Cultural Sustainability in Residential Architecture

by | Apr 14, 2010

connell, john, connor homesGreen is over. Green wants to embrace everything and everyone wants to embrace green. But when a definition becomes so overarching, it loses all significance. This term has been so used and abused that it is now completely meaningless. But make no mistake; there is still a solid reality behind all the green washing and it promises great things.

For those of us who have been tilting at green windmills since the late 60’s (before “sustainability” was even a concept), the current economic downturn has been a godsend. My whole professional life I have been trying to persuade clients that high performance buildings were a good investment – usually to no avail. But ever since gasoline went to $4/gallon and the economy went through the floor, homeowners have been falling into my office pleading for green design. It’s a nice change!

Enthusiasm notwithstanding, a chasm of mis-impressions and missed expectations persist. What makes something sustainable? Is green the same as energy efficient? What’s included in a high performance building? Within the design industry, these terms all have distinct meanings and most enlightened designers know the shades of difference. But the public at large remains considerably befuddled.

Adding to the confusion are the numerous certifications, standards, agencies and licenses rising up to “clarify” the situation. These range from the federally funded Energy Star program to the USGBC’s skillfully marketed LEED programs. But let’s not leave out the NAHB Green Building Program, Greenguard, Green Seal, Underwriters Laboratories, ASTM International, the Sustainable Forest Institute and its competitor, the Forest Steward Council, to name a spare few. We are awash with efforts to create (and profit from) clarity in the chaos. I predict this will soon lead to different metrics for different applications; what I call “niche green”.

Every design, whether for a product or an entire building, will necessarily focus on certain metrics at the expense of others. For example, a net-zero home design is going to favor different priorities than one that solves for clean air and water conservation. Similarly, manufacturers seeking a minimum carbon footprint will make different business decisions than those seeking a fully non-toxic process.

It would be nice to be at the top of the charts in all categories but that is still a long way off. For now, let’s not let “perfect” become the enemy of the “good.”

Residential architecture offers a perfect example. We now know quite well how to make a net zero house. Indeed, we are seeing more and more homes that actually return even more energy to the grid than they use.

But many of the strategies used in such homes will not work when renovating an existing building, especially if it is historically significant. In such cases the historic importance of the building must mediate the green initiatives.
Preservationists frequently decry the cultural damage that takes place in the name of energy conservation. Windows with insulating glass and SDLs (simulated divided lites) simply can’t replicate historic single pane units with true divided lites. They look too different and throw off the proportions of the windows as well as the entire facade. Similarly, many early wall assemblies are simply too narrow to accommodate today’s best insulating strategies. And that’s only considering energy consumption.

Just as troubling is the embodied energy and carbon footprint represented by shipping old growth woods long distances in order to match antique flooring or molding stock. Add to that the traditional glues, sealers and paints that are now known to be toxic, the inefficient light fixtures and the profligate use of water in antique bathrooms.
Since historic architecture was, by definition, built before we were aware of such issues, many aspects of older buildings are neither healthy nor sustainable. Green restoration and preservation in this context will look very different than what’s to be found in most of the leading environmental press. This is a green niche.

In this niche the highest and best use of an old building is to repurpose it for contemporary and future use. Recycling a building saves immense amounts of embodied energy. It also eliminates pollution and diesel fuel associated with trips to the land fill.

Next, old buildings must be brought up to current fire and safety code standards by upgrading wiring and checking all fixtures. Happily the number of historic fixtures becoming available with LED and CFL lamps is increasing daily.

Finally, while older wall assemblies are narrow and riddled with thermal-bridging, recent advances allow us to squeeze R-6 into ½”. Additionally, the enlightened use of weather stripping and caulk can bring an older building’s air changes from over 2 per hour down to less than one.

Many of the sustainable practices used to “green” historic structures might not be cost effective in new construction. But in this niche, the green solution must be formulated so that it includes the historic need for cultural sustainability.

John Connell has been a licensed architect since 1982. He is currently design director for Connor Homes.

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