summer SUSTAINABILITY course in session!

Monday, July 14, 2014


I'm going to assume that not everyone is taking this class because they're building a new building.

Is it possible to rate your home as it is?  Not really by the letter* of the system, but the spirit of the system...  Sure!

Let's take those rude questions from lesson #018 and apply them to where you live.  For our exercise, each item that you can achieve is one point.  Report back on Google +!

Rate Your Home

bicycle parking
Image courtesy of baudman  via Flickr
1.  avoid light pollution:  all outdoor lighting should only shine down (not up into trees or sky).

2a.  public transportation: can you walk to a bus/rail stop from your home? (ideally within 1/4 mile to a bus stop or 1/2 mile to a rail stop)
2b.  neighborhood amenities: can you walk to a grocery, a park, an elementary school? (ideally within a 1/4 mile)
2c.  alternative transportation: do you have a place to park bikes at your home?  There should be room for every member of the family.

3a.  indoor air quality -- fresh air: can you open windows on both sides of your home to allow natural ventilation through when the temperature is comfortable outside?  Alternately, do you have a fresh air intake on your heating and cooling system?  (most do not)
aerosol paints are notoriously high in VOCs
Use them outside only.
Image courtesy of felixtsao via Flickr
3b.  indoor air quality -- green housekeeping: do you avoid heavy chemicals for cleaning indoors that come with warnings?  If you absolutely must, vacate afterwards and flush the whole house with fresh air for 24 hours.
3c.  indoor air quality -- paints, adhesives & sealants:  when doing improvements inside, do you avoid paints, glues & caulks that offgas toxins and/or carcinogens?  Choose low- or non-VOC products and follow all instructions.  If you must use such products indoors, vacate afterwards and flush the whole house with fresh air for 96 hours.  If you can still smell it, flush more. By the way, Sherwin Williams has a great premium zero VOC paint.  Love it!
3d.  indoor air quality -- composite woods: do you avoid subfloors and furnishings made of plywood, MDF, OSB or particleboard?  Most of these contain formaldehyde as a binder, which can slowly offgas for up to 30 years.  Once these are in your home, there is little you can do.  Look for composite woods that are formaldehyde-free, denoted with an "E" or "E0."  Buy antiques instead of new; choose solid wood furniture.

Ixnay on the arebay ulbsbay, okay?
CFL in the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo
Image courtesy of Paul Keller via Flickr
4a.  energy performance -- evaluation: most utility companies offer a free (or reimbursed) energy audit.  Get one performed at least every 5-10 years.
4b.  energy performance -- maintenance: get a checkup on your heating/cooling system every 1-3 years.  Replace your filter every 1-3 months.
4d.  energy performance -- lighting: use compact fluorescents throughout your home. Caveats:

  • CFLs can be off-color, so don't put them in plain sight.  Use indirect lighting or light fixture shades to help diffuse the light.  At bathroom vanities, consider halogen bulbs instead, which have a warm light and are almost as efficient as CFLs.  However, they do add heat like incandescents!
  • CFLs have mercury inside, so dispose of them properly. Don't let it worry you too much, though.  It would take 100 bulbs to equal the amount of mercury in one 1980s thermometer.
  • CFLs are notoriously poor at dealing with complex lighting switches like dimmers and sensors.  These are also good places to use halogens.

Image courtesy of bsabarnowl via Flickr
5.  minimize waste:  do you recycle as much as possible?  Do you reuse water bottles and avoid products with excessive packaging?  Do you have a household goal for how much trash you send to the landfill?

6a.  water use -- fixtures:  do you have efficient fixtures?  The standard is 1.6 gallons/flush, 2.0 gallons per minute on a shower.  Sink faucets can have lower water use and still significant pressure with the installation of a $5 aerator.  Some water companies provide free audits.
6b.  water use -- landscaping:  30% of residential potable water use is for the outdoors.  Do you water properly and efficiently? H2ouse.net has great resources for improvements.  Consider using gray water or captured water for irrigation purposes.

Image courtesy of glasseyes view via Flickr
7.  local purchases: do you buy local for at least 50% of your purchases?

8.  natural daylight and views: can you see outside from every habitable room in your house (not including storage spaces)?

Let's see some high scores!!!  This exercise should exhibit a few more aspects of sustainability than most people have been exposed to.  It may even inspire you to improve one or more of these aspects of your home.  :)

A Note on Priorities

I am well aware that most building professionals believe that energy efficiency is our main concern.  After many years of focusing on sustainability, I believe that our priorities should start with:

London Air pollution Level 9 Very High April 3 2014
Image courtesy of David Holt London via Flickr

1.  First, do no harm to the users.  That means Indoor Air Quality.  Don't import bad stuff into your home; and keep it ventilated with fresh outside air.
2.  Do no harm to the immediate surroundings.  Minimize pollution of every kind.  Light pollution, waste water & stormwater management, solid waste recycling, transportation emissions, power plant emissions, to name a few.
3.  Do no harm to the larger environment.  Minimize our energy & water footprints. Be mindful of where our materials come from and how they are acquired.

These things ought to be clear and required and obvious to everyone!

Once we're not doing any harm, then we can BEGIN talking about the more wonderful aspects of building sustainably, like connection to the outdoors, using natural and renewable materials, living off the grid, living small, cooperative communities, etc.


*By the way, this list of questions is only a very basic smattering and simplification of credits available through the LEED program.  If you're interested in seeing the whole checklist, look HERE.

Monday, July 7, 2014


Systems?  SYSTEMS?!  We don't need no stinking systems!!

Green Building Rating Systems... specifically LEED

Sometimes I think the last think we need in architecture is more red tape.  And don't kid yourself: building rating systems are exponentially more complicated than doing your taxes (and that's no walk in the park).  Forms with nice simple line items that you need a doctorate in several topics to understand or calculate.  

In generations past, cities & counties created building codes to protect users from dangerous building conditions.  Later, many municipalities created zoning ordinances to help cities grow in a healthful, beneficial way.  One of the earliest examples is restricting the proximity of industry to residential areas.  We are so used to be being protected in these ways and building to these standards that they are no longer revolutionary, just the way things are done.

The green building rating systems are new, and so much of them is about educating the project team, the client, the users, the manufacturers regarding dozens of issues.  For many people, it's first time they've ever thought about these issues... and they're hard to talk about without sounding self-righteous.  So let's just roll with that!  

Picture an architect, in a droll voice and looking over his reading glasses just a tad condescendingly, asking these questions of a client on their first meeting:
Image courtesy of It'sGreg via Flickr
Image courtesy of Redwin Law via Flickr
Unveiling a LEED platinum (the highest level)
certification plaque at Pearl Harbor
Image courtesy of NAVFAC via Flickr

  1. Do you want your outdoor lighting to destroy the habitat of local birds and other wildlife?  (light pollution)
  2. Do you want to locate your building so far from public transportation options that your employees will have to drive? You'll need an enormous parking lot and be contributing to the oil wars and air pollution.
  3. Does it interest you to be located near enough to community amenities that you might walk or bike there?  No, you're right.  It's better to drive every time.
  4. Would you prefer to have fresh air inside or air mixed with toxins and carcinogens?  Doesn't matter to me; we can do either way.  We can even assure the toxins and carcinogens are present by our indoor material choices.
  5. Are you interested in spending lots of money on energy for lighting, heating, cooling, etc?  We can arrange that.
  6. Do you care whether your building systems work properly? (commissioning)
  7. Would you like your construction waste to go in the landfill or be recycled?
  8. Since water is our most precious resource, are you interested in plumbing fixtures that use as much as possible?  It's the ultimate decadence and displays your wealth.
  9. When it comes to building materials, should we get them from as far away as possible?  That way we can benefit foreign economies and spend half again as much to transport them.  Plus, they will look very exotic and out of place.
  10. Should we eliminate windows in favor of more fluorescent lights?  They don't decrease productivity THAT much over natural light.

And that's just a few of my favorites.

So, every time you walk by a LEED building (do you have any* in your town or neighborhood?), it's not some basic minimal requirement they've complied with to achieve that certification; the effort could almost be called extravagant.  
*The form is a bit antiquated, but put your location information in the box & press enter: it should list all the LEED buildings for that location.  

Side note: I've focused on LEED here, because it's the rating system I'm the most familiar with.  There are several others, like Energy Star (which focuses mainly on energy use), Green Globes, and NAHB Green (for homes). 


"light orange juice beverage" vs. 100% orange juice
Image courtesy of j_lai via Flickr
In fact, when LEED was first introduced, it was largely in reaction to what was called "greenwash." Some product trying to promote itself as "green" when it really wasn't.  For example, "this carpet is made with recycled fiber!!!!!" when in reality it was only about 3% recycled.  

You might see the same thing in a grocery store... "juice drink" usually has less than 10% juice.  And even when it says 100% juice, look closer because it's usually a combination that's heavy on the apple juice (which is cheapest) and quite light on the more expensive fruit you're looking for.  

GreenWash happens everywhere now that environmentally friendly stuff is all the rage.  It's a big part of marketing.  So when a third party (like a certifier of organic foods) steps in and provides some uniformity to the labeling, it's a big help for consumers.  Same thing with buildings.  

Why rating systems are cool:

Energy Resource Monitoring in real time for building users to see
at the Grand Canyon SRM Facility, a LEED platinum building.
Image courtesy of Grand Canyon NPS via Flickr.
  1. Education of project team, including the client
  2. Education of building end-users.  Most LEED buildings pursue an extra credit for "education" to help building users understand the greening aspects of the building.  It can be in the form of signage or interactive exhibits.  This is supercool for visitors as well.
  3. "Leadership." LEED stands for "Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design."  The idea is to forge the path so that others coming behind us can accomplish the goals more easily in established ways.  To that end, all new U.S. government buildings must be LEED certified at a minimum gold level.  Many municipalities have followed suit.
  4. 3rd party verification.  Having the USGBC certify buildings as an impartial party is huge toward delivering a truly verifiable green building.  

Why rating systems are a pain:

Who's driving, anyway?
Image courtesy of draggin via Flickr
  1. Red tape, red tape & more red tape.  The project team has to prove to the U.S. Green Building Council that they have achieved all of the prerequisites and each of the credits that they are pursuing to achieve certification.  The more credits you are awarded, the higher the certification level.
  2. Who's driving the certification?  The pursuit of certification is usually chosen by the client, though in the beginning architectural firms were trying to convince clients it was worth a little bit extra up front.  Often manufacturers are the last to hear about it and have to be coerced into providing the required documentation.  However, it's still a better way to get feedback to manufacturers than if the requests were coming from single individuals.  For comparison: what if all federal employees were required to shampoo their hair with non-sulphate/sulphide shampoo?  Do you think there would be enough demand at that point for most shampoo manufacturers to provide an acceptable alternative?  Probably.  
  3. Sometimes things don't work out how you plan them.
    Image courtesy of Bistrosavage via Flickr.
      .  A design team typically contracts to delivering a certified building, but then is not calling all the shots when it comes to making that happen.  It's still the client's building, after all.  Then, when the building is essentially complete, the documentation is sent in for the certification process.  What if you are not awarded all of the credits you were pursuing?  It's often too late/expensive to change anything at that point.  The client is furious and it's not really anyone's fault.  My impression is that over the last few years (during which I have not been working as a LEED consultant) the USGBC has attempted to make credit requirements clearer so that teams are not disappointed.  But like I said, it's not unlike doing your taxes.  Sometimes the IRS calculations say you got it wrong. 

    Why I can't wait for rating systems to be a relic of the past:

    ahhhh, obsolescence.
    Image courtesy of Brett Jordan via Flickr
    1. Obsolescence.  Even when the first version of LEED was rolled out, there was talk at the USGBC about one day, green building methods would be standard and the rating systems would be obsolete.  And wouldn't that be wonderful!  If we go back to the building code example, though, the red tape remains.  The way we build will have changed and improved, but it's more complicated and more difficult for anyone to DIY.  Also, LEED is fighting obsolescence by creating new prerequisites and more challenging credits with every new version.  
    2. Some folks don't need it.  Rating systems are a great tool (especially for education), but not everyone needs to be educated.  Some people already get it, and would only be held back spending a lot of their time proving it with each and every building.  These are the true green builders, and they are my heroes.

    Cheers and hope you had an appropriately patriotic 4th of July!