Sustainable building practices aren’t just for “green” homes – they can be applied to every home. Two of the architects in our office are LEED (a popular green building rubric) accredited professionals, and while few clients building new residences chose to pursue LEED certification, we’re happy to see that more and more often, solutions that in the past may have constituted ‘green’ design are being adopted as the new normal. We have been educated on green design and have been incorporating it into our practice for a long time, and always try and ask what is best for every building that we work on.
Choose to go green
There are many reasons why a homeowner would chose to incorporate green design in their house. All of them are fine reasons, but they may lend themselves to different strategies. You may want to make sure that the home’s air is clean and healthy, and try and limit the dangerous chemicals that are used in construction. You may want to lower your utility bill as much as possible, and strive to make the house as efficient as possible. An owner may want to reduce their reliance on the power grid (or be off it entirely). Or, you may be concerned about the environment at large and pursue green strategies that benefit the planet but may not be perceptible in the house or pay for themselves quickly. A designer can help you find solutions that best address your goals in going green.
Choosing a site and schematic design
While not available for every job, one of the most effective ways of creating a sustainable project is selecting the site with an eye towards green design. Is the site easy to access, or is it going to mean much more driving? Does the site allow the building access to beneficial sun and winds (for natural ventilation)? Is it re-using a previously developed site, or will building here mean expanding sprawl?
Similarly, if sustainable principles can be injected into the project from the very beginning of design, informing basic decisions such as massing and layout, it can be a huge benefit to the project in the end and create a much “greener” building without adding cost.
Choosing green materials and finishes will help provide a healthy environment free of off-gassing VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and reducing the chance of harmful effects from the new building (known as sick building syndrome). Though low-VOC paints should now be ubiquitous, also consider installation methods and materials. For example, after choosing a green flooring material, don’t install it with a glue that will outgas VOC’s.
Another issue to consider when choosing a material is to look at where it came from. Materials that have to be shipped from far away are not necessarily the greenest choice. Also, consider whether it is possible to re-use an existing material, or one with some recycled content in your project.
Choosing lower flow plumbing fixtures will reduce your water and sewer bill, and is an easy retrofit solution. If you are contemplating a larger project, replacing an old furnace, boiler, or water heater with a more efficient, newer model is typically a good choice that can pay for itself over the life of the appliance. The difference in energy use between other large appliances (kitchen, and washer / dryer) is usually not as large.
Heating and cooling
Insulating exterior walls over the minimum code requirements can greatly reduce the amount of energy used heating your home and often can make economic sense, as well. As walls become more and more insulated, a larger percentage of home heat loss is associated with air leakage, and sealing your house up tightly can make as big a difference as the extra insulation. We often specify spray-foam insulation at exterior walls which prevents air penetration, and then control the fresh air supply of the home through a heat recovery ventilator (HRV), a mechanical solution that moves heat from exhaust air into the colder, incoming fresh air to further reduce the energy required to heat the home.
Most building codes require double-glazed windows with a low-emissivity coating and argon gas. We have found that, while more insulated windows are available (triple-glazed with multiple coatings), these can be expensive, and may not make sense in the Seattle area for residential construction because of the relatively mild climate.
Sometimes, a client wants a specific green-design solution which wouldn’t work on every project, but accomplishes what they want for their job. These sorts of solutions include Photo-voltaic arrays to generate electricity from the sun, or geothermal heat pumps to use energy contained within the ground around the house. An architect can advise you on whether something like this can make sense given your goals for the project.