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Cultural Sustainability in Residential Architecture

connell, john, connor homesGreen is over. Green wants to embrace everything and everyone wants to embrace green. But when a definition becomes so overarching, it loses all significance. This term has been so used and abused that it is now completely meaningless. But make no mistake; there is still a solid reality behind all the green washing and it promises great things.

For those of us who have been tilting at green windmills since the late 60’s (before “sustainability” was even a concept), the current economic downturn has been a godsend. My whole professional life I have been trying to persuade clients that high performance buildings were a good investment – usually to no avail. But ever since gasoline went to $4/gallon and the economy went through the floor, homeowners have been falling into my office pleading for green design. It’s a nice change!

Enthusiasm notwithstanding, a chasm of mis-impressions and missed expectations persist. What makes something sustainable? Is green the same as energy efficient? What’s included in a high performance building? Within the design industry, these terms all have distinct meanings and most enlightened designers know the shades of difference. But the public at large remains considerably befuddled.

Adding to the confusion are the numerous certifications, standards, agencies and licenses rising up to “clarify” the situation. These range from the federally funded Energy Star program to the USGBC’s skillfully marketed LEED programs. But let’s not leave out the NAHB Green Building Program, Greenguard, Green Seal, Underwriters Laboratories, ASTM International, the Sustainable Forest Institute and its competitor, the Forest Steward Council, to name a spare few. We are awash with efforts to create (and profit from) clarity in the chaos. I predict this will soon lead to different metrics for different applications; what I call “niche green”.

Every design, whether for a product or an entire building, will necessarily focus on certain metrics at the expense of others. For example, a net-zero home design is going to favor different priorities than one that solves for clean air and water conservation. Similarly, manufacturers seeking a minimum carbon footprint will make different business decisions than those seeking a fully non-toxic process.

It would be nice to be at the top of the charts in all categories but that is still a long way off. For now, let’s not let “perfect” become the enemy of the “good.”

Residential architecture offers a perfect example. We now know quite well how to make a net zero house. Indeed, we are seeing more and more homes that actually return even more energy to the grid than they use.

But many of the strategies used in such homes will not work when renovating an existing building, especially if it is historically significant. In such cases the historic importance of the building must mediate the green initiatives.
Preservationists frequently decry the cultural damage that takes place in the name of energy conservation. Windows with insulating glass and SDLs (simulated divided lites) simply can’t replicate historic single pane units with true divided lites. They look too different and throw off the proportions of the windows as well as the entire facade. Similarly, many early wall assemblies are simply too narrow to accommodate today’s best insulating strategies. And that’s only considering energy consumption.

Just as troubling is the embodied energy and carbon footprint represented by shipping old growth woods long distances in order to match antique flooring or molding stock. Add to that the traditional glues, sealers and paints that are now known to be toxic, the inefficient light fixtures and the profligate use of water in antique bathrooms.
Since historic architecture was, by definition, built before we were aware of such issues, many aspects of older buildings are neither healthy nor sustainable. Green restoration and preservation in this context will look very different than what’s to be found in most of the leading environmental press. This is a green niche.

In this niche the highest and best use of an old building is to repurpose it for contemporary and future use. Recycling a building saves immense amounts of embodied energy. It also eliminates pollution and diesel fuel associated with trips to the land fill.

Next, old buildings must be brought up to current fire and safety code standards by upgrading wiring and checking all fixtures. Happily the number of historic fixtures becoming available with LED and CFL lamps is increasing daily.

Finally, while older wall assemblies are narrow and riddled with thermal-bridging, recent advances allow us to squeeze R-6 into ½”. Additionally, the enlightened use of weather stripping and caulk can bring an older building’s air changes from over 2 per hour down to less than one.

Many of the sustainable practices used to “green” historic structures might not be cost effective in new construction. But in this niche, the green solution must be formulated so that it includes the historic need for cultural sustainability.

John Connell has been a licensed architect since 1982. He is currently design director for Connor Homes.

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7 thoughts on “Cultural Sustainability in Residential Architecture

  1. You made some good points John. I agree with your ideas for remodel projects and agree that certain types of homes, such as net zero and passive houses, often focus heavily on energy efficiency and air quality while neglecting other forms of conservation. However, I disagree with your idea that third-party certification as “niche green.” No matter what you want to call a “green” home, a third-party certification, at the very least, ensures the dwelling was built to some kind of a standard and verified that the builder actually did what they promised. True, some of these standards are more flexible than others, but I would rely on the word of a builder as much as I would a mechanic or a politician. Without some kind of watchdog group, any builder could say they build green, continuing to wash any value of the word down the drain. At least low flow faucets are labeled.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Andrew. I totally agree that there is an essential need for third party certifiers (I’ve been a LEED AP for years). My point is only that the quest for a “one size fits all” green standard is missing the nuances of different types of green endeavor. I believe the USGBC has recognized this and that’s why they have developed so many flavors of LEED compliance.
    Building quality is evolving nicely and green structures seem to be getting better with each building cycle.
    In the end, GREEN is a direction, not a destination.

  3. John: interesting article. I would agree that there is an important role for truly independent third party certifiers. That’s why Johns Manville obtained certification from Scientific Certification Systems that Johns Manville’s fiber glass building insulation is formaldehyde-free.

    But it’s not always the case that the certification is what many people think it is. Two important examples are the indoor air quality certifications from Greenguard (children and schools) and the NAHB Green Building Program. Both are based on the classroom standard in California ES-1350, which means neither is appropriate for the new residential environment. Unfortunately, both are frequently (and incorrectly) promoted for residential. Both assume ventilation rates (think pollution dilution rates) around 1.0 air changes per hour, while the California Department of Public Health recently published (in its ES-1350 2010 update) a new residential scenario endorsing a new residential ventilation rate of around 0.25 ACH. If you do the math, a “certified” result of, e.g., 12 ppb formaldehyde at 1.0 ACH would be 48 ppb if the 0.25 ACH ventilation rate were used. Yet neither the certifiers nor the manufacturers of certified products point this out. Why is that?


    Bruce Ray
    Johns Manville

  4. I like the points that you are making in this article. I see that residential builders often meet certain criteria to fit their building into a green standard, when a little bit more thought could produce a better building. What has bothered me is that consumers have rushed to eco-friendly products without understanding how is this product better for their home. What makes the product “green”? The GAO report last month on EnergyStar is hopefully an eye opener for some that this program has not lived up to its purpose; however, I think that most consumers will not pay attention to the issues with EnergyStar. Sustainability will mean different things to people in the building industry for some time, but it would be nice to see us getting onto the same page through efforts of uniting different codes/standards. I would love to see Building Information Modeling applied to more systems in residential architecture.

  5. Your article is insightful. Third-party certification plays an important role, however it seems to be misused in the example explained by Bruce Ray. Looking deeper, the claims by Greenguard often seem to be somewhat overstated. Their March newsletter (available at http://www.greenguard.org) mentions their support of the new California Department of Public Health Standard Method mentioned by Bruce. They claim: “As part of its commitment to improving human health and quality of life, the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute will continue to advocate for the most stringent scientific test methodology possible to help protect indoor air quality.” Yet the CA website shows the comments received from Greenguard argue the CA proposed residential scenario is too tough, and should use a higher ventilation air change rate that will allow more emissions from products. See “Comments and Responses on the Proposed Standard Method” at http://www.cal-iaq.org/VOC/SPupdate.html. Could this be a result of the conflict-of-interest that Greenguard has as they require all North American manufacturers with certified products to regularly test for VOC emissions at Greenguard’s for-profit partner laboratory?

  6. John,

    Thanks for the interesting write-up. We, too, believe that industry-independent, third-party certifiers play a critical role in the realm of sustainability as they allow the public to trust the information that they are receiving from the label.

    We would like to applaud Johns Manville for their commitment to indoor air quality. They have been an active participating manufacturer in the GREENGUARD Certification programs for the last seven (7) years with 14 products that are GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality® Certified and two products that are GREENGUARD Children & Schools? Certified.

    Unfortunately, Mr. Ray made a few statements that warrant further explanation. Regarding the “new” residential scenario in the CA 01350 update, which Mr. Ray mentions in his comment, the air change rate (ACH) and home model were not agreed upon in a consensus manner among product emission and state building experts. In fact, the data regarding ACH in homes in the US is all over the place—from an ACH of 0.25 that Mr. Ray quotes to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s number of 0.45 ACH to the California State Code’s 0.35 ACH… even up to 0.71 ACH, which was referenced in a recent nationwide study of residential building stock (released in the International Journal of Indoor Environment and Health 2010; 20: 85-90). That’s why the model is listed in an informative appendix—and not in the actual test method.

    In response to Mr. Ray’s assertions about Scientific Certification Systems’ (SCS) “formaldehyde-free” certification program, this program does NOT test to the updated CA 01350 standard. The certifier provides documentation on their Web site (http://scscertified.com/docs/IAQ_GUI_F-Free_V1-0_011510.pdf) that explains they still tests to the old CA 01350 test method (which doesn’t have a home model, only a classroom and private office model).

    Thanks again, John, for prompting such a lively discussion on your blog!

    Josh Jacobs
    Technical Information and Public Affairs Manager
    GREENGUARD Environmental Institute

  7. Josh and Bruce bring remarkable detail to one particular example of what seems to be a growning interest in building metrics. Their discussion about various air change rates and the impact on clean air is informative, to say the least. But there is an important consideration missing their discussion. High performance homes designed to reduce energy by minimizing ACHs normally have air-to-air heat exchangers (ERV or HRV). These allow a constant and healthy supply of fresh clean air without the concomitant loss of heat/AC. The extremely low ACH ratings reported with blower door tests are static measures of the building’s envelope but not an accurate measure of available fresh air when all systems, including the ERV, are active. (An extreme example of this approach can be found in the increasingly popular Passiv Haus program that has come out of Germany.)
    Thanks to both Ray and Josh for their input here. This discussion nicely highlights my original premise: rather than a checklist of disconnected choices, green design must be an integrated solution AND context sensative.

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