Architect Shares 'Green' Expertise, Tips

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By Miki Fairley

Elaine Gallagher Adams, AIA, LEED, principal, Caryatid Studio, Denver, Colorado, is a registered architect with 20 years professional experience and is an adjunct instructor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Caryatid Studio is an architectural consulting firm providing sustainable design of residential and small commercial projects and Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED*) consulting on any scale.

In an interview with The O&P EDGE, she shares her "green" expertise.

The O&P EDGE: Since there seems to be some variation in what "sustainability" means to different people, companies, and organizations, how do you define "sustainability" and seek to apply it for your clients?

EGA: The best definition I've heard for sustainability comes in the form of a question posed by the godfather of modern sustainability, William McDonough: "How do we love all children, of all species, for all time?" Approach every decision with that in mind, and you've defined "sustainability." This applies to business, construction, energy conservation, our personal lives-everything.

Adams
Adams

Sustainability is all about choices. There are very few instances with only one solution that works for everyone. With that in mind, there are many aspects to creating a "green" building environment in either a new building or an existing one.

New buildings, especially small ones, can easily meet sustainable design standards with a knowledgeable design team and a conscientious contractor. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) developed the rating system called LEED that sets the benchmark for green buildings and is currently the best indicator we have for identifying the level of sustainability a building has achieved. A directory of LEED-accredited professionals is available online through the USGBC website ( www.usgbc.org ). LEED can apply to either new construction or existing buildings.

When looking at an existing small office building, think more in terms of building/office management practices. Look at the policies, utilities, potential for energy reduction, etc. This list is a good place to start:

Location/Site

  • Am I near public transportation for myself, my staff, and my clients? Do I promote and encourage the use of public transportation?
  • Is the parking lot light-colored and/or naturally shaded to reduce intense summer heat, or is it dark to help melt snow and ice?
  • Are the exterior light fixtures well-directed, or do they "bleed" out onto neighboring properly or up into the night sky?
  • Can the parking lot eventually be replaced with a pervious pavement to reduce storm-water runoff and ice buildup?
  • Can we install a green roof? [Editor's note: For more information on green roofs and cool roofs, see the feature article, "Going Green: Making Environmental, Business Sense (and 'Cents')for O&P,"page22.]
  • Can we see wildlife from our windows? Birds? Squirrels? Butterflies? Anything?

Water

  • Have we installed low-flow aerators on the faucets?
  • Are the toilet fixtures low-flow or dual-flush to reduce water consumption?
  • Are we still irrigating the landscape with potable water? Do we have access to an alternate water source? Can we stop irrigating?

Energy

  • Does the mechanical system work as well as it was designed to? Should we have it checked by a commissioning agent?
  • Does the mechanical or fire protection system use environmentally harmful chemicals such as HCFCs [hydrochlorofluorocarbons-compounds consisting of hydrogen, chlorine, fluorine, and carbon], CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons-compounds consisting of chlorine, fluorine, and carbon], or halons [compounds consisting of bromine, fluorine, and carbon]. [Editor's note: These are ozone-depleting chemicals (ODCs) and contribute to ozone loss.]
  • Where does the energy come from? Is it a renewable source?
  • What fuel does the backup generator use? Is a hydrogen-fuel-cell generator a viable option here?
  • Is the lighting efficient? Can we upgrade to a newer, smaller fluorescent tube (T-8, T-5) to reduce energy use?
  • Do we have occupancy sensors to automatically turn off lights in empty rooms?
  • Is there potential to increase insulation?
  • Does the sun overheat certain parts of the office? Can we install heat-rejecting window film or exterior awnings on one side?

Materials/Resources

  • Are we recycling everything we can? Really?
  • Do we buy locally?
  • Do we purchase sustainable office/kitchen supplies whenever possible?
  • Do we avoid toxic substances for the office and for construction projects?
  • Are we limiting the use of vinyl, plastics, and other materials with potentially toxic life cycles?
  • Is that new carpet made of recycled material? Can I recycle it when it's worn out?
  • Are we painting with no-VOC paint?

Environment

  • Is this a non-smoking building? Is the outdoor smoking area at least 25 feet away from any openings or air intake?
  • Does my building smell like a FEMA trailer? [Editors note: Concerns have been raised about dangerous levels of formaldehyde and other chemicals in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood-victim housing.]
  • Do we have adequate fresh air, or does the staff get sleepy around 2 p.m. every day from stale air?
  • Do we need to install a CO 2 monitor in the work area?
  • Do we have exposed asbestos or fiberglass in the office or ductwork?
  • Do we have enough task lighting to do our jobs well?
  • Is everybody comfortable? Cold? Hot?
  • Does every workspace have a view and natural daylight? Should we add a skylight?
  • Do we practice/promote green cleaning?
  • What is our carbon footprint? Go online to calculate this on at least two different sites: www.conservation.org and www.carbonfootprint.com

Energy and water conservation is where you can really get some bang for your buck. Installing solar panels or a wind turbine is nice, but they're expensive and do little good if you're still consuming more than necessary. There's a saying in the sustainable design industry right now, "Reduce, then renewables."

Find your benchmark. Ask your utility company for energy records for the past three years. Calculate the total BTUs consumed per year and divide by the gross square footage of the space. The national average consumption for outpatient healthcare facilities is 94,600 BTU/GSF (2006 DOE data). A good "green" building should be closer to 55,000 BTU/GSF.

The O&P EDGE: Are there other aspects of "green" that you recommend O&P practices could look at regarding their buildings, HVAC, materials, or even office operations, such as going paperless?

EGA: Look at a product or material's total life cycle. Look at the entire life cycle of everything you buy. The consumer is going to hear more about this as sustainable living really goes mainstream. Can the chair you're sitting in be disassembled and recycled easily? You're buying printer paper that's 20-percent recycled-can you buy 90-percent recycled paper and then recycle it again? Thinking of buying a hybrid car? What is the environmental footprint of the batteries? Do your research.

One of the best sustainable business books written in the last decade is Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, [Paul Hawken, Hunter Lovins, and Amory Lovins, Little Brown and Company, 1999], which poses the question: "What would you do differently if everything you produced came back to you for disposal or recycling?"

The O&P EDGE: Have you run into any conflicts with aspects of "green" that benefit the indoor environment, but are not beneficial, or even harmful, to the atmosphere or other parts of the outdoor environment? If so, how do you try to balance or reconcile these issues?

EGA: Sure. We earn LEED points for installing high-efficiency air filters on an HVAC system. However, the engineer may have to specify a more powerful fan in order to use such a thick filter-consuming more energy. Dark pavement is highly desirable at high altitudes where ice and snow accumulate for months at a time, but green building practice calls for light-colored pavement, which would more likely require a mechanical snow melt system or de-icing chemicals.

I deal with these conflicts by choosing the option that makes the building perform better and work better for the occupants. It's easy to fall into a pattern of "point mongering," where the building owner or design team just wants to earn as many points as possible, regardless of the logic of it. LEED isn't perfect, and it doesn't meet the needs of all climates, so some points need to be skipped without looking back.