Sustainable architects in Concord, CA

Gerard Lee Architects- Sustainable/ "Green" Residential Design FAQs -Guide:

Sustainable Design FAQ/ guide Index:

An Introduction to Residential Sustainable Design.
Sustainability, Sustainable, and "Green" design are all popular catch words today. More so with the advent of ever increasing energy costs, especially when tied to prices at the gas pump. Fossils fuels are not replenishable and will eventually run out. Unless somebody found a stash of dinosaurs we can crush underfoot, subject to heat and pressure over a millenia and start pumping again. It's an easy concept to grasp.

So how does sustainable or "green" design apply to your home? What is "green" design? Just doing a simple search on the internet will result in hundreds of thousands of references. All similar to a certain extent and yet different. Reading through some of them will make you realise that when it comes to "green" design, many experts and or architects who specialize in sustainable design differ in what they call "green" design.
For some, it means using natural materials, or waste products, utilizing the natural resources for fuel, lighting, recycling water and avoiding certain materials like steel studs that use high embodied energy through it's production.
To some others, metal studs are good because they are a highly recycled material. Some follow the path of LEED as a guideline for the "greening" of buildings. Others say it's skewed to accomodate certain building product manufacturers and loosely terms many materials as "green". Still others say any design that accomodates different forms of sustainable design or building practices or "standards" are good for the environment and therefore, better than the present status quo.

The Green homeowner:
So what does this have to do with you, the home owner? All you want is a new home or an addition or remodel/ renovation. You want a new kitchen/ bath media room or bedroom. You think being good to the environment is probably a good thing and that sustainable or green design is a good idea. You donate to the national parks or the Nature Conservancy (maybe). So it makes sense that you would like to have a earth or environmentally friendly home.
Well as it turns out, what's good for the environment tends to be good for you, the home owner.
This guide or FAQ is not meant to be cumulative nor attempt to cover everything about sustainability. That has been written about probably a lot better by people with far greater achievements and far fancier letters after their names than us. We are just simple architects trying to design buildings that are sustainable, environmentally friendly, that give back to the planet, are innovative and hopefully aesthetically pleasing.

Sustainability: A short description
In a rather simplistic explanation, sustainable practises tend to promote energy efficiency and the use of products that are safer, renewable/ recyclable and reduce harmful waste in their production. If you think about it, all these applied to your home means a safer more energy efficient environment for you and your family.
What's a building being healthy have to do with anything?
Consider that a healthy building normally means that it has less airborne pollutants or noxious gases in it. Now think about the number of sick days you had to take because of allergens, airborne contaminants and chemicals existing within buildings and how they affect you (ever hear of the sick building syndrome?). A cleaner healthier environment means less sick days. It's a win win situation for both employers, employees and home owners.
At this point you are wondering about the chemicals in the air and wondering if you have ever come across toxic gases. Well, we all have. If you walk into a house with a new paint job or carpet, that "new" house smell that makes us all want to buy the house is probably from adhesives or other chemicals used to make the carpet, cabinetry, & plastics in the house (applies to that new car smell we all love too). Those materials are off-gassing these fumes and over time they will dissipate (that's the good news). The industry term is "VOCs", also knowns as "volatile organic compounds". Has a nice ring to it. These compounds can include CFCs and formaldehyde. Common sense tells you that it probably isn't the best thing for your health to breathe in too much of these compounds.
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Sustainability: In your home
So how do we make your home healthy and not have all those toxic fumes in them? It used to be that you may have had to do away with certain materials that you are familiar with. Like carpets. However with the advent of LEED, many building material manufacturers have adjusted their manufacturing practices and are coming out with paints and carpets that either have no VOCs or low VOC. Many cabinet makers use no formaldehydes in their glues used in manufacturing the panels. In addition you can now use rapidly renewable products like bamboo or other natural products like cork and hemp. These have been used in cabinets, flooring and wall coverings. If your home is built from wood, make sure it comes from a certified forest where there is a complete documentation of where the wood originated from (no old growth or poaching). Whether commercial or residential, it's always a good idea to have operable windows to allow for natural ventilation and try to ensure that all major spaces have access to daylight.

Design strategies:
Many times making the most out of your home or buildings design to make it more energy efficient, may just mean taking pains to understand the site it sits on. The project site will have its own microclimate which is affected by surrounding terrain, buildings, elevation/ grades, vegetation etc. Knowing all these factors can help a designer orientate a building or design it to take advantage of certain elements. Turning a building to catch the sun, or shifting it a few degrees because tall trees block access to sun or wind. Burying the building in the hillside,or going up a few stories to catch the wind or to pop above tall trees to gain some natural daylighting.
These are all good design practises which are sustainable. Using nature and the environment to make a home or building more comfortable and livable. We haven't even talked about using unusual or alternative ways of construction once. Sometimes it's a matter of being a little creative and using a tinge of imagination to come up with an innovative solution that helps make your home more energy efficient, livable and healthier.
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Alternative construction:
Alternative construction tends to mean a way of building that's not the traditional way of using 2x wood studs for construction. If you think about it, to be able to process a large tree down to a number of 2x4 or 2x6 studs logically tells you that it's an inherently wasteful process. To many people, being "green" implies not using or minimizing construction techniques that support such wasteful practices. To that end, they have created many "alternative" ways of building a home.
Consider earthships. Houses built from old tyres, and rammed with earth/ soil. A great concept. Using waste products and natural easy availability materials and combining them together to build a shelter/ home. Not a lot of contractors know how to do these and not many building departments know how to classify these structures. Those two factors alone will drive construction costs up.
The same issue confronts straw bale walls and rammed earth houses. However what we are seeing is that the push for sustainability is being driven by many governing bodies and so a greater acceptance of these not so traditional ways of building has been forthcoming. In addition many homes have now been built using these alternative techniques that they are not so alien to many building departments and good contractors.
The advent of LEED presents a way of quantifying how "green" a building is. For the most part it applies to commercial buildings though the recent LEED homes pilot program has been implemented. What this means is that many manufacturers are now creating affordable "green" products. More products means it easier to find more affordable ways of being green.
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The costs of "green":
For the average home owner, dolling out wads of money to go "green" may make the process of being friendly to the environment less appealing. Before you imagine that annoying sound of money being sucked out of your bank account, consider that there are many different ways of going green. And as we have pointed out above, with more mainstream manufacturers and contractors climbing on the "green" and or sustainable band wagon, it provides more choices and increases availability and competition to the residential market.
A very good thing for you, the home owner. Depending on your budget, your design professional should be able to come up with a "green" strategy that suits you. Whether you choose to use alternative construction methods, use recycled materials and or only natural materials, thermal mass, earth berming, trombe walls etc., your design professional (ie. GLA) should be able to find a solution to accomodate those needs.

Recent studies by Davis Langdon, an international and very reputable cost estimation firm for the AEC/ construction industry, shows that applying the LEED guidelines to a commercial project impacts construction cost by approximately 2-3%. What most people don't realise is the long term cost savings garnered from "green"/ sustainable design over the life of the building. In other words, there are cost savings in having an energy efficient building. The materials and design of the buildings tend to relate to lower maintenance, better energy efficiency and healthier buildings in the long run.
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Designing "green", a summary:
Sustainability is a holistic approach to designing and building. The local climate, geography and socio economic factors all have to be taken into account when designing a "green" or sustainable building. The problem about being "green" or sustainable is applying concepts in broad strokes. For example, taking straw bale wall construction and using it in a region devoid of straw. Sure, the wall will function well from an insulating stand point but if you trucked in the straw bales from hundreds/ thousands of miles or airlifted it in, how sustainable was that? Imagine all the fuel burned and the pollutants released. But if there was an abundance of soil and concrete, rammed earth could be considered or if for some reason a number of very experienced pool installers who use shotcrete, PISE (pneumatically installed stabilized earth). We will emphasize the need for a holistic approach to sustainable design over and over again. Site, region and climate responsive strategies should be the basis of sustainable design. As noted above, this FAQ is just a simple summary or guide for being sustainable. We will write more articles about being green over time, so please keep on checking out our FAQs.

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Published 11/6/05 -last updated April 16,2009