Green design: It's finally on a 'roll'
Lindsay Suter, a green architect, made a vow. He wasn't going to design mega-mansions or outsized additions. Instead, he was going to devote 100 percent of his practice to environmentally-themed designs. It's a promise he kept.
Suter lives in a 220-year-old former grain mill next to a dammed river in North Branford, Connecticut, with solar panels on the roof. He admits that leaf-shaded river valleys are not necessarily the best place for photovoltaics (PV), but he's been stymied in the green home project he'd most like to see realized: hydroelectric power. "Every time I look outside at the dam I see four or five kilowatts going over the top," he says.
The regulations that have held up Suter's hydroelectric project are the same ones that prevent a lot of destructive development in wetlands. But the old ways of doing things tend to slow down what would otherwise be a full-fledged green design revolution. Many of the concepts have been around for decades, even before the first Earth Day in 1970, but new design improvements and price reductions for green materials (coupled with the high cost of fuel) have made green design practical and cost-effective.
John Rountree calls himself a solar architect, but his projects in that field were few and far between in the 1990s, when systems were expensive and required a lengthy wait for return on investment. Today, Connecticut-based Westport Solar Consultants is thriving, partly because photovoltaics have come of age, and partly because the utility-funded Clean Energy Fund was created by the state legislature, with a $21 million budget for residential renewable projects. For solar, homeowners can receive awards of $5 per installed watt (up to a $25,000 maximum), which effectively means they can offset half the cost of installing PV. And there's a $2,000 federal tax credit, too.
"Global warming has become a household word, thanks in part to Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth," says Rountree. "A few years ago, green design work was three percent of my business; now it's 20 percent. People want solar on their existing houses, or an addition with solar integrated into it." And incorporating solar is easier than ever, because six companies now make roof-integrated PV systems that do away with unsightly freestanding panels. Two of Rountree's clients have also installed home-based geothermal systems.
"The people who do these projects are highly educated, and they understand the ramifications of high energy use," Rountree says. "Their motivation is largely environmental, because there's still no immediate payback."
Colleges have also become hotbeds of green design, generating interest in a new crop of consumers. David W. Orr is director of the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College in Ohio and author of Design on the Edge: The Making of a High-Performance Building (MIT Press). The college practices what it preaches, having just completed a cutting-edge green building, the Adam Joseph Lewis Center. Designing the building was a 10-year effort, led by some of the premier thinkers in the field, including Charlottesville-based architect William McDonough, energy guru Amory Lovins, and closed-loop "living system" pioneer John Todd.
"There wasn't the integrated design expertise in any one firm," Orr says, "so we put together an all-star team."
The solar-powered building processes all its own wastewater through Todd's Living Machine, incorporates recycled and reused materials, and is surrounded by native plant gardens. The two solar installations, 59 kilowatts on the roof and 100 on the ground, generate 30 percent more power than the building can use. Because Ohio is a "net metering" state, Oberlin can sell its excess electricity back to the grid to offset its expenses.
"We can build high-performance buildings at very near the cost of regular buildings, so the payback is very quick," says Orr, adding that because it was "the first substantially green building on a college campus," the project brought out donors who had never previously given to Oberlin.
It's not surprising that the Oberlin project lasted a decade, because zoning laws and building departments are not yet oriented to the green approach. "There are minefields, bombs at every turn," says Suter. "You can always tell the innovators, because they have the most knives in their backs."
It's not just colleges that can benefit. A new study from the American Institute of Architects and Capital E, Greening America's Schools, concludes that "making over" a school building saves an average of $100,000 a year in operating costs, enough to hire two new full-time teachers.
And, of course, green design and alternative energy systems have their limitations. The National Association of Home Builders says the average home was 2,300 square feet in 2005, up from 1,400 square feet in 1970. Some towns and cities have minimum area requirements, making it nearly impossible to build a very small home. But while McMansions are common around the country, some sport many green features.
"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to put a small solar system in a 10,000-square-foot house," says Rountree. "People have a love affair with big houses and big cars, but the low-hanging fruit is reducing the size of the house." Suter advises his clients to "get the loads down" (electric and heating costs, and even commuting times) "before we start talking about neat things like geothermal and PV."
Green design is losing its isolation, with alliances between the human-scale land-use planners known as New Urbanists and progressive architects. "We're trying to strengthen the connection," says John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee (1998 to 2003) and current president of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). "New Urbanists tends to be obsessed with mixed-use zoning and smaller roads, not necessarily energy efficiency."
CNU is working with the U.S. Green Building Council (GBC) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to create the first set of standards for what NRDC calls "building environmentally responsible neighborhoods."
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) standards administered by GBC to certify green buildings will incorporate smart growth principles. A green building might lose a point in the ratings because it is situated a long way away from any public transportation system, explains Norquist. A new neighborhood-oriented development that won points for mixed-use buildings and traffic-calmed streets would get more for having a green building on site.
Don Chen, executive director of Smart Growth America, says that "green building is essential to sustainable development, but it's not enough. Green buildings need to be located in a green manner as well, located close to public transportation and convenient destinations." Chen points to a study by the Jonathan Rose Companies, concluding that a family living in an average urban town house is actually living more sustainably than a comparable suburban family in a "green" building with a Toyota Prius in the driveway. Green design, it seems, is a holistic concept.
Jim Motavalli is the former editor of E/The Environmental Magazine, where this essay first appeared, and a frequent contributor to Featurewell, the service that distributed it.