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The Hidden Life of Green

Sustainable Features In Buildings Don't Have To Be Front And Center To Have A Meaningful Impact On Performance

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By Nancy B.Solomon, AIA

We all have images in our minds of what it means to be sustainable. For many, the term “green” connotes double facades, solar arrays, or wind turbines. But as the sustainable movement matures, eco-friendly designers have come to learn that high-performance buildings do not have to dress for the part: “Buildings do not have to wear sustainability on their sleeves,” says Graham Wyatt, AIA, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA) in New York City. In fact, some of the most ecologically effective strategies can be imperceptible to the casual viewer.

Photo Courtesy Bruner Cott
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Sustainable design is not a style, but an approach in which the various inputs and outputs of the building are considered and optimized for the long-term health and well being of people and the environment around them. To accomplish this, many factors need to be considered simultaneously and early in the design process so that the most eco-efficient patterns become intrinsic characteristics of the initial concept. Once these qualities have been woven—or integrated—into the preliminary design, they offer the architect elements that can be articulated if desired, much the same way an architect can decide to express or conceal the building structure.

“We have some clients that come to us with a notion of what a green building looks like or needs, such as photovoltaic panels or double-facade envelopes,” says Nico Kienzl, a director of the New York City office of Atelier Ten, which specializes in environmental and building services engineering. “We try to take a step back and show them the bigger picture—what they and we are really trying to achieve—and how to get there.” Kienzl finds that once he presents the data, clients don’t have a hard time reconsidering their initial assumptions and reprioritizing. It’s much easier, for example, to make the case for a ground-source heat pump, which could potentially have a payback of about 5 to 10 years, than for photovoltaic panels, which currently take 20 to 30 years to recoup their initial investment, even though photovoltaics seem to have more “green” cachet. Kienzl doesn’t discount the more visible and, therefore, more attention-getting solar collectors, but argues that the more mundane strategies must take priority: “If you really want to reduce energy consumption, first insulate and provide shading.”

Buildings that are highly sustainable but do not look particularly “green” have become standard for universities that retain and manage their properties for the long term.

For many projects, says Wyatt, his firm applies what he calls “stealth” sustainability. “We have standard specifications, such as nontoxic paints and carpets that don’t off-gas, which we use as a matter of course for any design.” The firm doesn’t necessarily discuss the sustainable nature of these items with the client but simply selects them as part of its basic business practices.

And now that the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system has become widely known and accepted, more and more clients do not need much prodding to undertake the basic testing, or commissioning, of building systems to ensure that equipment has been installed properly and is therefore functioning optimally. “Commissioning has become an easy sell,” says Kienzl, “because LEED requires it as a prerequisite for certification.” In addition, the practice has become standard for many public and institutional clients, who often have commissioning requirements that are more stringent than those required for LEED. Kienzl notes, however, that it can be more difficult to convince commercial clients to undertake the quality assurance procedures on their first project because they perceive it as an extra cost that they would rather avoid. But clients who have built more than once quickly learn that “the cost of commissioning is nothing compared to the cost of fixing things once the building opens,” he observes.

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This article appeared in the April 2007 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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