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Less energy: Solar is a growth industry in the recession

October 6, 2011

I blogged last week about the tipping point for solar, and it seems like the news keeps coming about the growth of solar energy. Demand is growing, prices are dropping, and the technology keeps getting better.

A recent article entitled “Keeping Up With the Solar (and Wind) Joneses” talks about the inspirational effect of installing solar in a small West Virginia town. The article references the Solar Foundation’s 2011 Solar Jobs Census, which documents a 6.8% growth in solar jobs from August 2010 to August 2011.  As the article further quotes from the census: “To put this into context, the overall economy only grew 0.7% and the fossil fuel electric generation industry actually experienced a 2% decrease in its workforce during that same period. Clearly the solar industry is doing something right.”

Another article entitled “Growing Solar Power Industry Signals Need For Federal And State Support” describes the falling costs of solar – 11 percent in the first half of 2011 and 17 percent in 2010. The article makes the point that solar and other renewable energy sources receive federal funding at one tenth the level that nuclear was funded at during its early years. The recent successes of solar are in spite of meager funding.

Solar is harder and more expensive to do at a small scale (such as for a single family home), but each panel installed is a small step towards a clean energy future. In addition to the reasons I referenced in the blog post last week, one good reason to invest in solar is to drive the market. Much like the market for organic food – once there is sufficient desire the prices will come down. The demand for solar is starting to drive prices down, but there is still much progress needed. You can help by considering solar on your home, or if your home isn’t well located for solar access you can invest in a community solar installation, such as Seattle City Light’s program.

Less money: Want to save the planet? Work less and spend less!

September 7, 2011

Finally a good excuse for putting your feet up and watching the laundry dry. A recent article entitled “Less Work, More Living” makes this point – “Earn less, spend less, emit and degrade less. That’s the formula. The more time a person has, the better his or her quality of life, and the easier it is to live sustainably.” Nations with shorter working hours actually use less energy and generate less carbon. The article cites a study that estimates that if Americans switched to the shorter working hours of Western Europe, it would reduce energy consumption by 20 percent. And another study that shows that people who voluntarily reduce their working hours are happier.

One of the principles of the “less is more GREEN” approach to design is to spend less money on your home. I feel that people who want to live more lightly on the earth should push back on the social norms of creating big trophy homes. Find the beauty in your existing home. Do a home energy audit and see how you can improve your home performance. Think of ways to optimize what is already there.

If your home is not right for you, sensitively transform it to meet your needs. Although it seems like a way to work myself out of a job, I strive to give my residential clients options that enable them to spend less on making changes to their home. Why work longer hours to afford a higher mortgage for a home that you don’t have time to be in because you’re always at work? It can become a vicious cycle, which is not only unhealthy for our bodies and spirits, but also for the planet.

See a related post: Exploring the aesthetics of less is more GREEN

Exploring the aesthetics of less is more GREEN

August 4, 2011

I had an awareness-building experience recently. Or maybe I should describe it as a major reality-shifting experience that is slowly changing the way I approach design.

We had some new friends over for dinner for the first time in our house and gave a tour of our recent addition. As we were sitting at the dining table, talking about some of the material choices that we made, I mentioned that we had built it on a very tight budget, so the materials were not very expensive. I’m thinking to myself how proud I am that we’ve been able to create a space that we love without spending more than we wanted to. And then our friend looks around a little awkwardly and says, “Well, you can’t tell.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the cultural expectations behind that response. We are conditioned in this country to feel that it is a good thing to earn a good living and to build a dream house for our family. If you are financially successful, then of course you will pour money into your home to make it a reflection of your domestic ideal. Sure, it’s great to be thrifty if you need to be, but you are encouraged and expected to create a beautiful home if you have the money to do so. And the average American home is HUGE, with the average Seattle home being SLIGHTLY LESS HUGE.

So I am pursuing the aesthetics of “less is more GREEN.” Less space, less new stuff, less toxic stuff, less energy, less water, and — less money. It only makes sense – when you build less house, you spend less money on it. That means more money to spend in other ways. Or more time with your friends and family, rather than working long hours to make a big mortgage payment. Or maybe more time and money donated to your favorite environmental cause.

Looking for ways to green your lifestyle? There may be opportunities to reimagine your aesthetic. We often are driven to replace the worn and dated building with something new. We want the glitz and glamor of the shiny modern materials, but often don’t consider the environmental cost of sending materials to the landfill that still have a good life in them.

l get a lot of flashy magazines about design and homebuilding, which are certainly inspirational and fun to read. However, I am getting weary of the slick new look. Because I can’t help but wonder — how might the designer have planned more sensitively to reuse the existing fabric of the building? Did the kitchen appliances really all have to move to new locations? Did the existing wood floors really have to be pulled up because they didn’t seem new?

Homes become showpieces rather than comfortable spaces for life. Homeowners are pushed into spending more than they wanted. And a lot of perfectly good stuff gets sent to the landfill. This is not just an issue of landfill space, but there is a lot of embodied energy that is wasted (I.e. the energy that it took to produce and transport the stuff in the first place)

What does a “less is more GREEN” house look like? It is thrifty and thoughtful, clever and efficient. It gracefully meets the needs of the people within it, and is inspirational in its beauty and sustainability. It embraces imperfection and shows evidence of its history. It seeks to be intentionally simple, flexible, enduring, and lovable.

LD Architect Abroad: Iceland

May 5, 2011

Our family has just returned from a trip to Europe and while the focus was on family vacation, I couldn’t help but notice a few architectural details and concepts while out and about.

In Iceland, I was impressed with the attention to moisture-resistant details – after seeing snow blowing in sideways, I can appreciate how the buildings in Iceland have evolved in response to the severe climate. In general, the buildings in Reykjavik are quite blocky, with few outcroppings or protruding architectural details.

The Vikin Maritime Museum is on the waterfront and has some interesting cladding details. The metal siding is designed as overlapping planks, with a rolled edge at the bottom. This not only gives an elegant pattern to the façade, but also reduces the ability of water to wick upwards between the planks.

The stone tile veneer is designed as a rainscreen wall, which means that the tiles are mounted with a space between the back of the tiles and the face of a (hidden) drainage plane. In other words, the moisture that makes it through the cracks between the tiles can drain freely down the surface of the wall behind.

Another interesting building is the Reykjavik City Hall, which has a lovely moss wall, which is kept moist by rainfall from the roof and water from the pond below. This type of green wall would be harder to maintain in a less moist climate, but it makes sense in Iceland (and maybe Seattle?).

And here is an interesting cladding detail that allows the beauty of pale wood to endure the harsh climate. Rather than try to maintain a layer of waterproof sealant over the wood, which would need constant reapplication, the wood is covered with a glass veneer. This may also be a good strategy for the chilly climate of Reykjavik (with a summer average high temperature of 57 degrees F), because the glass would also create a warm airspace when it is sunny. It is similar in concept to a Trombe wall, although I saw no evidence that the warm air was being used directly in heating the building. However, it would definitely create a warmer microclimate right at the exterior of the wall, which would reduce the amount of heating needed for the building. An interesting idea that might be adapted to be useful in the Pacific Northwest.

The landscape of Iceland is rugged – in fact, it is the world’s youngest landmass, formed entirely from volcanic activity. At Thingvellir, there are large rock formations that are moving apart from each other at the rate of an inch a year. An awe-inspiring glimpse at the volatility of the earth we live on. (But from the family vacation side of things, a snow shower there was also a great opportunity to make snowballs.)

LemonDrop Addition Update: State of the Green Roof

April 4, 2011

A recent article entitled “It’s Easy Being Green: Plant the Roof” describes some of the benefits of green roofs. While it can be tricky to add a green roof to an existing house, a structural analysis can be done to determine if the roof structure can handle the extra weight. Plants and water-saturated soil can be quite heavy. It is easily done with a new roof structure, and often can be retrofitted on all types of roofs. There is a good list of the benefits of green roofs at the International Green Roof Association website.

After a long, soggy winter I went to check on the green roof on the LemonDrop Addition this morning.

Many of the plants are still in their cold weather dormant state, but I can start to see signs of the spring awakening. This will be the second summer growing season, and I expect to see the roof mostly covered by the fall. After a year of establishing a root system, the plants should be ready to spread. There were very few weeds and I will plan to add some mulch in the next month or so. Maybe some wildflowers as well for a little punch of color.

Here is a photo from the installation of the green roof in October 2009 for the sake of comparison.  I did not include many grasses in the landscaping plan, as I have heard from many green roof owners that grasses will grow quickly and can take over and choke out other plants, so I am hoping to see the sedums, lavender, strawberries, thymes, and kinnick-kinnick get well established this year.

The delicate pink kinnick-kinnick blossoms and the yellow-green and orange sedums are my favorites.

There are lots of good reasons to build a green roof — increased insulation, good stormwater management, reducing urban heat island effect, providing natural habitat, improved acoustic privacy, longer roof life, and more — but I have to admit that we chose to do a green roof in large part because it is beautiful and fun. Feel free to contact me if you have questions about green roofs. There is a lot to know and many options for greening your roof.

See related pages for more information:
Revitalizing Your Existing Home Instead of Building a New Green Home
Houses Are For Living: Casual Green Modern
Design Principles
Green is a Verb

Stretching A Small Construction Budget: Make Your Addition or Remodel Transformational

February 28, 2011

So, your house is driving you crazy – too small, too dark, oddly laid out, showing its age – but you don’t have a big budget for making changes. This might be a good time to hire an architect, particularly if you could use some help seeing spatial opportunities. Sometimes a few changes can make a dramatic difference in how your home looks and performs. Here are some “tricks of the trade” for maximizing your construction budget.

Interesting spatial quality

Most of the time an interesting sloped ceiling or unusual window arrangement doesn’t cost more. Builders often price by square footage, and if your design is unusual but requires no additional materials, it will probably be cost neutral. The only caveat is that if you are doing something that is not “standard operating procedure” you will need to make sure that the design drawings are very clear and easy to read.

1. Have a two-story space. Even if it is small, it can be a relief from the practicality of low ceilings. It can also link an upstairs and downstairs function and aid with natural ventilation throughout the house.

2. Vary the ceiling height or the floor level. You can create dramatic transitions between spaces with some very simple changes. In the photo, a small step separates the dining room from living space.

3. Create pathways and views through the house. Especially if your home is small, you can benefit from being thoughtful about how you move through your space and what you see on the way. Creating long views through several rooms and out a window can make the space feel larger than it is.

Dramatic lighting effects.

Daylight is free. While we don’t always get as much of it as we would like in the Pacific Northwest, it is always the most dynamic and efficient way to light your space. You can also create dramatic lighting effects with light fixtures, to make the lighting quality interesting after the sun goes down or in spots where windows won’t work.

1. Place a window where it will wash a wall or ceiling with light. Do this on different sides of the home so that you will get the sunlight wash at different times of the day. In the photo, you can see the effect when the wall has direct sunlight and the ceiling has a glow from indirect light.

2. Have light coming from an unseen window above. This makes the room glow, as you can see in the photo below. It is best to accomplish this with vertical windows, as skylights are not very thermally efficient and almost impossible to shade during the summer without blocking all of the light. Windows that are placed up high are also opportunities during the summer to exhaust warm air and draw cooler air through the house.

Prioritize your budget for your favorite spaces

Look at how you use your house and spend your construction budget on your most-used spaces. Don’t take long relaxing baths? Then make the finishes in the bathroom simple, elegant, and inexpensive. Love to cook and entertain? Then pour your budget into creating a great kitchen and gathering space.

Consider where you want the center of your household life to be and make that the architecturally special space. At our home, we have the “fireplace room”, which has the comfy custom sofa, the double height space, the dramatic color walls, the light from above, the change in floor level, the see-through fireplace – in other words, a lot of design elements to create a special atmosphere. It is made all the more dramatic in contrast to the low ceilings of the existing house.

Think of your home not as a static container, but as a theater set for your lifestyle. Take advantage of the opportunities for drama and beautiful moments. You may discover a whole new house within your existing house. If you or someone you know would like to consider the possibilities for transforming your home, contact me for a free initial consultation.

Read more about free initial consultations and other policies.

Related blog posts:
Can You Afford to Build Green?
Houses Are For Living: Casual Green Modern

Can You Afford to Build Green?

February 6, 2011

Does a green house cost more? No, not necessarily. There are a lot of expensive green building materials, but the essence of green design is to live more lightly on the earth, which can be done with the simple steps of improving energy and water efficiency, using non-toxic materials, and selecting materials conscientiously. Affordable green alternatives are available, even if they are not the building standard for many contractors.

A recent article entitled “Five Myths of Green Building” begins with these words: “Green doesn’t have to mean expensive, exotic or uncomfortable.” In fact, studies show that green buildings are often built for the same costs as other buildings when the design team uses a holistic green design approach. In other words, green needs to be designed in from the beginning, rather than being a feature that is tacked on at the end. Expensive appliances or finishes do not contribute as mightily to the performance of the house as well-insulated walls.

My experience with design and development of green affordable housing has given me a uniquely practical approach to sustainable design. Spending time on design is cheap compared to years of living in a less efficient and less healthy building. While I constantly strive to incorporate new green materials and technologies, I also counsel people to first focus on getting the basics in the construction budget – good windows, well-insulated walls, low-flow plumbing fixtures, efficient heating systems, non-toxic finishes – before focusing on other green options.

But what if your budget won’t allow for some of the grooviest new green materials and technologies? Well, we don’t live in a perfect world, and your house won’t be perfect – there, I’ve said it. But knowing that we won’t achieve perfection is no reason not to make the design as green as possible. Saving energy and water, using materials wisely, and choosing healthy materials are all attainable goals. You may not make your old home a net zero energy house, but you can certainly get closer with good design and construction of renovations and additions. Your improved home can coexist more sensitively with the natural ecosystem, as well as be more comfortable and save you money on utility bills.

See related pages for more information:
Revitalizing Your Existing Home Instead of Building a New Green Home
Houses Are For Living: Casual Green Modern
Design Principles
Green is a Verb
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