher performing buildings are the future, and then we can export this knowledge. Like Germany, we could become a country that people will turn to for the most advanced systems that use the least amount of energy.
Since 2012, Hanley Wood has conferred with building industry experts to establish a timeline of critical goals and metrics that building professionals must establish and meet by the year 2020 in order to preserve our environment and meet large-scale goals such as those of the 2030 Challenge. Scroll over points in our on-going timeline to learn more about the path ahead in green building. Track our progress all year as the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council shares their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward these sustainable priorities and goals. This year's program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in conjunction with Greenbuild in New Orleans, and with a special Fall edition of ECOBUILDING REVIEW.