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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

The Green Urban Gingerbread House: Part 4 – Jobsite Recycling Program and Construction Specifications

January 25, 2011

I have gotten a few queries, so I feel I should give an update on the Green Urban Gingerbread House recycling program. While there was 100% recycling of jobsite waste during construction (yum), I was concerned that we might have trouble when it came time for demolition. But I was able to find just the right crew to tackle the job at a new year’s party. Seven children and a handful of adults took the house down in a matter of minutes, with comments like: “Have you tried the solar panels? They’re delicious!” and “Can I have a bite of the green roof?”

And for some construction specifications, I would also like to credit the recipes I used:

The gingerbread recipe was tasty and structurally strong, even for fairly thin walls. Rolling it thinner kept the gingerbread from swelling and changing shape during baking, although you can trim the gingerbread pretty easily while it is still warm.

The icing recipe used meringue powder instead of raw egg whites. I added cinnamon and cardamom to make it less bright white, which also gave it an interesting flavor. I also used green food color for the planted portions, as well as cocoa powder for a brown color. Less water makes a thicker, easier to use icing.

The Green Urban Gingerbread House: Part 3 – The Open House Celebration

December 30, 2010

The gingerbread walls are up, green roofs and wall planted, chicken coop constructed, photovoltaic panels installed, and finishing touches 95% complete. Ginger and Captain Allspice invite you to the open house tour and celebration (serving organic, locally-grown appetizers on reusable plates, of course).





We begin in the front yard, where you can observe raised garden beds (for truly locally-grown produce) and green roofs over the porches. The porch to the right also continues back to cover the electric car charging station. Of course, the Allspices usually use mass transit, but occasionally they take the electric car out for errands that are hard to get to via bus or light rail.

Ginger waves from the roof deck patio as you walk up the permeable pavement walkway to the front door. She invites you to walk around to the south side of the house, where there is a group gathered on the patio, including their daughters Cardamom and Nutmeg who are home for the holidays. Notice the large windows for passive solar heating of the house, as well as the photovoltaic panels over the dining room.  The Allspices are able to provide 75% of their home energy use from the PV panels due to the energy efficient building and appliances. (Note that the larger window should have some additional shading elements across it, but they got …ahem… eaten by accident. The gingerbread really is tasty.)

You hear a clucking from the back yard, and wander back to the west side of the home, where the chickens are munching contentedly on some food scraps from the party preparations. The garden looks good, probably the result of composted chicken droppings and other organic gardening methods that the Captain uses.

The green wall is a great addition to the west side of the home, providing shade and insulation as well as a beautiful green canvas. The rain barrels on this side of the house provide water for the extensive gardens and landscaping. Having made it this far, you decide to continue up the permeable pavement driveway.

Here on the north side of the house, you see the Allspice’s new electric Cooper Mini. Fun, quiet, and clean to drive! And handy that it can be charged at home overnight. Maybe you can go out for a test drive later.

You slip upstairs to the roof deck to sip a cocktail (ginger ale and spiced rum, of course) and nibble tasty home-grown kale chips. Ginger tells you about the beautiful green roofs – it turns out that they are great for insulation, acoustic buffering, stormwater management, bird habitat, and reducing the urban heat island effect.

After an enjoyable evening of food, friends, and fun, it is time to go. As you look back, the windows glow warmly as the music and laughter drifts out behind you. Living a more sustainable lifestyle seems pretty inviting as you head towards bed with ideas for greening your own home.

Here is the “site plan” for the Green Urban Gingerbread House. You can read a bit more about the solar panels and passive solar windows in earlier posts. Thanks to friends and family for the great ideas – I’m already planning for next year’s Green Urban Gingerbread House 2.

The Green Urban Gingerbread House: Part 2 – The Search for Solar Collectors (a.k.a. Windows)

December 29, 2010

As I began planning for the construction of the Green Urban Gingerbread House, I wanted to find a way to make clear windows that could be baked into the gingerbread. (Good windows are crucial to any passive solar design.) I have used Jolly Ranchers in the past, but couldn’t find any clear ones of those. First try was just baking sugar into the window opening, but that was a failure. As you can see, the red Jolly Rogers work quite well.

Next try was using a clear mint candy from Italy. In the oven, that bubbled up, browned, and ended up looking like something the dog might leave in the yard. Ew.

Next I decided to try making a clear hard candy myself, using just sugar, water, and honey in a pan on the stove. That was a little tricky without any candy-making experience or a candy thermometer, but it seemed to work. The honey made it a little amber in color, but definitely closer to clear.

The next step was to break up the clear/amber candy that I had made and remelt it into the window openings. This is where the effort went horribly wrong and the windows ended up looking globby and opaque. Definitely not the sleek clean modern look I was hoping for.

In the end, I decided to use butterscotch candy. It makes the windows an inviting butterscotch color, which looks really cozy when lit from inside.

Oddly enough, the difficulty in finding good gingerbread windows is somewhat similar to the difficulty of selecting appropriate windows for passive solar homes. There is a whole alphabet soup of ratings that windows go through for the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC), which is a great way to compare their performance. The most commonly used is the U-value, which measures the thermal resistance of the window (i.e. how well it keeps heat out or in). Lower is better for U-values and energy efficient windows are key for any green building.

However, there is another rating, called the Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC), which measures how much solar heat gets through a window. High-tech “low-e” window coatings are able to filter out quite a bit of the solar heat, which can be desirable in many situations. However, the goal with passive solar design is to capture the warmth from the sun during the winter (and use overhangs to shade out the sun in the summer). For this to be most effective, you want to have windows with a high SHGC on the south side of your building. However, this is where it gets tricky. Almost all major American window manufacturers do not offer windows with a high SHGC, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Some Canadian companies offer it, but then the longer timeframe of ordering internationally gets to be a hassle to get the windows to your construction site when you need them (and it’s not inexpensive).

How to solve this if you don’t have a rich and famous lifestyle? For our recent passive solar addition, we used a triple-pane clear glass window from Andersen Windows, just for the primary solar collection windows. They have three panes of glass, which gives them a low U-value (efficient!) and no low-e coating to filter out the solar heat gain (high SHGC!). Those four windows cost as much as all the other windows in the addition, but still were able to fit in our tight budget – and the windows all look similar since one manufacturer made them.

Back to the butterscotch window – I’m pleased with how it turned out, but I would prefer a higher VT (another NFRC rating for “visible transmittance”, or how well visible light goes through the window). I did get a recommendation for Halls Mentholyptus Cough Drops – maybe next year I’ll try that, but I’m a little leery of how it would affect the delightful gingerbread-baking aroma.

The Green Urban Gingerbread House: Part 1 – The Solar Panels

December 13, 2010

After a successful first foray into gingerbread creation last Christmas (with a gnome-driven gingerbread train), I am working on “taking it up a notch” this year. As an architect I can’t just do the typical gingerbread house, right? Clearly it needs to be an elegantly modern, passive solar urban homestead, with solar panels, green roof, garden beds, chicken coop, and electric car charging station. My son Sofian also wants a train again, so we might have to build a light rail train as well.

I like that it is fun, but also a chance to talk about concepts of sustainability.

So, to begin I have made the solar panels (tastefully constructed from blue shortbread and sugar sprinkles), based on the elegantly beautiful Silicon Energy Cascade Series PV Modules. The panels are a unique design made in Washington State with several innovative benefits:

  • They are designed on a 4’x4’ module, sized to work in typical residential construction (and architects like modules!)
  • The panels overlap like roof shingles, which sheds water and allows for cooling underneath to improve efficiency
  • The silicon chips are completely encased in glass, which makes them highly resistant to moisture and somewhat translucent, which could make them good for awnings

Truly a Pacific Northwest product – designed with our wet climate in mind.

Another benefit of being made in Washington State is that they qualify for hefty production incentives (i.e. the power company pays you 54 cents for every kilowatt you produce), in addition to federal income tax credits and a state sales tax exemption. This means that a $25,000 system can pay for itself in less than 10 years – and after that you enjoy free electricity and an independent power supply. Eric Thomas at Solar Epiphany has been doing a series of free classes, where he explains how the payback works, as well as more detail about systems.

Let me know if you have any ideas for improving the Green Urban Gingerbread House. I’ll be working on the passive solar collection system next (also commonly referred to as windows).

Nature as Inspirational Architect

December 13, 2010

I just went to my first CoolMom meeting last week – I’ve been meaning to check out this cool organization of local moms who are working on a green lifestyle for themselves, their families, and their community. I was lucky to get a door prize made by the West Seattle coordinator and her children.  Beginning with a beautiful pinecone, they added glitter and a decorative hanger, and it became a lovely ornament. No need to buy ornaments when you can make something like this yourself.

I was also reminded of the great inspiration that can be found in nature. A longtime favorite book is Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. The author Janine Benyus is a biologist who became fascinated with how people were turning to nature for inspiration. One example in her book is a team of researchers who are studying spider silk, because there is simply nothing made by humans that comes close to its strength and ability to span long distances. And it is all made without toxic chemicals or high heat, within the abdomen of the spider. The spider can even modify the properties of the silk, making it stickier or stretchier or stronger, as the web-building situation requires. Pretty amazing actually.

The pinecone is an equally elegant design solution for producing, storing, and distributing seeds. Sometimes we human beings get caught up in repeating and modifying old design concepts, when there may be new inspiration to be found in the bark of a tree or the wing of a beetle.

Revitalizing Your Existing Home Instead of Building a New Green Home

December 3, 2010

“The greenest building is the one that’s already built.”

Those are the words of Emily Wadhams of the National Trust for Historic Preservation on a recent NPR Marketplace segment: “This old house may be the greener one.” Although a new home is easier to make green, there may be more environmental benefit from improving an existing home.

As an architect who got into the field for environmental reasons, I believe that design should rest lightly on the existing world, protecting the natural environment and conscientiously re-using the built environment as much as possible. It takes a lot of energy to build a new building, and it generates a lot of waste to tear down an old one. As one of my architecture professors used to say, “Architecture begins with destruction.” For better or for worse, whenever we build something new, it replaces what was in that place before.

The design approach for LD Arch Design is to seek out the beauty and maximize the efficiency of that which is already there, keeping in mind that there are occasionally buildings that have come to the end of their useful life. I find it more challenging and rewarding to bring new life to an existing building, rather than tearing down the existing to build new. In the photo you can see original cedar siding juxtaposed with a new rain chain and rainwater harvesting system.

It is also a delightful challenge to reuse building materials in a new and interesting way.  At our home, we have been enjoying the look and feel of recycled slate blackboards that we are using for countertops. With some sanding to remove imperfections and a food-grade stone sealer, they become lustrous black surfaces that are resilient and easy to clean.

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