Home & Design October 22, 2010
Considering Sustainability

One of the great joys of building a house is the creation of a special space or two. Tiny or grand, the center of daily activity or a seldom-visited hideaway, inside or out—the lone requirement for its specialness is that it makes the inhabitant happy.

In our house, the space that makes me happiest is a ceiling. Arched broadly over four substantial glulam beams, the all-wood ceiling imparts a sense of stolid protection and generous shelter. Long, slender planks of vertical-grain Douglas fir fit seamlessly side by side through the full curve of the radius. Unevenly patterned wood hues streaked with shades of maple, amber, and hickory recur in the layered beams, and emit a warmth that is as alluring to me as the glow of a fire. When I lie back on the floor, the spatial/visual effect will, almost without fail, slowly smooth my rough edges and induce a calm energy.

The care and time that went into the design and crafting of this ceiling were considerable. While not originally imagined (nor now, perhaps, generally appreciated by observers other than myself) as having a transporting effect, the ceiling and the room it covers are still, by most standards, wonderful examples of a successful building project. And from my point of view as a client, the final result—time and money notwithstanding—remains highly satisfying. Yet some would argue that the whole undertaking was inappropriately conceived.

For the last ten to fifteen years or so in the design and building industry, there has been growing attention to and concern about the environmental impact of construction projects. This awareness has been organized into an effort to identify and standardize, where possible, a set of environmental priorities that might guide the building process from siting through landscaping.

Establishing a “green” system with specific sets of criteria has been a challenge on a variety of fronts. For a start, the technology that can be applied beneficially to any given situation keeps changing; this includes materials, recycling processes, energy components, improvements in the extraction and renewal of natural resources, engineering innovations, and the daily exchange at Internet speed of new design concepts. In addition, it is a time-consuming process to educate designers, builders, and their clientele as to the implications of alternative building methods. And when “alternative methods” recommend themselves, the issue of potentially increased costs must be considered.

All of these variables must also be put within the context of a specific location. In some areas, for instance, climate-degenerating gas emissions may be more critical than the depletion of natural habitat for an endangered species, even though both are worthy environmental concerns.

In an attempt to prioritize environmental risk factors, the Environmental Building News (EBN), “a newsletter on environmental design and construction,” established a ranking in 1996 based on the degree of impact of specific beneficial actions. For example, their number-one ranking went to energy savings, with the comment that “ongoing energy use is probably the single greatest environmental impact of a building.” The integrated design and construction of an energy-efficient building will have positive effects directly on air quality and natural resource availability, and somewhat less directly on water quality and quantity, soil quality, habitat availability, and biodiversity.

Similar analysis was used to recommend the following, starting in order of greater benefit: recycling buildings and materials; creating efficiently planned communities that depend as little as possible on automobiles; downsizing materials and space-use; preserving and/or restoring local habitat and ecosystems; using resource-efficient, low-environmental-impact materials; planning for durability and adaptability; designing water-efficient buildings and landscapes; providing a healthy and safe indoor environment; and minimizing demolition and construction waste.

The EBN emphasizes that “the order is arguable, and for specific projects and regions a different order will apply.” It is also true that the general environmental effects of many of these goals could overlap and that, conversely, some could be mutually incompatible given certain building constraints. One such constraint is apt to be the cost factor. Some of the steps advocated by EBN would add to the overall expense of most construction; in several cases, however, increased initial costs are offset over time by reductions in monthly expenses, and some actions can actually represent an immediate cost reduction. As is appropriate with all sustainability projects, decision-making within the context of the EBN’s formulation requires a holistic approach.

The same can be said for the even more comprehensive and complex assessment of environmental building practices that was undertaken in the late 1990s by a group called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), an outgrowth of the United States Green Building Council. The Green Building Rating System identifies five main areas of importance: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. These areas are broken down into roughly forty categories. The reduction of light pollution, for instance, is discussed under sustainable sites. Each category is paired with a statement of intent that spells out, perhaps unnecessarily in some cases, the purpose of its inclusion (e.g., eliminate light trespass from the building site, improve night sky access, and reduce development impact on nocturnal environments). Then, more helpfully, there is a section on the latest technologies and strategies that might be applied to correct an offense. These remedial suggestions vary from the narrowly technical (CIE ranges between .01 and .05 footcandles) to the broadly common-sensical (minimize lighting of landscape features), but they all serve to move the process of sustainable building forward.

The most distinguishing feature of the LEED system, however, is that for meeting prescribed criteria within each category it actually awards points. (Not exceeding required footcandle levels AND designing lighting so that zero direct-beam illumination leaves the site earns one point.) When enough points are accumulated, LEED awards its official certification.

In theory, this is meant to create an incentive for sustainable building; but to be truly effective, the LEED system must overcome limitations in scope and value that, in the current version, work against its potential. First, the system was originally configured just for nonresidential structures, and based only on design criteria—not on how the building actually performs once in operation. Second, what’s so great about certification? According to EBN, for your efforts, to say nothing of expense, you get a brass plaque, a media kit (whoopee), and some publicity in the trades. And yet there has been keen interest in the LEED system.

It is significant, for example, that municipalities and government bodies have already begun to utilize, if not the exact rating chart, at least many of the underlying principles. Such response has encouraged ongoing refinements and new program developments: A test for residential construction is now under review, as is a performance-based set of criteria to complement the design and construction guidelines.

That LEED is gaining currency should be no surprise. The need for a LEED-type system in this country has been recognized since the 1980s, when Britain first developed a similar initiative (the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method). Today, even with its shortcomings, LEED speaks to a broad cross-section of national concerns. The surprise, therefore, is that LEED, or something like it, is not more widely endorsed.

An informal canvassing of opinions within the Wood River Valley architectural and construction community on this particular issue revealed, perhaps, why sustainable building is still in its infancy. For starters, less than fifteen percent of those interviewed knew anything at all about the LEED system. A larger percentage was aware of the Environmental Building News, but that group must not include many regular readers, as LEED has appeared in the newsletter frequently. And almost everybody agreed that, when it came right down to it, material wants won out over environmental wants every time.

While the actual survey involved only a partial poll, it is unlikely that more sampling would have changed the general impression that sustainable building is not a high priority in the Wood River Valley. In fact, that impression probably would have grown stronger with a larger database. As it was, in order to more fully examine the subject matter, a disproportionately large number of “environmental types” was included in the mix. One of those who fits this description is architect Dale Bates.

Bates has been practicing environmentally friendly architecture for over twenty years, and preaching it for almost as long. His influence extends beyond Idaho, but most of his work has been done here. He is passionate about healthy buildings, which for him mean structures that not only are conceived and constructed in an environmentally sensitive fashion but, more importantly, also support a totally healthy indoor environment. Because of his history, many of his clients know where his interests lie and are predisposed to share his philosophy before they meet him. Yet, even then, according to Bates, it has required endless hours of education and persuasion for about half of his clientele to get fully with the program. Given that this is a program designed to make and keep them healthy, one would think it would be an easy sell.

It is often misleading to extrapolate from the local point of view, particularly when it suffers from socio-geographic insularity. Yet, the biggest challenge facing sustainable building is essentially the same here or anywhere else. No matter how much one cares about health and the environment, it’s hard to look away from a one-of-a-kind ceiling.

Brought up and educated in New York City, Bill Lowe came here in 1982 to raise a family and spend more time with his sense of humor. Currently, he’s promoting a new circuit-board technology based on vector logic.




This article appears in the Fall 2002 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.