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The Green House

New Directions in Sustainable Architecture


Alanna Stang and Christopher Hawthorne take an in-depth look at innovative sustainable architectural design practices around the world in their book The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture. Critiquing architects who have made purposeful steps toward designing living spaces that are environmentally friendly and architecturally sophisticated, the authors begin with a conversation with Dietrich Schwartz, one of Switzerland's leaders in sustainable building and green design. Schwartz, "using a combination of new, high-tech materials -- some of his own invention -- and old-fashioned architectural wisdom, creates houses and other buildings that are snugly energy-efficient and sit lightly on the land." One of his patented creations is the Power Glass, a type of superefficient solar paneling.

After examining Schwartz's work and other architects in his realm, the authors realized that the lines of green architecture and high design are becoming increasingly blurred, allowing for more traversing of the two disciplines, especially in residential architecture.

While sustainable architecture is swiftly escalating in commercial and public arenas, residential green design affords designers a smaller, less costly testing ground.

Stang and Hawthorne observed that sustainable, aesthetically appealing residential architecture is being created worldwide, but especially in Canada, Australia, Japan, the United States and northern Europe. The goal of their book was to "set out to select the finest examples of this new confluence and explain how each of them came into being: who commissioned these houses and apartment blocks, how their designs evolved, and how their architects and builders managed to balance environmental and aesthetic concerns so effectively."

They realized once they began their search for these high-design, green dwellings that there were far more than they realized, far too many to fill the pages of this first-of-its-kind book. "Green houses now rise from tightly packed city streets as well as from lush hillsides and rocky seashores. They are single-family dwellings and subsidized apartments, primary residences and weekend getaways. They are sheathed in glass, in bamboo, in synthetic panels made from recycled newspaper."

The authors explain that while aesthetic sustainable building can be found in all regions of the United States, it is in Europe that green design is the norm, not the exception. The United States crumbles in comparison to Europe when it comes to creating dwellings that have a high level of sustainable products that are architecturally attractive and co-exist with the environment. Numerous European countries have implemented stringent green building codes that reflect their commitment to an increasing and ongoing effort to live harmoniously with the environment. "Cities like Helsinki and Stockholm have dedicated huge and valuable swaths of land to green developments, some of which contain several thousand units of housing." Asia and Australia also demonstrate how innovative sustainable architecture in a country can be.

When searching the world for dwellings to discuss in their book, Stang and Hawthorne sought "to find houses that are as ambitious architecturally as they are in terms of sustainability...these homes suggest that while there is no particular template that green houses must adhere to, there is also no rule stating that they can't have plenty of style or aim for the highest aesthetic plane."

While researching sustainable architecture they had to ask the question, what does a "green" house mean? It was difficult to find a precise definition. There was one explanation that came from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation that states "any building that has significantly lower negative environmental impacts than traditional buildings" could meet the criteria. But a more expansive definition "is a flexible and holistic approach that involves making careful, ecologically conscious decisions at every point in the planning, design, and construction processes while keeping in mind that the ideal solution may not always be evident," according to the foundation?s Sustainable Report, Oct. 2002.

Stang and Hawthorne find there are guidelines and priorities when residential design is trying to maintain genuine sustainability. The construction should be at the very least, "as small as possible, for a house that uses every sustainable technique under the sun will not be as kind to the earth as practically any house half its size; positioned to take advantage of winter sun and summer shade, and to minimize damage to the plants, animals, soil, etc., already there; located as close to public transportation, workplaces, schools, and/or shopping as realistically possible."

In addition to these green fundamentals, there are the issues of energy efficiency and the eco-friendliness of a building?s materials. "Architects committed to sustainability will employ many (and in rare cases all) of the following: recycled materials and even existing foundations or building shells; wood from stocks that are sustainably managed; materials that are low in embodied energy -- that is, the energy required to extract and produce them as well as to deliver them to a building site; natural materials, such as bamboo, that can be easily replenished; efficient lighting systems that take advantage of daylight to reduce electricity needs or include sensors and timers that shut off lights when they are not in use; water systems that collect rainwater or treat so-called gray water (from sinks and showers) so that it can be reused for gardens or toilets; strategies to ensure that a house will have a long life because it is comfortable to spend time in, architecturally significant or adaptable to future uses; insulation, glass and facades that are energy-efficient and that promote cooling by natural ventilation instead of by air conditioning; features that take advantage of the sun's rays, either passively, using thermal massing and high-efficiency glass, or actively through photovoltaic panels, to turn sunlight into electricity; interior materials and finishes, from carpets to paints, that minimize chemical emissions and promote good air quality."

"True sustainability...means a house that produces as much energy as it consumes" but after much dialogue with leaders in this arena, the authors decided to go with a more flexible description of sustainability for this book; if not, many of the dwellings chosen would fall off the list.

Sustainable architecture has gained rapid momentum and heightened awareness over the years. The Green Building Council developed a rating system for new buildings dubbed Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design -- regularly referred to as LEED. "It is not unusual now even for large corporate clients to push their architects to achieve a LEED rating because they know the public equates those standards with environmental responsibility."

Stang and Hawthorne analyze the misconception that sustainable building is expensive and show how much savings can be gained over the years. Because an increasing number of feted architects are going green, the movement has become more mainstream. Pritzker Prize (architecture's equivalent to the Nobel Prize) winners such as Renzo Piano, Sir Norman Foster, Glenn Murcutt and Herzog & de Meuron have helped to make sustainability a widely accepted practice.

The authors divided their tour of sustainable dwellings into locales: city, suburbs, mountainside, waterside, desert and tropics, beautifully illustrating several examples of sustainable edifices in each locality.

"City: Builders have made great strides in reducing environmental impact by using harvested lumber and recycled materials, the installation of non-toxic and energy-efficient insulation systems, and the selection of building sites that take maximum advantage of solar and wind power as well as access to public transportation...Converting industrial buildings into residential properties is intrinsically green."

In Los Angeles, developer Richard Carlson and his architect, Jennifer Siegal of Office of Mobile Design, built his home, The Sea Train House in 2003, which is almost completely recycled from items in the yard of his family-owned construction company. He used several old 40-foot-long by 9-foot-high seagoing containers, which were "sliced open, extended, and connected...to form a unified house with a series of clearly designated functions. [It] sits three feet above the ground on reclaimed earth. The central living space is separated from the garden by an expansive glass wall (because of its placement, the house uses nothing but natural light during the day). The crossbeams are made of recycled Douglas fir from a local construction site. The roof insulation...circulates cool air via narrow shafts lower sections of the roof up toward the exposed higher end. The exterior fish pond is made from a salvaged produce trailer."

"Suburbs: If suburbs are truly to go green, planners must look beyond the classic stand-alone family house with private garage and front and back yard. Real progress toward sustainability depends on increasing density and reducing individual house size."

In Pori, Finland, Hanni Kiiskila of ARRAK Arkkitechdit designed a house, Villa Sari, for a young couple and their children in 2000. The design had to consider the extreme climate of the area where the difference between the lowest and highest temperature in a  year can be in excess of 100 degrees. "The southern facade is covered with hard laminate panels made to recycle newspaper and coated in resin. Windows are shaded by adjustable louvers. Nestled in the undulating terrain, the house is outfitted with large windows that permit unusually good exposures on its southern side. An ambitious circulation scheme allows heat from the fireplace to flow through the interior. The windows' interior reflective coating keeps heat from escaping during the winter."

"Waterside: Waterside homes can exploit the advantages of their location by making use of solar or wind power, siphoning breezes that blow across the top of a pond or lake and using them for natural ventilation, and by employing locally available, often inexpensive building materials from beach pebbles to bamboo husks. At the same time, waterside hoems have a special responsibility to preserve the natural resources of both the land and the water."

Melbourne, Australia resident, Ricci Swart decided to build her dream home on the beach in 2004 with the help of Peter Carmichael of Cooks Carmichael Architecture. "Photovoltaic cells and solar hot water panels on the roof captured enough energy to make the house self-sufficient much of the year. An inverter ensures that excess electrical energy can be returned to the electrical supply authority. Made of poured concrete, the semi-detached, curving facade acts as a vibration sink as well as a sun visor to shade the living room from all but the low afternoon sun. Rain is collected from the roofs of the main house and the garage and distributed to the garden by an  automated irrigation system. Cutting through all three levels at the center of the house, the airshaft is a site-specific feature that improves the internal air quality by drawing fresh air from the exterior above the traffic line."

"Desert: The first consideration in desert architecture is the quantity of space that needs to be kept cool enough for dwelling. Smaller is always better environmentally. The desert climate is defined not only by the temperature fluctuations by also by extreme aridity.  Less than 10 inches of rainfall a year is typical. Extracting and storing water from deep wells or harvesting rainwater can be surprisingly difficult and expensive. Water conservation and planned storage solutions are therefore essential to sustainable desert building."

With the help of Ted Flato, Bob Harris and Heather DeGrella of Lake/Flato Architects, Jill Giles, a graphic artist in San Antonio, Texas, renovated a low-slung 1920's industrial building into an open-planned loft. Covered with small ceramic dots that act like light-transmitting blinds, the windows and skylights reduce heat gain and glare while keeping the space bright. With a high sand content, the plaster walls act as thermal collectors, absorbing much of the heat so that the air temperature stays cool. Because the peaked roof allows hot air to rise, less air conditioning is needed, possibly reserved for only the hottest days. The north-facing glass panels flood the house with light. Even on gray days, artificial light is rarely needed.

"Tropics: Environmentally conscious tropical architecture must tackle logistical and technical problems that do not exist in the same combination elsewhere from bio-deterioration and excess rainwater, to pest and fungal infestation, to the limited availability of natural building materials. Architects can help prevent further deterioration of reefs -- which, like underwater rainforests, host a rich diversity of aquatic species -- by limiting the use of toxic building materials and incorporating environmentally sound water and sewage treatment systems."

Jim Taylor, the inventor of the first bar-code reading machine, decided to build an environmentally friendly home in Scotland Cay, Bahamas and solicited the services of Frank Harmon of Frank Harmon and Associates. Plagued by scorching sun, swarms of scorpions, Category 5 hurricanes and no fresh water, the architects needed to come up with very innovative ways to make the home livable, aesthetically appealing and sustainable.

"The house would have to be relatively tall, for example, not only for the views but so that the living quarters could rise above the mosquito line. Natural ventilation would have to suffice for air-conditioning. The biggest problem was the lack of fresh water on the island, which meant that rainwater would have to be collected for drinking, cooking, washing, and bathing. Harmon's masterstroke -- an inverted "umbrella" roof clad with marine plywood and native pine on its underside -- solved several design
problems at once, while adding a signature architectural element to the house. The 6-inch steel pipe in the bottom of the funnel-like roof directs harvested rainwater through the house and down into an 8,000-gallon cistern at ground level. Meanwhile, the sprawling eaves offer welcome shade and circulate cool ocean breezes in the third-floor open-plan living-dining room and kitchen....the constant flow of fresh air makes this a very healthy home."

While Jim Taylor's home is a unique example, Stang and Hawthorne show how everyone can achieve sustainable living to some degree, whether it?s through designing a green house or by recycling or making your home more energy-efficient. Perhaps eco-friendly living is easier than assumed.

Published: April 01, 2006
Issue: Spring 2006


The Green House
Why no pictures?
Carol Backe, Nov-19-2007