In Planet Experts’ latest installment of the Ask an Expert series, the President of Rodwin Architecture, Scott Rodwin, is here to answer your questions on green building and sustainable architecture.

Todd Fraser asks, Do you find those working in green building to also be more ambitious with their designs? Also, are there architectural limitations or serious financial hurdles when building ‘green?’ Thanks.”

Scott Rodwin: Adding green design to the host of factors that we have to meet in itself makes green buildings more ambitious (sort of like designing a Tesla instead of a Camero).

When architects design, they have to prioritize. Budget, code, form, function, the client’s taste, the site and sustainability all vie for importance. When an architect prioritizes sustainability they will typically be ambitious in terms of performance (energy, resource conservation and environmental quality), but it often makes it more difficult to meet some of the other design requests (e.g. creating big windows on the west can often compromise the building’s passive solar performance by overheating the space in the late afternoon). That said, there are many examples of truly inspired designs that are actually created because of the sustainability solutions. As Louis Sullivan famously said, “form follows function.”   

In regards to your second question, yes, there are many hurdles. Green building is generally a higher level of performance and that costs more. Some things like passive solar are virtually free, but many things like solar panels and foam insulation can add substantially to the cost of a project. Another hurdle is that architecture is a potentially litigious activity, and there is increased liability in trying unconventional solutions and new building products, so many architects, builders and property owners opt for the safer conventional systems. Lastly, the building codes themselves often favor tried and true practices. Here in Colorado, greywater recycling systems are unfortunately illegal because of antiquated water right laws.

Justin Sims asks, In order to obtain higher LEED designations, certain points need to be ‘bought’ that seem to have minimal impact on the environmental impact of the project. Also, the cost of getting a designation (consultants, paperwork, etc.) can be economically infeasible for smaller projects. Do you think certain aspects of the program should be changed to make it more attractive to developers?”

SR: You are correct. LEED is often too expensive and robust to be feasible for smaller projects. And yes, when you are reaching for points, some can have minimal environmental benefit. That said, we’ve done a side by side value comparison of all the major 3rd party certifications for our own projects, and we still find LEED to be the most complete, accurate and balanced program currently available. There is an extremely active online community of LEED experts that are continually refining each successive iteration of the program. USGBC is very open to public comment, so please let them know where you see room for improvement.

Milos Djonic asks, “I see on your Planet Experts profile that you are the Co-founder of Nomad Cohousing, and that you’ve lived there for 17 years. What is Nomad, and what are the pros and cons (if any) of living there?”

SR: Nomad is one of 100 or so co-housing communities in the U.S. You can check it out at http://www.cohousing.org/. 

Co-housing is a form of intentional community. While communities are quite diverse, they share some basic characteristics: people own their own homes with conventional mortgages; residents have an intent to create community; they are generally self-managed (via an HOA); all decisions are made by consensus; and they work towards being sustainable. Some are rural, some are urban. They come in every architectural style. They range in size from 11 units to nearly 100 with the optimal size being 18-36. They tend to be fairly dense compared to typical suburban development, so people can walk around the neighborhood. 

Houses are often attached and they are often a little smaller than normal since many of the larger functions of normal life (like Thanksgiving dinners) are accommodated in the common areas. They generally have a “common house” where residents take turns cooking meals for the community members (we have the option to eat together twice a week). Cars are usually kept to the perimeter to create a safe pedestrian area for kids and pets. There are generally common amenities like patios, playsets, gardens, hot-tubs and courtyards. Larger ones can have guest quarters, gyms, libraries, rental offices and workshops. 

The general concept is sort of an old-fashioned neighborhood. I love it. You do have to be okay with other people being in your business a lot. I lived at Nyland cohousing in Lafayette (42 houses) for four years before this and was part of Ecovillage of Ithaca while it was forming. A green home is only half the equation for true sustainability. The other half is sustainable planning and community development. 

Anita Tuesley asks, “Why do you think that governments and councils haven’t made sure that state sponsored affordable (or council) housing is built using green and sustainable designs?” 

SR: Actually, most have. In the last 10 years I have not seen an RFP for a state or Federal housing project that did not require high levels of sustainable design. Additionally, affordable housing by its very nature tends to be small and simple, which in itself is a more efficient use of resources per capita. Lastly, the industry (led by the American Institute of Architects) has been extremely pro-active in rewarding (and awarding) those projects that demonstrate especially high levels of sustainable design when creating affordable housing.

David Booth Gardner asks, “On average, what is the range of increase in cost in construction a LEED certified building? What are the payoffs?”

SR: It depends on the level of certification, the type of building and which building code you’re using as your cost reference point. That said, in my experience, a LEED certified building will typically cost 2-10 percent more. A LEED Platinum building will be 15-30 percent more.  The payoffs are long-term reductions in operations, utility costs, and even maintenance. Which is why it’s mostly institutional and large corporate clients (who hold their properties for the long term) who have led the way with LEED. There is some marketing benefit to offering LEED certified commercial space where the general population is fairly educated and aware of the benefits (like Chicago or San Fran).

Scott Simmons asks, “Is there economic viability in converting abandoned or dilapidated buildings into sustainable structures? Why aren’t more companies ‘greening’ their current buildings, given the long term economic and public perception benefits?”

SR: There is a preservationist maxim, “The greenest building is often the one that already exists.” This is mostly attributed to the value of the embodied energy in the existing building (the energy that it takes to extract or harvest all the raw materials, transport and manufacture them, then install and ultimately dispose of them). That said, the maxim is not always true. Some older buildings are such terrible energy hogs that it is nearly impossible to retrofit them in a cost-effective way. 

For example, most of the millions of post-World War II kit homes scattered around the country have single pane metal frame windows, no insulation in the walls, ungrounded aluminum wiring, inefficient open combustion mechanical systems, no passive solar orientation, sinking foundations, incandescent lights, mold due to poor site drainage and asbestos in everything. By the time you correct all those things, there’s not really much left. It’s often cheaper to start over from scratch. These homes, and many of the buildings of the ’50s to late ’80s were designed and built so poorly that they have effectively reached the end of their useful life. A lot of them are also damn ugly. Can you say avocado countertops?

Ariane Sims asks, “What’s the most innovative/unusual/whimsical sustainable design feature you’ve conceived of and/or implemented?”

SR: We recently had an artist client who loved the sculptural look of evacuated tube solar panels, and she loved provoking conversations about sustainability, so we put one on the front of her house like a piece of art hung on the wall.  She loved it.  She also has a sign in her garden that reads, “Trespassers will be composted.”

Greg Flavin asks, “You work in Boulder, a community that is widely considered both ecologically conscious and relatively wealthy — which hopefully translates into great business! Do your colleagues in other parts of the country face more of an uphill battle in terms of finding clients who want to and/or are willing to shift towards sustainable materials and features?”

SR: Probably. Here it’s simply standard building practice. However, the value proposition of sustainable design is solid, which is why it’s become far more than just a fad limited to eco-enclaves like Boulder. Who doesn’t want lower utility bills, less maintenance, thermally comfortable spaces, and a healthier home or school for the family? Offering green building expertise to your clients is a way to separate yourself from the competition.

Claire Rossman asks, “Are certain aesthetic styles more conducive to ‘green’ design? If so, which ones and why?”

SR: You can absolutely create green designs using any architectural style. That said, there are certain things that require careful accommodation. Here in Colorado, where we have strong sun, it is nearly impossible to create a good passive solar design unless you protect your south facing windows. If you’re doing a modern design, which typically doesn’t have eaves like more traditional architectural styles, that means getting creative in how you provide that solar protection. Additionally, modern designs tend to have a lot of glass compared to more traditional buildings; windows have a very poor insulation value comparted to walls, which makes it more challenging to meet ambitious energy goals. 

Some clients want to be overt about the sustainability of their building and they place features like solar panels, rainwater catchment cisterns or eco-educational waterless urinal signage visibly around the building. But others want it to be invisible. “Green” buildings used to have a bit of a DIY counter-culture look to them, but these days they are very much part of the mainstream and can be found in every architectural style. 

Stephanie Samson asks, “If someone commissioned you to design and build your dream project — whatever and wherever you want — what/where would that be?”

SR: What a question. I would love to design a public building that was meant to inspire. So a church, civic center, museum, student union, multi-family housing, a public structure like an airport or train station, or something along those lines. I believe that the highest form of architecture is that which elevates people to their highest potential. I can do it with a house (which is our specialty), but that has a limited impact. So, I’d love to do more public work, where large numbers of people can see that buildings can be beautiful, functional and truly sustainable. We don’t have to choose anymore.

Kamal Talwar asks, “Hi, can we create some sort of generator which uses gravity and magnets to create energy.”

SR: The difference between an architect and an engineer is that we (architects) are generally bad at math. 😉 So I think you’ll have to ask Elon Musk about this one.

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One Response

  1. Coco Gordon says:

    I thank Scott for talking about placing my Solar evacuated tubes as “Art” & my wry composting sign in my garden (that came long distance by car, train and plane to me in CO). The “Art” (Solar Hot Water) works incredibly well when perpendicular to the Southern exposure, and is placed perfectly above a new small basement that has the rest of the solar installations right under the outdoor installation keeping the smallest distance to where it is used.

    Just as Scott said, my old 1903 minimally added to home with joking inefficiencies was pretty much gutted to start and refitted with all the latest efficiencies. Since am in my later 70’s, I wished to keep my future costs down as I age & that means not having to remember as much to do when I maintain my green home, most of it is virtually new again.

    Scott didn’t mention that his design and placement of many new windows was set “as Art as well, & “to catch the whole Lyons bowl of rocky vistas around me plus the daylighting lasts as long as it does outside without overdoing the size of exposures. So that in his design, not only window size matters! Every window now gives a sort of panorama feeling when looking or walking around the “old” house & “new” ARTBOX Studio.

    Scott also designed a contemporary version of the taller “Western Facade” to match in front and back of the new additions that make my house finally livable inside. This triple in functions for scale, shading from the strong west pm sun, and for sturdy balance between new contemporary additions, Beetle Kill Pine siding, and the old RRers cottage that now has a feel of a Passive House weightiness in the overall unified massing. His design goes way beyond pictures I’ve seen of additions to old homes that starkly differentiate against each other’s parts without reason.

    I can also feel the consensus facilitation thoughtful connections of dealing caringly and responsibly with others in this design that a conventional single function house could not give me. That’s Permaculture design reinvented into nurturing Green architecture.


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