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It is time to think bigger about architecture and sustainability.  I named my company ecotecuturestudios in order to emphasize the need to combine ecology and architecture.  Well, everyone is jumping in with acronmymns like BIM (Building Information Modeling) and BIPV (Building Integrated Photovoltaics).  These are a great first step, but I think it is time we all think bigger.  Instead of integrating just information or photovoltaics or some fancy recycled insulation, let’s begin designing our buildings (BIG).  BIG is where Green is the norm, every detail has been analyzed for its ability to be sustainable and the amount of energy it takes to make the product.  Everyone wants to run out and buy a new Prius, but they never stop and analyze how much energy it took to build that new car.  Why not buy a very fuel efficient car that prevents the construction of a new one?  The same practice should be applied to architecture and construction.  For example, I love the idea of Insulated Concrete Forms.  However, the foam form is made from a petroleum product.  Isn’t that the real enemy here – the harmful release of CO from the cars we drive every day and our dependence on foreign oil?  This is the point I have made over and over.  We must integrate Green but we must do it wisely.  We must choose the products that make economic sense, we must choose the products that make environmental sense and then we must incorporate them seamlessly into he architecture.  It is time to go BIG with knowledge and passion.

Global Warming – Man-Made or Natural Phenomena is not the Issue

The Visible Human Virus

Ok, here it is.  My first step upon my soapbox.  My opportunity to discuss the issues that face human kind and our planet.  Personally, I do not feel that global warming can be PROVEN to be man-made.  I personally believe that the science involved is far too complex for us to factually assert that the rise in global temperature is the result of 100 plus years of man and machine.  I am not saying it is not possible – it is just not factual.  The real problem I see facing the earth is the uninhibited expansion of mankind and his inability to blend with his surroundings.  For those of you who thoroughly enjoyed the Matrix Trilogy, the most powerful and accurate scene in the whole movie is when a machine describes mankind as a virus.  We must face this reality – we are quickly destroying the host that provides our survival.  We are destroying nature at exponential levels in the name of progress.  Let me make this clear right now – I am a capitalist.  I believe that freedom and the ability to make money in a free market fits the will of humankind better than any other political model.  That being said, we can create capitalistic markets that transform us from being a terra-virus.  We can create a symbiotic relationship with the earth while promoting capitalism.  People can make money, build beautiful & sustainable dwellings, engineer fuel efficient yet aesthetically pleasing means of transportation, and distribute goods throughout the world without the use of fossil fuels.  IT CAN BE DONE!  It doesn’t have to be tree-huggers vs. big business.  It can and should be man living in harmony with the earth versus a virus infecting and destroying the host it cannot survive without.  Whether you are an environmentalist, an activist or a capitalist you must face the evolving human virus.  It is time to act.

Passive Solar – Simple Engineering? Hardly!

Passive Solar Concept

Passive solar design for residential dwellings is appears rather straightforward.  First, design an overhang that controls seasonal UV (Ultra-violet – the portion of visible light that contains heat) light penetration through a building aperture – usually fenestration (a window or a door).  The idea is to construct the overhang such that UV light penetrates deep into the dwelling in winter but is blocked out during the summer.  Second, install some form of mass (concrete, fluid, etc.) in the floor and the walls that can store the heat generated during the day.  Then, sit back and let convection and conduction perform the miracle of thermal dynamics.  All this sounds so simple, so why not do it on every house?  The answer is that it isn’t simple – we are dealing with a moving heat source (the sun), variations in outdoor temperature (climate), weather patterns (we need sunny days to make this work) and real estate assets (which direction are my views).  For example, here in sunny Colorado where we have 300 days of sunshine, a temperate climate, and a high altitude that allows intense UV rays to reach our altitude – but our views in Denver and the front range are typically west.  Well, our solar source in the summer is at its lowest point in the afternoon and producing the highest heat levels of the day.  The overhang required to shade any west facing fenestration would be nearly 20′ – you would essentially need a west facing wrap around porch with a concrete surface.  So, once again, we are faced with an architectural dilemma.  We need to capture the views that the property offers in order to enhance the value of the home.  Yet, we need to engineer systems for the dwelling that mesh with the architecture and reduce the use of fossil fuel burning devices necessary for controlling the indoor climate.  In conclusion, just like daylighting, it may prove more effective to reduce fenestration and mass absorbing materials and install local power generating elements such as solar and wind.      

This is the notion of Ecotecture – blend all the architectural elements, engineering systems, and the natural environment into one entity.  Too many people buy into one notion of reducing our carbon footprint without fully understanding the ramifications.  We, as stewards of the earth, must first educate ourselves properly and then enact and build dwellings that are organic and smart.  They must be analyzed for local conditions, designed to produce the smallest carbon footprint and then made beautiful to make others take note of Ecotecture.
Daylighting – Final Answer

Commercial Daylighting

Having studied the engineering of daylighting for four years – it’s applications, model predictions, the techniques used, successful designs and analysis – I consider myself rather well versed in this form of engineering.  In fact, I wrote thousands of lines of codes that calculated the interaction of daylight in room surfaces using form factors and other advanced mathematics at the time.  That is why it pains me to write this article.  With the advancement of PV’s (DC generating solar panels) and wind turbines (i.e. on-site electrical producing devices) and the advent of LED lamps, daylighting concerns may become a thing of the past.  The engineering devices used in daylighting (light shelves, monitors, specially engineered fenestration) are expensive.  And, despite some of the greatest efforts, it is still difficult to get light to the interior of a building without adding heat.  This is a rather ironic result considering that commercial buildings are rarely heated – they are cooled the majority of their existence due to latent and sensible heat loads.  Thus, the dilema.  Spend thousands of dollars on daylighting features such as glazing, light shelves, “skytubes”, etc. (when in the right hands, I might add, enhance the look of a commercial building) or limit gazing (i.e. heat gain) and use those dollars on PV & wind turbines and LED lamps.  Currently, with the incentives from the government and utilities, the winner is hands down the latter.  There are no incentives for daylighting – the technique is too difficult for most to do correctly and it is difficult to quantify the costs vs. the savings.  In conclusion (as my heart bleeds to type this) it is currently far more economical and straightforward to integrate electrical generation elements (wind & solar) and lighting controls into the architecture of a commercial building than daylighting elements.  However, daylightng elements should be used and considered because the impact on the architecture can be stunning when integrated correctly – and allow commercial buildings to turn off the lights.  A proper focus and engineering analysis can produce stunning ecotecture that is both beautiful and sustainable.

Daylighting – Get the Story Straight

Daylighting

Daylighting is the art & science of delivering visible solar light into a dwelling during daylight hours.  This is easy to do if one considers only the natural light gained and, therefore, the lights turned off during the day.  However, daylighting is a very delicate balance between light & heat gain/loss.  In order to gain natural light, we must provide fenestration.  The best windows on the market (without breaking the bank) may provide an R-value of 4.0.  The wall immediately adjancent that window can have an R-value of  40 with nearly normal construction methods.  So, for example, I design a house with large amounts of fenestration, place them without regard, and never turn on a light during the day – wonderful.  You were probably at work all day anyway.  However, the huge amount of glazing caused your A/C to run at full speed during the 100°F ambient temperature of the daytime.  This is not the intent of daylighting!  It is more eco-friendly to use no windows and LED lighting throughout the home than it is to convert the well insulated walls into glazing in the name of daylighting.  These are the types of the issues that frustrate me – people on soapboxes preaching about something they know nothing about.  Residential glazing should be used for two things.  First, provide us glimpes of the outside and bring nature inside.  Second, exchange heat as required – provide UV heat (passive solar heating) in the winter and convection cooling in the summer.  This requires shading of the window during the summer months when the sun is high and full penetration of the UV light in the winter when the sun is low.  However, these issues are aspects of passive solar heating & cooling – not daylighting.  Daylighting is a concept that must be discussed in the realm of commercial dwellings – the lights are on all day.  I will discuss daylighting concepts in my next posting – you need to know the difference between passive lighting & passive heating first.  In conclusion, understand that daylighting should be secondary to passive thermal controls in residential design.  We want to bring in large amounts of natural light but we also want to avoid large, negative effects placed on our HVAC systems.

Geothermal Heat Pumps – Green to the Core

Geothermal Heat Exchanging Loop

Heat “pumps” are nothing more than heat exchangers – they “pump” refrigerant from an external unit (the condenser) to an internal unit (the evaporative coil).  The geothermal heat pump (GHP) works in the same manner – except the condenser uses the earth’s consistent 55°F temperature vs. the outside air’s extremely variable temperature.  The condenser portion of the heating system is laid out in a shallow grid system (horizontal ground loop) or is drilled deep into the earth (vertical ground loop).  The system works by exchanging heat (or more appropriately, energy) between the air in our homes with the consistently heated earth below our feet.  The maintenance costs of the systems are low because the pumps are mechanically simple and the heat exchanger is below ground.  As a rule of thumb, a geothermal heating exchanger costs approximately $2,500/ton plus drilling costs (10k-30k).  On average, GHP’s save 70% of the energy used in operating conventional systems – the pump cannot be offset by the earth’s constant temperature.  So, if you couple a GHP with a PV canopy (electricity to run the pump) you have created a carbon neutral heating and cooling system, produced excess electricty to sell to your utility or run your lights and created shaded, elegant outdoor living space.  Furthermore, the 30% Homeowner Tax Credit with no cap applies to both the GHP and the PV system.  Sounds like a win-win-win to me!

A Green Roof Equals Outdoor Living Space

Living Roof with Patio

I quickly learned from my trip to Venice, that the roof had the best views of the house.  A small deck sat atop the roof of our hotel which was accessed through a small window and a set of old wooden stairs on the outside of the building.  From that location, you could see the complexity of Venice’s layout and take in the beauty of the centuries old buildings.  I instinctively knew from years of framing houses in college, that the roof offered unprecedented views of Colorado’s Front Range.  However, you are never comfortable on a roof you are building so my fear buried my experiences at the back of mind.  Upon returning home from that trip, I climbed onto the roof of my house and stared west at the Rockies.  It was breathtaking – the added height filtered out the trees and other homes and left only a clear view of the majestic mountains.  I immediately began incorporating second story decks and roof top decks into my architecture.  They accomplished what I was striving to create – a place to relax and absorb the views of the surrounding area.  However, something was missing.  Even though I had accounted for watering systems of potted plants, the decks were seemingly stark and non-organic.  Furthermore, they could only be accessed from one area of the dwelling – usually a public/living space and they were hot. The lack of plants and earth created a very blistering outdoor experience.  The Green roof or living roof, solves all these problems.  You have a beautiful, elevated, private, temperate outdoor living space that covers your entire roof!  Now that’s organic architecture at its finest.  Imagine now that you combine a PV canopy for shade - you’ve created an energy saving and energy creating  roof that you can enjoy year round.

Using Dirt to Create Green Architecture

Earth Sheltered Home

Earth Berm Sketch

There are a lot of Green insulation materials available today.  The best Green materials are recycled materials such as cellulose & denim.  However, these materials require energy to recycle the materials, energy to produce the insulation, energy to transport the insulation and finally, energy to install the materials.  Interestingly, mankind has grown accustom to using these materials as the only form of dwelling insulation.  Why not use a material that already exists on site and costs nothing to manufacture – earth (dirt).  Earth is a natural insulator - it has an R-value of .33 per inch when dry.  When compared to fiberglass insulation, it takes 36″ of earth to equal the R-vaule of a wall composed of 3″ of fiberglass and 1/2″ plywood siding (R-value = 11.25).  This is not mind boggling on its own – however, add the two together and you get an R-value of 22.5!  Ecotecture and Green ideas should involve the use of earth as an insulator.  When coupled with recycled forms of insulation, it can greatly enhance heat loss through walls and the roof.  We should be using dirt below the windows, bury non-living space rooms & the garage, and install living roofs that can be used as exterior living spaces.  When earth is used in this manner, architecture becomes ecotecture.

Fallingwater – Green before Green was Cool

 

Fallingwater's Famous Exterior

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is his most memorable work.  Designed in 1934, it has inspired countless architects since its inception.  Fallingwater blended architecture with the natural ecosystem in a way that had never been seen.  The concept was Green in its interaction with the ecosystem, but the elements used in the construction were not ‘sustainable’.  Although the building is a style to emulate in Ecotecture, the continued interaction with the environment must be advanced.  The design must incorporate earth as an insulator (living roofs and walls without windows), PV and wind power generation, advanced construction techniques and the use of sustainable construction materials.  In closing, Fallingwater can be used as a guide for sustainable design in its interaction with the natural ecosystem and its overall design, but the introduction of new Green technology must be infused into the architecture.  It must become Ecotecture to truly reach the next level of sustainablity.

What is Ecotecture?
May 20th, 2009

What is Ecotecture?

Ecotecture Inspired Building

Ecotecture is the combination of the words ecology (defined as the relationship between living organisms and their environment) and architecture (defined as the art and science of building).  Ecotecture can be used interchangeably with ’ecological design’ and ‘sustainable design’.  The essence of the architectural movement for me, as a designer, is to create beautiful, artistic homes that fully integrates the current Green technology.  It is not an additive style (where the sustainable or Green elements look ‘added’), but rather a style where the Green elements are blended seamlessly into the ‘whole’ of the dwelling.  The dwelling design appears to revolve around the Green elements – they appear to be necessary to the design.  A good analogy is anatomy – the parts that make up the human body are organized and function together.  If you were to ‘add’ to the body – a third arm, a second nose – it appears awkward and abnormal.  My goal in creating Ecotecture Studios is to blend the architecture and the Green elements into one harmonious entity.  Elements of the earth, the ecosystem, the architecture and sustainable elements (wind power, solar power, water conservation, etc.) are blended into one ‘organism’.  When these elements are combined through the design process, rather than added, they produce a breathtaking human habitation system that meshes flawlessly with the natural ecosystem.