Green Architects Take 'Whole Building' Approach

Early eco-friendly offices sometimes were worker-unfriendly; costs weighed

Ask an architect to design a green house today, and chances are he won't talk about flowers. The designer is more likely to ask a string of questions: Which do you prefer, a southern or western aspect? Recycled cellulose or cotton-fiber insulation? Plastic-bottle carpeting or "green" hardwood floors?

To architects, "green" now means environmental - or, in 1990s jargon, "sustainable" - and it describes a design trend that is taking off across the country. Where 20 years ago environmentally conscious building meant solar panels and not much else, today's sustainable architecture has a much broader definition. Building design and siting, materials and resources used, indoor-air quality, and people are all part of the equation. And, while building for the environment was once possible only for the wealthy and dedicated, it is now increasingly practical and affordable for the average person.

"We used to focus just on energy conservation," says Gail Lindsay of Design Harmony, in Raleigh, N.C., who is also vice chair of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Committee on the Environment. "Now we are realizing that energy, siting, materials, and waste reduction must all be integrated."

For example, building a south-facing solar house in a beautiful natural site might not be best if it means clearing the land of trees. Instead, Ms. Lindsay might advise choosing the "worst" natural site and leaving the trees. "These are small steps anyone can take," she says, "it's a matter of a change in values."

Kansas City, Mo., architect Bob Berkebile, a founder of the AIA Committee on the Environment, agrees. A lead designer of several nationally recognized projects, including the relocation of flood-damaged Pattonsburg, Mo., which won a Presidential Citation for Excellence in Sustainable Design, Mr. Berkebile says architects are taking a much more holistic point of view. The goal, he says, is not only to reduce the negative environmental impacts of construction, but to "increase the social, economic, and environmental vitality of a specific site." That includes the people who live and work in a building.

Environmental ideal turns sour

When the Maine Audubon Society built a new solar-heated headquarters near Portland 20 years ago, it was the ultimate in innovative, energy-saving technology. But not far into its second decade, many people were already calling it obsolete. Completely open to its high-peaked ceiling, the work space was noisy and lacked privacy. The air was stale, and lighting was inadequate. The wood furnace - meant to supplement solar heat - demanded constant feeding, and in summer the building was stiflingly hot.

In March, the society opened a new visitor center. Just a few feet from the old facility, it is everything the first one was not: light, airy, quiet; warm in winter, cool in summer. It was designed not only for the natural but for the human environment.

Built using such environmentally sensitive options as recycled steel beams, wood from environmentally well-managed forests, nontoxic finishes, and a geothermal heat pump. (See accompanying story below.) It is also an example of the kind of building possible for nearly anyone.

"The common assumption - that sustainable buildings cannot be built because affordable technology does not exist - is a false one," says Portland, Maine, architect Rick Renner, who designed the building with partners Sam Van Dam and Carol Wilson. "Design and materials [for the Audubon center] are all standard things which could be used in residential construction."

Across the country, more and more homeowners are proving Mr. Renner right. Nine months ago, Ned and Ann Reeves moved into their new "green" home on Dewees Island, 12 miles northeast of Charleston, S.C. Designed by Gail Lindsay and Cheryl Walker of Design Harmony, the home fits right in on this island which is accessible only by boat, allows no cars except electric golf carts, and dictates that all development and construction be environmentally sensitive.

The Reeveses and the designers were able to choose resource-efficient materials and systems for most of the house: nontoxic paints, energy- and water-saving appliances, high-performance windows, and recycled-cotton-fiber insulation.

As Mr. Reeves stresses, it was important for them to be involved in this process since often it involved trading one benefit for another - and sometimes paying more. The geothermal heat pump, for example, seemed costly at first; but once they saw how it could save energy costs over time, they decided it was worth it. (Ms. Lindsay estimates that "green" choices cost 10 percent extra, but most pay for themselves in two years.)

The Reeveses are especially pleased with the way the house is designed and sited to take advantage of natural daylight and ventilation, and say that it is aesthetically pleasing as well. "We didn't do everything," Mr. Reeves says, and some things, like the non-toxic floor finish which is wearing off, aren't perfect. "But we're learning as we go."

Choosing 'eco friendly' materials

Learning about green materials - and deciding which is truly the greenest - can be daunting, especially since manufacturers are entering this expanding market at a rapid rate. What is important, experts say, is to consider the life cycle of any material or system: Where did it come from? How was it manufactured? Where will it go?

Steel framing is being promoted as an environmentally responsible alternative to wood framing. But, says Alex Wilson, editor and publisher of Environmental Building News in Brattleboro, Vt., that isn't the case if steel is used in outside walls in northern climes: Steel has high thermal conductivity and loses heat easily. "It may be recycled, but if it increases heating costs, there's nothing environmentally sound about it," he says.

In some cases, it is significant to consider what happens to the old materials the new ones replace. Two years ago, Design Harmony "recycled" an old fire-extinguisher manufacturing plant in Wake Forest, N.C., into the American headquarters for the Body Shop, which makes and sells environmentally sensitive cosmetics and bath products.

Instead of demolishing and hauling to the dump the parts of the old building they didn't want, the designers donated doors, cabinets, and fans to Habitat for Humanity, a volunteer organization that builds affordable housing. They sold old metal and piping to a local salvager, and many of the new materials they chose were recycled, including tile made from from crushed light-bulb slag (which saved $8,000 over traditional tile) and carpet made from recycled plastic bottles.

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