When is green more than a color?
Green is the latest term to describe sustainable building: using timeless principles that connect Owners to architecture and architecture to our environment. It’s these connections that literally sustain the building… they allow it to endure.
The principles of sustainable building are timeless because they survive evolutions in building materials and methods. We believe sustainable building is defined by the following complimentary principles:
Indoor Environmental Quality
Best Use of Material Resources
Best Use of the Project Site
Durability and Maintenance
The last entry, delight, may seem foreign to the list though it’s one of the most important and basic of the principles. If architecture doesn’t delight those who see it and use it, we don’t have an interest in maintaining it. So, by definition, it’s not sustainable. Delight is achieved through good design: a carefully considered architectural style that compliments good space planning.
Reduce, Reuse & Recycle
This mantra has gained such popularity it’s worth mentioning here. Reduce, Reuse & Recycle is an elegant way of summing up the Best Use of Material Resources. Reduction is about conservation: don’t use it in the first place. Conservation can often be achieved through Smart Framing and other methods that don’t appear to or effect Owners. Reuse is continuing the intended purpose of the material while Recycle may include up or down cycling.
In their book “Cradle to Cradle”, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart suggest a beautifully simple way to see materials: either as technical nutrients or as biological nutrients. Technical nutrients, like copper used to make wiring, can be endlessly reused because they never diminish. For example, copper can be salvaged and recycled into more wire, pipe, cooking pots or some other use. Biological nutrients, like wood, biodegrade and can be born again in another form.
The point is, all materials are nutrients that should be valued. After reducing our use of materials, the best way to value these materials is to design so they can be reclaimed once their useful life is finished: cradle to cradle.
Passive vs. Active Systems
Replacing active systems with passive systems is one of the most significant opportunities in sustainable building. For example, let’s say you’d need a four ton air conditioning system if you build a house according to the current building code. The air conditioning system is active: it has moving parts, requires energy, has an operating cost, needs to be maintained and will eventually need to be replaced.
You could also build a house that has more insulation than the building code requires. The additional insulation is a passive system: it has no moving parts, requires no energy, has no operating cost, doesn’t need to be maintained and may never need to be replaced. Let’s say that with the additional insulation, you only need a two and a half ton air conditioning system. Thanks to your better passive system, the air conditioning system will be less expensive to purchase, operate, maintain and replace. You get a reward every month when the utility bill arrives!
US National Voluntary Green Building Programs
There are a number of voluntary green building programs that have created rating systems from the principles described in the previous sections. Each of the rating systems offers a certification confirming the rating system requirements have been met and verified by an independent third party. Here are three examples of popular national programs:
LEED for Homes is one of the many green building rating systems developed by the US Green Building Council (USGBC). LEED is an acronym for “Leadership in Energy & Environmental and Design”. Like most green building programs, it allows users to accumulate points to earn a rating level such as silver, gold or platinum. LEED requires third party verification. The LEED for Homes rating system was released in 2008 and an international pilot program was announced in 2010. You can find the rating system, homes certified by state, pricing, new initiatives and more information on the USGBC website.
The National Green Building Standard (ICC 700) was developed in partnership between the National Home Builders Association and the International Code Council. Like other sustainable building programs, the NGBS is a rating system that allows users to accumulate points to earn a rating level. The NGBSincludes both single-family and multifamily projects.
ENERGY STAR is one of the most widely recognized brands in the US though it’s not just for energy efficient appliances. ENERGY STAR includes guidance for home improvement and new homes. You can find tools for assessing your current home, ideas for new homes and partner builders. New homes can be qualified under Version 3 of the program starting January 1, 2012. (Search “New Guidelines for ENERGY STAR Qualified New Homes”.)
US Local & Regional National Voluntary Green Building Programs
There are a significant number of local building programs developed by local governments, utilities, private agencies and others. These programs can be popular because they’re often more sensitive to local (vernacular) concerns than national programs. Here’s an example:
The EarthCraft green building certification for new homes was develped in 1999 through a partnership between the Southface Energy Institute of Atlanta, GA and the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. EarthCraft includes new homes, renovations, communities, multifamily and light commercial projects.
You Can Use Rating Systems Without Certifying the Project
The rating systems of green building programs are typically divided into principles like energy efficiency and water conservation that provide guidance for even small projects. So why certify a project?
Real estate listing services are adding green building certifications to their descriptions so buyers can ask for specific features and rating systems. Atlanta REALTOR Carson Matthews has been studying the value of green building certifications. Through the studies he’s published, we’ve learned that certified houses tend to sell faster and for more money than competing properties. So, in addition to the everyday benefits of sustainable building, it might make you some money!
US State Green Building Codes
The metropolitan statistical area for any large city is made up of many counties, cities and town. If each municipality develops its own sustainable building code, confusion results and the value of each program is diminished. State authorities have realized the challenge of dealing with multiple local codes so many have moved to develop state-wide programs.
The most important thing to remember about the following examples is that they’re building codes: they’re mandatory when adopted by local and state authorities. The programs described in the previous content on this page are voluntary. Here are two building code examples:
In the State of Georgia, building codes are developed, adopted and amended by the Construction Codes Division of the Department of Community Affairs. The DCA has recently developed the state’s first permissive residential green building code based on the ICC 700 described above. The RGBC is available for local authorities to adopt on January 1, 2011. (Ask us about our involvement in this effort!)
Rather than using an existing sustainable building program as the basis for a green building code, the California Building Standards Commission has written it’s own unique CALGreen building codes. The 2008 version of the code went into effect August 1, 2009 though it’s voluntary unless adopted by a local municipality. State mandatory compliance takes effect in 2011.
US Federal Resources
There are a number of US federal resources that provide context and support for sustainable building. You can use them to find in-depth information that will help you make decisions about what materials and methods to use for your project. Here are three examples:
The US Department of Energy publishes a tremendous amount of information about an incredibly diverse number of topics though it’s worth digging through to find the sustainable building resources. You can get started here: Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Building Technologies Program and Energy Savers. DOE’s ENERGY STAR program is described above.
The US Environmental Protection Agency is a great compliment to the building science of the US Department of Energy. EPA is also involved in the ENERGY STAR program. You can find information on “popular topics” and EPA’s regions for local information.
The US Centers for Disease Control provides guidance on healthy living, environmental health and safety. CDC helps connect health issues to our built environment. For example, indoor environmental quality (IEQ) is one of the most misunderstood principles of sustainable building. CDC is a great resource for IEQ issues that irritate asthma and cause other health issues.
It’s helpful to look beyond US green building programs for best practices and inspiration. This is especially true when we’re able to compare projects in similar climate zones because those completed projects face similar challenges. Here’s an example of an international rating system:
The BRE Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) is “the leading and most widely used assessment method for buildings”. It includes houses!
What are the Pitfalls and Challenges of Sustainable Building?
Sustainable building programs and codes can contribute to tunnel vision: users approach the programs with a checklist mentality rather than thinking about what might be the best solution for a given project. To combat this problem, think of the sustainable building program or code you’re using as a minimum standard rather than instruction for how to design and build.
First cost, the upfront expense, is also a significant issue in sustainable building. From a purely economic sense, it doesn’t make sense to invest in sustainable building if you can’t recoup your investment through reduced operating costs, reduced maintenance costs and a higher sale price for the property. The cost for better systems and better integration is typically higher than code minimum construction.
To figure out what investments make sense, we use life cycle cost estimates to evaluate the feasibility of proposed design solutions. In short, if you’re spending more money on systems and integration, it’s important to understand how and when you’ll recoup the investment because some solutions are too expensive to pay back within their useful life. For example, if the added cost of a high efficiency air conditioning system takes longer to recoup in energy savings than the expected life of the system, it’s probably not a good investment.
Decision making about sustainable building is empirical: we don’t rely exclusively on cost analysis for decision making. The health benefits of sustainable building aren’t easily quantified. What’s the value of a better indoor environment? Some owners are willing to spend more for a healthier environment even if they may not recoup their investment on paper… to them, it’s worth every penny!
Good Design Pays!
Austin, TX-based architect Peter Pfeiffer has a brilliant expression. He says, “90% of the opportunities in green building happen in the first 10% of the design work.” As the design process begins, high-level decisions about site design, building orientation, space planning and building systems are made early in the process. These decisions need to be integrated because their impact on the project is so significant.
Sustainable building requires a higher level of design and integration. This typically contributes to higher design fees that are offset by lower operating costs, healthier owners, happier owners and higher sale prices.
The higher level of integration is important to explore holistically rather than one piece at a time. For example, tightening your building to reduce leaks should be combined with improvements in ventilation to protect the occupants.
This means we can’t just throw in some sustainable solutions at the end of a project to “green it up”. Incorporating sustainable solutions from the beginning of the project yields better integration and will typically reduce the overall cost of sustainable building. For example, a proper building orientation and design may eliminate the need for a expensive active systems.
There are architects who do not include sustainable building in their practice just as there are owners who don’t see the value of sustainable building. If you’re interested in exploring sustainable building options, it’s important to have a candid discussion with potential architects to be sure they understand and can support your priorities.
Sustainable building will require your architect to walk you through a collection of complex issues so you’ll be intellectually invested and able to make informed decisions in a timely manner. It’s critical that you find the right advocate for your project.