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2007's Best: Green Building
Alex Steffen, 31 Dec 07

Green building is a subject we pay a lot of attention to, obviously: here are some of the stories I found most interesting...

1:1 Digital House and the Future of Green Building

There is a direct link between the growing "intelligence" of our homes -- their increasing ability to use electronics to sense, monitor and adapt -- and their sustainability. Many of the coolest aspects of green building involve the building itself responding to the conditions around it, working with, rather than against, the sun, wind and weather. Such adaptive, responsive buildings are at least as important a goal as radical new material breakthroughs.

We don't even need robotic edge monkeys crawling all over our homes to get there. The tools are ready-to-hand or coming soon. Smart homes can automate the opening and closing of windows to maintain ventilation and cooling, angle sunshades for optimal solar heat gain, even turn geothermal heat pumps on and off.

Water Offsets for Green Buildings

Green buildings do many things to save water, sometimes spending thousands of dollars to do so. But what if they could save double, or 10 times as much water for the same cost? And what if they could help bridge the rural-urban divide while they were at it? This could all happen with irrigation offsets.

As we've written before, cropland irrigation uses vastly more water than cities do. The amount of water wasted by inefficient irrigation is around four times the total amount of water used by commercial and residential buildings. So why spend thousands of dollars on greywater capture systems, low-flow toilets and showers, and other building improvements, to make an already tiny slice of the pie a few percent smaller?

Builders might have a bigger impact by financing water offsets--buying an efficient irrigation system for a farm or orchard somewhere.

No Efficiency Without Controls

Many people are working on inventions that push the efficiency envelope in lighting, heating, computers, and more. But control technologies may actually be more important--by only using what we need, we can save huge amounts of energy with existing systems, and control technologies help us take only what we need.

Green Building Simulation

What if architects could make CAD models of their buildings that would automatically tell them how much energy structures would use at what times of day and year; where sunlight streams into rooms, and how bright it is; and how much air conditioning they need? Well, they can, within limits.

Simulation and modeling is one of the keys to a sustainable future. Otherwise progress can only happen by trial and error, which on the architectural scale is a horribly slow process. Simulating a building's energy use is a hard problem, requiring not only a model of the building and the materials that make it up (including insulation, windows, foundation, etc.) but also a model of the building's location, with the path of the sun through the year and weather data that is accurate and detailed, including humidity, wind, simple daytime-nighttime temperatures, and a host of other information. And of course, the challenges are compounded when you want to make a simulation that will work in any part of the world.

Geoff's Jellyfish House

The Jellyfish House, a recent project by San Francisco's IwamotoScott Architecture, has been "modeled on the idea that, like the sea creature, it coexists with its environment."

As such, the entirety of the Jellyfish House is designed to operate "as a mutable layered skin, or 'deep surface', that mediates internal and external environments."

What this means is the external surface of the building – the combined expanse of its outer walls and roof – is actually a complicated "water filtration system," operating across and throughout the very structure of the house.

The outer surface, then, is partially porous; it forms what the architects call a "water jacket," featuring "quilted baffles," into which water can flow and where that water can be treated and cleansed.

Rainfall, for instance, enters into the outer layers of the "water jacket" where it is treated with UV light; domestic greywater can be drained into similar mechanisms, built directly into the home's interior, architecturally incorporated into the design.

Sarah's Vertical Gardens: The Organic Wallpaper

A couple of years ago, Dawn wrote a brief survey of the widening intersection of art, building, horticulture and environmentalism. Since that time, numerous fantastic concepts, designs and urban interventions have brought greenery to public and residential spaces in innovative ways.

Tokyo-based PingMag recently interviewed Patrick Blanc about his Vertical Gardens, some of the most dramatic, large-scale green facades around. He could rightfully be called a landscape "starchitect," the likes of Gehry or Holl, with some installations in glamorous locales like Girbaud in Paris, a fashion show for Jean-Paul Gaultier, and soon a skyscraper in Kuala Lumpur and the Doha Office Tower in Qatar.

The Slow Home Movement

In the legendary story of the founding of the Slow Food Movement, Carlo Petrini planted his feet at the Spanish Steps in Rome and declared that he would not stand for the introduction of McDonald's into the historic area. Fast food would not squelch the rich traditions of Italian culture. And indeed it did not. Petrini not only succeeded in elevating resistance against that McDonalds, but against fast food the world over, by providing appetizing alternatives through the Slow Food Movement.

In the years since, slow has become something of a meme in its own right, applied to numerous other fields and issues as an understood strategy of peaceful but active resistance to harmful trends and changes. Whether it's in food, medicine, or urban planning, slowing down is a decidedly noble form of 21st century activism.

The newest slow kid on the block is the Slow Home Movement, a web-based design community and resource library dedicated to taking residential architecture back from the grip of the "cookie cutter houses and instant neighborhoods" churned out by community-blind development corporations, to revive the presence of good design and empower individuals to create homes that will support and fulfill them for a long time. It's a sustainable approach in that -- like with all products -- a commodity that is longlasting both in terms of material quality and evolving personal taste can prevent waste and produce trusting relationships between people and their environment.

Jon's Convergent Media and the DIY Home of the Future

Derek Woodgate of Futures Lab and I have been meeting regularly over the last couple of years to consider the prospect of doing a showcase, which we've been calling "Futurama," that would give some sense of the impact of digital convergence on lifestyles in the near future. We'd considered doing it at various conferences, such as South by Southwest Interactive and Innotech, but when we heard that Maker Faire -- an offshoot of Make Magazine, the bible of the DIY movement -- would be coming to Austin, we saw that as an ideal opportunity. Maker Faire brings diverse people together who make things – many kinds of things – and who want to show their stuff and share their knowledge and practice with other makers.

You might not think this would be the ideal context for a futurist showcase, but we saw the creative chaos of the first couple of Maker Faires in California, and knew the guys at Make would be receptive. Sure enough, Dale Dougherty, publisher of Make Magazine and the lead on Maker Faire, totally got our high-level concept: we were inspired by the famous "Futurama" exhibit and ride at the 1939-40 World's Fair in New York, which took visitors on a tour of the world 20 years into the future. While this Futurama featured visions of suburbia and superhighways, our effort for Maker Faire would be the "DIY Home of the Future," a concept that worked well as a representation of the convergent future, and as a manifestation of several converging paths in Derek's recent thinking. We saw our effort, while not quite so grand as the World's Fair exhibit, as the first of many -- allowing time to pave the way to our vision of Tomorrowland.

Geoff's Architecture 2030: An Interview with Ed Mazria

GM: When you say that the building sector is responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions, though, do you mean that in a direct or an indirect sense? Because surely houses aren't just sitting there emitting carbon dioxide all day - it’s the power plants that those houses are connected to.

Mazria: It's direct. The number is actually 48% of total US energy consumption that can be attributed to the building sector, most of which - 40% of total consumption - can be attributed just to building operations. That's heating, lighting, cooling, and hot water. There are others - running pumps and things like that. But 40% of total US energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed just to building operations.

Hana's Consolidation: cutting traffic and waste

The term 'consolidation centre' may not sound sexy, and little about the contemporary construction industry is. But in London a pilot program has found that managed consolidation of delivery operations can cut construction-related vehicle emissions by 70%, and cut waste by a huge percentage too. Pretty impressive? Even more so when you consider the simplicity of the idea.

A consolidation centre enables the efficient delivery of construction materials from supply chains to actual on-site points of use. Rather than have bulk materials delivered from all over the place -- a process during which around 50% of materials end up landing in the wrong place at the wrong time and then sit around waiting to be used, getting damaged and wasted in the process -- a consolidation centre acts as a receiving house for bulk deliveries for a group of sites, from which they can then be 'picked' into efficient truck-loads and delivered to site on a 'just-in-time' basis, thus reducing vehicle movements, cutting waste, saving time and money. What's more, the distance from the consolidation centre to the sites it serves is small enough to make green fuel sources an option for that last stage of delivery.

Patrick's The Greenest Building

The first thing Alberici visitors notice is the massive wind turbine that graces the 13.86-acre site. It's clearly visible from the highway, rising on a thick white stalk just off the interstate. The turbine itself is actually pre-owned; it's a leftover 65-kilowatt turbine from a California wind farm. Under normal use, the turbine generates about 18% of the 110,000 square foot building's power, which is about equivalent to powering all the electric lights in the facility. That 18% generation capacity is by design rather than the limits of technology. If the building generated any more electricity, batteries would be necessary to contain the leftovers, or additional technology would be required to sell the extra kilowatts back to the St. Louis grid. As it is, the turbine generates just the right amount of power for the building's daily use.

The building itself was converted from a 50-year-old manufacturing building. Because Alberici didn't need the entire building immediately for office space, they were able to get creative with the structure. Fully half of the original building was given over to a tiered parking garage, and a 70-foot bay in the center of the facility was modified into an open-air driveway landscaped with native plants and grasses. Both of these modifications have the potential to be converted back to office space if Alberici outgrows their space.

When designing the redevelopment, Alberici limited the amount of asphalt used in the landscaping, thereby reducing the heat island effect that plagues so many urban areas.

On the roof, a rainwater collection system filters the water and uses it to flush the building's toilets and urinals. Retention ponds nearby pool the site's stormwater, preventing it from overloading St. Louis' archaic sewer system. Solar thermal panels provide about 90 of the building's hot water needs. According to publications on the building, the Department of Energy certified the Alberici headquarters as 60 percent more energy efficient than a conventional building.

The interior is no less impressive. Because the building was originally designed as a gigantic industrial factory, Alberici's designers had to create a mezzanine level to provide two functional floors for offices and workspace. And again, sustainable solutions are easy to spot.

Rapidly renewable resources (bamboo, cork, soy, etc) were used whenever possible for interior finishes, desks, bars and bulletin boards. Natural day lighting is an important at the Alberici headquarters; every employee has access to sunlight, and research has shown this goes a long way toward improving morale and employee retention. A carbon dioxide monitoring system automatically keeps tabs on the building's air quality, periodically introducing fresh air from outside when necessary. During the summer, employees are encouraged to open the building's windows and create a refreshing cross breeze.

Jonathan's Living Homes

Living Homes aims to revolutionize the homebuilding market. We mentioned them when the design was just an early concept, and later when the prototype was under construction. Now the model home is complete and ready to defend its rank as the greenest home on earth.

Founded by serial entrepreneur Steve Glenn, the venture breaks more than a few molds. You could call it a big zero – a building that yields zero impact on all dimensions: water, energy, etc. I would say that it is a harbinger of things to come in the residential real estate market.

Sarah's Grow Your Own Treehouse and other thoughts on Ecological Architecture

There are houses built in trees and then there are treehouses.

The Fab Tree Hab -- a home literally made from trees, using an ancient technique called pleaching (the art of weaving (and sometimes grafting) trees together to form structures) -- was one of the design entries for the Index: awards, emerging from the genius of a crew including MIT architect Mitchell Joachim and our friend, Javier Arbona of Archinect. The project description emphasized consideration of whole systems (and ecosystems) in creating a truly sustainable built environment, rather than a piecemeal approach that could yield uncertain longterm outcomes.

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