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The Natural Home

By MARILYN SOLTIS

    Hybrid vehicles, ethanol and recycling have long been publicized as surefire ways of improving the environment. What most of us don’t realize is that our commercial and residential buildings generate nearly half of the carbon emissions of the entire United States, according to Architecture 2030, an independent environmental advocacy group.
  

“Green building will far outpace general building industry growth in the U.S. in the next five years,” writes to Jerry Yudelson, green building consultant and author of The Green Building Revolution, published late last year by Island Press. The book explains the green design revolution and presents the case for continued growth.
    “Building green results in 30 percent energy savings, 30 to 50 percent in conserved water, 35 percent reduction in carbon emissions and 50 to 90 percent reduction in construction waste generation from building operations,” writes Yudelson.
    There has been a subtle revolution in progress to support sustainable design, a way to create energy-efficient, healthy, productive buildings that reduce the impact on the environment. The U.S. Green Building Council was launched in 1993 to drive this effort, and by 2000, they had developed a way to measure green buildings, known as LEED, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System. By 2007, 59 cities had signed to use LEED for their projects.
    The green movement cuts across all sectors of the building industry, and residential homes are no exception. The growing movement back to cities opens up the urban green market. The more green homes there are on the market, the bigger the demand. Even the slowdown in building is prompting builders to build green for a competitive edge. Spiraling energy costs and utility rebates will continue to fuel the market.
    Chicago area architectural and design firms are poised on the brink of the exploding market with innovative and original designs, but the market is as “green” as its name in many ways. At Echo Studio, owner and principal Dave Hampton cautions that true sustainable design doesn’t happen quickly.
     “Remember the rush towards the substitution of traditional materials with ‘environmentally friendly’ ones?” Hampton asks. “Over time, both the design community and clients have begun to understand that materials, products and practices that were tried and tested through years of use and reuse are usually the best. For example, a reclaimed oak floor from trees that were locally harvested 100 years ago will always be better than the material du jour, such as brand new bamboo floors imported from many miles away with uncertain renewable pedigree.”
    Despite the futuristic landscape posited by the experts, part of the solution may well lie in the past. “In the early 20th century, architects and engineers did not depend entirely upon the highly advanced technologies we take for granted today,” Hampton says. “While new advances such as electric light, elevators and steel were increasingly used, buildings still relied heavily on tried-and-true engineering, design and planning principles, such as locally sourced materials, balancing structural redundancy with efficiency, local energy supplies (water, electricity, heat), naturally lit and ventilated spaces and civic responsibility and presence. Design and plan like your great-grandparents might have, though they probably looked to their tradition and just did it.”
    Hampton hopes that the future of Chicago includes a strong culture of preservation and building reuse that will keep our older buildings in good working order. He would like to see architecture students challenged to design buildings for disassembly and reuse, to reclaim materials and plan for what will happen to their buildings and products once their useful life is over, instead of ending up in landfills.
    In Wisconsin, architect Roald Gunderson is building what he calls “whole tree structures,” which seem both “ancient and avant-guard.” He takes unmilled, round timbers from sustainable forest thinnings and uses them as structural framing to replace lumber, steel and concrete in buildings.
    “We shape trees while they’re growing into the specific structural components for our buildings,” Gunderson says. “Whole trees are 50 percent stronger and as much as a hundred times as abundant a resource as millable trees. It has a similar weight-to-strength ratio as steel and is safer in a fire.” In addition, whole trees require little energy to produce and thinning a forest and harvesting trees for this design preserves the genes of older trees for future forests.
     At Valcucine North America, the European company has committed to having a zero-effect on the environment and wants to repay its debt to nature by using recycled materials and farmed trees and replacing trees with twice the number needed to offset the CO2 emissions of their productions. The company founded Bioforest, an organization that focuses on planting, education and environmental preservation. Valcucine uses up to 86 percent less material than other brands, and all of their kitchens are recyclable after their use is up. In addition, they use non-toxic, water-based and citrus oil finishes.
   
Famous for its glass kitchens, Valcucine has added a new twist, Artematica Vitrum. It is now possible to reproduce drawings and painting on the glass fronts of its cabinets from Monet to your child’s artwork.
    Chicago architect Zoka Zola worked on designs for a groundbreaking project in faraway Kuala Lumpur. For the Bird Island project, she first sought to maximize the potential of the building to be a very pleasant space for its inhabitants by connecting very carefully and respectfully to the natural surroundings.
    “In Kuala Lumpur, thermal comforts and cooling are the main factors, and reducing the need for air-conditioning is the best way to save on energy,” Zola says. “We achieved that by designing a very successful form and devising a set of strategies that all play together to achieve a zero-energy house. The building is unique in that it is an answer to the climate conditions, much like the traditional Kampong house of Malaysia, but it also takes sustainable design into the 21st century and contributes to the legacy of architecture. Its features are integrated into the design. They are part of what shaped the design.”
    One of the biggest obstacles to building green is the perception that the costs are much higher than traditional construction. This may be due to a misperception or the fact that inexperienced builders may be doing the work. “Many studies have shown the actual cost premiums for high-performance green buildings to be two percent or less,” Yudelson writes. “There are a number of determining
factors on cost, including the experience of the design-construction teams with green buildings, the point at which the decision is made to ‘go green’ and the specific green design measures chosen.”
    Many folks want to join the green revolution, yet are confused by the array of choices out there. Hampton also serves as secretary/director of research and development for Urban Habitat Chicago, a non-profit organization that works to demonstrate the viability of sustainable concepts and practices in urban environments through research, education and hands-on projects. Urban Habitat recently designed and installed a working garden on a Chicago rooftop with food crops planted for 2008. Hampton sees this as a victory not just in terms of reaching greater food independence, but also in terms of what it took for a small group of people to plan, act and implement, demonstrating sustainable concepts and practices in our urban environment.
    “Rather than waiting for the planets to align or for the proper funding to materialize, we just did it,” Hampton says. He has one piece of advice for would-be activists and green designers. “Get off your rear, stop talking about what the perfect project might be like, and make things happen in your community now.”

 

 


Published: April 06, 2008
Issue: 2008 Spring Green Issue