The final session at residential architect’s Reinvention Conference last week was a Special Summit in which presenters and the audience were asked to reflect on the following question: Can affordable and green co-exist? Each speaker shared a case study demonstrating ways sustainable design and construction can fit within tight budgets.
Heather McKinney, FAIA, LEED AP, principal of Austin, Texas-based McKinney York Architects, began with images of the Robbs Run Residence (see it at www.mckinneyarchitects.com under architecture/residential), which achieved a 5-Star rating in Austin's green building program. Her principal cost-savings came from careful selection and reuse of materials. For instance, her firm sold and moved the existing house on the lot. Stone from the site was used as a garden wall and again on the exterior of the new house. McKinney also cited several sustainable practices that cost nothing or very little extra to incorporate: low-VOC paints, ample daylighting to save electricity, orienting a house for good cross-ventilation and thoughtful placement of windows, saving existing trees to shade key parts of the house, and no- or low-water native plants and grasses. A screened porch for outdoor living captures prevailing breezes and protects interiors from excessive heat gain. The clients did splurge for solar panels on the roof, she added, noting that city rebates and tax incentives helped defray costs. (For more on the Robbs Run Residence, click here.)
McKinney also shared early plans for Austin's old municipal airport, Mueller Field, for which her firm was hired as consultant to help the builders design smart, efficient, affordable houses. The 711-acre brownfield is being converted into a multiuse community with a children's' hospital, retail, town center, and a variety of residential types and price ranges. The developer has said every building will be designed and built to achieve a LEED rating.
The next speaker, Peter L. Pfeiffer, FAIA, principal of Austin’s Barley & Pfeiffer Architects, presented ideas he had shared in his earlier breakout session, "Sustainable by Design." Here, he urged the larger Reinvention crowd to connect the dots between basic building science and affordability: A house that uses less energy is more affordable to own, he said.
Pfeiffer also advised architects to remember the value of thoughtful programming and to address issues in the first 10% of the design process, because that's where 90% of the green savings occur. He said architects should strive to reduce consumption, save energy and water, and improve the health of their clients. He warned against indiscriminate window placement and championed buildings with broad overhangs to help houses stay dry. He also emphasized the importance of contextual design: developing homes that fit their climate.
In his presentation, Eric Naslund, FAIA, used project examples to show how simple strategies can result in affordable sustainable design. One such project was the 90-unit Indian Wells Senior Housing development for low-income residents in the California desert. The main strategy of this 1996 project, Naslund said, was to ensure residents' comfort in the hot desert climate, so Naslund's firm, Studio E Architects, "oriented the windows on the top of this chimney to capture the prevailing breezes and increase the thermal siphoning effect," he said.
Another affordable project, on the 5-acre site of a former trailer park, employed similar strategies: a thermal chimney at the center of each house plan, shaded spaces to the south, and protection from the western exposure. A utility-supplied solar system provides 75% of the electrical power to each unit. Though the project is certified LEED-Platinum, Naslund expressed concern that the U.S. Green Building Council didn't award credit for its thermal chimney. "They wouldn't give us a single point for those thermal chimneys, and in my mind, that was the centerpiece of the energy strategy," Naslund said.
Chris Krager, AIA, began his presentation with a discussion of Austin's average home cost versus its average median income, noting that you have to get to about 50% of the average median income to really offer affordable houses. Instead of asking, Can green be affordable?, he suggested asking the following question instead: Can we afford not to build sustainably? Krager then shared details of SOL, a new community his firm, KRDB, is developing, designing, and building. According to Krager, SOL exemplifies all of the firm's missions. "It promotes sustainable, smart building; social equity; and modern design," he said. The primary goals for the completed project include: true zero-net-energy houses, zero-irrigation landscaping, minimum impact on the site during construction, a diverse community, and pleasing public and private outdoor spaces.
Krager added that he's working with a local nonprofit to make 16 of the 40 houses available for low-income families, explaining his strategies for keeping costs down while accomplishing diverse goals. Several charts showed Krager's extensive research into costs and benefits of various sustainable materials and systems.
David Baker, FAIA, LEED AP, concluded the presentation portion of the summit by showing several of his affordable and low-income housing projects. He reiterated that high density can solve many issues facing housing and the general economy today. His projects demonstrated, among other things, that density creates vibrant communities where interaction among residents and existing neighborhoods is encouraged and supported. Some of the features and strategies he touted as sustainable, as well as healthy for the occupants, included networks of pedestrian spaces, working with existing structures rather than tearing down, and promoting cross-ventilation in units and common circulation areas. Baker also emphasized that solar hot water heaters are one spec where solar power can prove cost effective in the near term.