Archives for category: Sustainability

Being green isn’t that simple sometimes.  What happens when you are faced with a choice between two things that both have some green qualities but aren’t perfect.  Take the often discussed case study of whether it is greener to use disposable plates or to use reusable plates.  Well, the answer is both and neither (and much more nuanced than my simplified version).  Using paper plates saves water, soap, etc because they don’t need to be washed but they use energy and natural resources to make and often end up in the landfill.  One could make an argument for both or neither.

In construction, we have similar dilemmas.  Here are a few:

Steel studs vs. wood studs – Often only used in commercial projects, steel studs are becoming more popular in residential projects.  They are 100% recyclable – a huge bonus – but take a lot of energy to produce.  Wood, on the other hand, is theoretically a renewable resource but it is not recyclable once its lifespan is over.

Floor finishes – Water-based wood floor finishes are better for the indoor air quality (lower VOC) but generally aren’t as durable. In contrast, oil-based floor finishes are filled with chemicals and but are proven to last for years, therefore, they won’t need to be refinished as soon (saving resources).

Fluorescent vs. incandescent bulbs –Fluorescent bulbs last longer and use significantly less energy, which is probably enough to make the case.  However, disposing a fluorescent bulb, which contains mercury, is quite problematic and may lead to compromising the quality of our drinking water in places.

Whole house fans – One of my favorite catch-22’s is self-inflicted.  During the last revision of the building code, there was a study that people didn’t open their windows enough and that was affecting their indoor air quality, leading to stale air and sick house syndrome.  Therefore, they added a requirement for a whole house fan that would constantly bring fresh air into the house.  Seems like a good, green solution.  However, you are also constantly pushing your mechanically conditioned air outside and bringing new unconditioned air inside, seriously affecting the energy efficiency of your building envelope and heating/cooling system (not to mention the power used in running the fan 24/7).

So, where does this leave us?  Well, we should still do our best to be as green as possible that is for sure.  My personal feeling is that we need to dig deeper into the various green categories and create our own hierarchy of importance.  Is indoor air quality more important to me than water use?  And how do those compare to energy efficiency?  If your goal is to do your part to help slow global warming, prioritize energy efficiency over the other categories because that will have the biggest effect on the creation of greenhouse gasses.  If you are more concerned about the availability of water in coming decades, prioritize that.

Realize that no solution is perfect – and neither is any soapbox – but this may help make the decisions easier as you try to wade through a project.  And for everyone’s sake, if you like to open your own windows, disconnect the whole house fan!

What is to be gained by certifying your project as “Green”?  Setting aside any discussion of whether or not to build a green project, I’d like to look at the decision to certify a project as sustainable.

As I mentioned in a previous post, LEED certification and GreenPoint Rating are examples of voluntary programs through which scrutinize a project and give a score of how “green” it is.  Points are earned in a variety of categories from selection of an appropriate site to the toxicity of the materials used for interior finishes.  Although there are prerequisites in each category, theoretically, you could certify a building that is nowhere near green in some categories as long as it is exceedingly green in others.

These certification systems are imperfect and controversial, especially with dyed-in-the-wool environmental advocates, but they do provide a starting point.  The certification process is very thorough.  It starts in the design process but appropriately most of the review is during construction phase to verify that the green specifications are actually being met as the project is built.

However, the certification process is not cheap.  It starts at about $20,000 and can be much higher.  Therefore, it is rarely seen in the residential industry outside of large housing or apartment projects.  We have begun to discuss LEED certification at the point of large office build outs of 20,000 square feet or more.

The decision to get the certification is almost always one of appearance and has little if anything to do with the desire to build a greener building.  After all, a design and construction team can include all of the sustainable features on a project without needing the certification process to do so.  However, like “Certified Organic”, the certificate shows that the sustainable features have been verified by a third-party.  The certificate expresses to potential tenants, buyers, future clients, or the general public that the design and construction teams are going to extra lengths for reasons of social responsibility.

So, the decision to get a project certified generally comes down to a business decision for the company; whether a certification get more or better customers, attract more talented staff, or somehow position the company at a higher level.  It is looked at with the same metrics as any marketing campaign. At the upper levels of the industry, a LEED certification can often be a prerequisite for a project.  Anything less would be considered lacking.

One of my favorite stories really makes one wonder about the usefulness of the certification process:  Facing a $27,000 certification cost on a new ice arena, the Mayor of Park City, Utah decided to not pursue LEED certification but instead took the money set aside for certification and purchased three wind turbines to power the arenas Zamboni.  Now if everybody considering certification would take this approach, we might get somewhere!

LEED.  Build It Green.  CALGreen.  There seem to be so many competing ways to measure the sustainability of a built project that it’s hard to keep them straight.  How do they compare to each other?  Should you do any of them?  Do you have to?

For starters, let’s look at how they differ.  Green Building Certification programs, such as the USGBC’s LEED program and Build It Green’s GreenPoint Rating System, are voluntary point-based rating systems with various levels of certification.  These provide companies or individuals a way to certify that their project is “green”.  This doesn’t mean that everything about the project is energy-efficient or sustainable but it does mean that they have sufficient features in a variety of categories to be certified as a green building under these programs.

Certification in these programs is usually done for marketing purposes, for pride, or to keep up with the Joneses.  After all, the important part is to build a green building, not necessarily to officially validate it as such.

CALGreen is different.  CALGreen is the California Green Building code which overlays the basic building code to set minimum green building standards for the design of a building.  In place since 2011, the code is being phased in over time. Currently, it applies to larger and mostly non-residential projects but will eventually apply to all projects.

Again, the LEED and GreenPoint Rating Systems are voluntary.  CALGreen is mandatory (for qualifying projects).

Prior to the state’s adoption of the CALGreen, it had become increasingly common for cities and other municipalities who felt strongly about green building to adopt legislation requiring projects to be LEED certified or the equivalent.  For example, in August 2008 San Francisco adopted the San Francisco Green Building Ordinance, requiring proof of green building practices and LEED certification for all residential and commercial buildings in the City.

Faced with this patchwork approach to green building regulation, the state decided to adopt a unified system. Perhaps when a handful of influential states have developed green building codes, those sustainable requirements will be written directly into the model codes and we can finally stop using the term “green building”.  There will just be one standard to which all buildings must conform, including health and life safety standards, accessibility standards, and standards that help reduce the impact of the building on our planet.

We initially hesitated to discuss sustainability on our blog.  After all, it has become so ubiquitous over the past decade, especially in the building trades (and especially in the SF Bay Area) that there isn’t much more to say that hasn’t already been said.

The reason I am interested in discussing it is partially because I wonder if our company is doing enough.  Are we keeping up with the Joneses?  Do we need to push our clients to do the right thing even more than we already do?  In fact, whose responsibility is it to champion sustainable strategies on each project?

The field of sustainable architecture, green building, ecological or resource conserving design – all terms used interchangeably – has become overwhelming.  In the larger push for environmental stewardship that has made its way into virtually every different sector of the economy over the last decade, the impact on the building trades has been transformative.  And rightly so; the construction and operation of buildings is still one of the highest uses of energy by the human race.  Therefore, it is common sense that we – as architects, contractors, and those who commission built projects – take responsibility for doing all we can to reduce the impact of our projects on the environment.

But is this a moral imperative?  Should someone who simply doesn’t like the design of their house feel bad about renovating even though it hasn’t reached its usable lifespan?  And are we obliged, as architects (and businesspeople), to resist requests by our clients because they are not aligned with the interests of the larger society?

In future posts, we look forward to dissecting sustainability and looking at its subgroups.  For example, water conservation strategies vs. indoor air quality.  What really matters for the design of an office park is quite different for the design of a custom home.  We are also very interested in the real life dilemmas it poses.  Hopefully, we can come up with some answers and perhaps give both us and our clients some guidance on how best to simultaneously achieve their goals and do their part.