Thoughts and ramblings on Architecture, Design, and everything inbetween.

Sustainable Design Strategies.

I would propose that the biggest falsehood about sustainable design or ‘green design’ is that it is something that you can buy, instead of something that you actually design, and build into the very fabric of a building.  For example, there’s no amount of bamboo flooring that is going to make a poorly planned, poorly insulated, badly designed, oversized, 4 car garage, AC on all day,  McMansion style house into a green home.  As a matter of fact, by the time your reach choosing materials for a building, it’s often too late to do anything but well, put lipstick on a pig.  So what is true sustainable design?  I present to you my 5 tenets of sustainable design, in the order that they should be approached.

1.      Design your building well.

The absolute most impactful and sustainable thing that one can do in design is to design your building well; with pride, integrity of vision, and superior craftsmanship in one’s approach and architecture.  A building should be built with an honesty of materials and structure, and expressive reaction to the forces that act upon it, and a lack of fear in design on the part of the architect and client.  It should be thought of in terms of generations, and should be designed utilizing the most current technologies and structures, while not bowing to trends in composition or its’ formal language.  The building should be carefully detailed, exhibiting the pride of the owner, the skill of the builder and the talent of the architect.  Well designed buildings last for many generations with minor modifications, poorly designed buildings are torn down in a few decades or are so miserable and unworkable to live in that they must be radically remodeled quickly, a process that is incredibly expensive and wasteful.  For example; a project I am currently working on is an 1970’s building that was designed so poorly, and is so horrendously ugly, that we are currently gutting and remodeling it to the tune of 120 million dollars, a paltry 30 years after it was built.  There is nothing more wasteful than bad or ugly design.

2.       Utilize Passive Strategies for Heating and Cooling.

Design to take advantage of the site, the sun, the wind and any other forces available that you can use to make your building a living and sustainable machine.  These include:

A.  Passive Solar Design:  Utilize the power of the sun to heat your building.
B.  Passive Ventilation Strategies:  Harness the wind to cool your building, cross ventilation..
C.  Glazing Orientation:  Make sure to get plenty of natural lighting into the building, decrease your electric bills!  This will also increase your happiness.
D.  Thermal Mass:  Capture heat in the day, release it at night.
E.  Shading Strategies:  Control when and how you gain heat by adding strategic shading to the building.
F.  Rooftop Design:  Green Roofs, Heat Ponds, ext..  Don’t waste this space!!!
G.  Heat stack design:  Heat likes to go up, you can design to take advantage of this.

Many of these strategies cost no extra money, they just take careful planning and design expertise, and the payoffs are tremendous, both in monetary terms and in leaving the planet livable for your grandchildren terms.

3.    Active Solar and Energy Strategies.

The sun beams down on your building all day long with energy, capture it.

A.  Solar Panels:  Convert Solar energy into useful electricity, power your building..
B.  Solar Hot water systems:  These have the biggest monetary payoff, great place to start.
C.  Smart House Design:  You can use computers to control operable windows and shading, heating and cooling, making your house constantly react to the environment to be super-efficient.

It is crucial and obvious to utilize the power of the sun to power your building and create an organic living machine that sustains and runs itself.  Many of these strategies cost no extra money, they just take careful planning and design expertise, and the payoffs are tremendous, both in monetary terms and in leaving the planet livable for your grandchildren terms.

4.      Choose the right materials and construction methods.

Materials comprise a huge portion of the cost of your building, and therefore the correct selection of materials is key to reducing your negative footprint on the planet.  Materials should be considered in terms of “Life Cycle Cost”, the total cost of the material over its life.  Often, spending a little more up front will lead to huge savings in the long term.  We need to start thinking of costs in these, more accurate ‘full life’ terms so we can make better choices.  Often, higher quality materials will pay for themselves many times over in their full life cycle when compared to cheaply made materials.  Some other things to consider:

Is the material local? Shipping uses resources.
How reusable / recyclable is the material?
How healthy is the material? Off-gassing and VOC emissions will hurt you in a very literal sense.
Is the material responsibly made?  Don’t buy from companies that hurt people, there are many evil companies out there, don’t support them.

5.        Design your building well.

I really can’t stress this enough.

While this is by no means an all inclusive list, it starts to define a mindset that will help to make design more sustainable.  With half of the world’s resources consumed by building and buildings, the impact that we as Architects and you as Client or Builder can have on the planet is staggering. We owe it to ourselves, and our children, to leave this world in better shape than we found it. By designing with pride, integrity, without fear, and with clarity of vision, we can achieve that goal.


-Josiah Maddock


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