This article was originally published in the March/April 1998 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online March/April 1998


Architects Educate on Energy

by Steven Bodzin


Commercial settings can provide good places to experiment with new materials and techniques. When designing this office space, Dennis Thompson specified recycled paint, among other recycled materials. None of the materials increased costs, and potential customers of recycled materials can now see how they look installed.
When the sun shines on a properly oriented house with adequate thermal mass, it provides daylighting and heating, without overheating the place. All three architects interviewed for this story orient their buildings solar-consciously, whether or not the client requests it.
For some homeowners, the first stop on the way to a high-performance home is a visit to a concerned architect. Whether designing and building dream homes or renovating old fixer-uppers, these clients expect architects to provide deep and complete information about building. This puts architects in a unique position--they can educate homeowners about house systems and home performance, and they can also specify the best-performing, cost-effective materials and designs.

Many architects try to provide an environmental perspective. The American Institute of Architects has several interest groups and publications for these architects, and a recent conference in Florida attracted hundreds of them. Home Energy has tracked down three who are particularly experienced with certain aspects of green building. Gary Barley is at Innovative Design in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has moved from passive solar design into whole-house energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and comfort. Dennis Thompson, of Dennis Thompson Architects in Santa Barbara, California, specializes in recycled and low-impact materials. And Bob Kobet of Conservation Consulting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has been designing homes for environmentally hypersensitive people since 1981. All of these architects share a passion for whole-house treatments, and for making comfort, energy efficiency, and indoor air quality complement one another in an affordable and durable home.

We asked these architects how they contend with consumers who care more about square footage than comfort. How do they stay in business when other architects are able to produce homes with lower first costs? We wanted to know how much time they spend educating people about building science, and what efficiency strategies they include in every home, even if the homeowner hasn't requested energy efficiency or expressed a need for high indoor air quality.

The Basics in Every Home According to all these architects, there are a few strategies that are worth including in every home, whether or not the clients request it. These begin with solar orientation and an efficient envelope.

To use the sun, all recommend proper overhangs and shading. Californian Thompson puts cross-ventilation in every room, and uses slabs-on-grade as thermal mass. It's part of good design, he says. Sometimes I don't even mention it. Southerner Barley adds that shading out the summer sun is crucial, and the easiest way to do that is to orient the home with the windows to the south. There's no cost to reorient a new home, he says. Kobet considers daylighting a way to make people feel better in the home.

All agree that a tight, well insulated envelope is immediately worthwhile. This allows me to put in smaller mechanical systems, says Kobet. It doesn't really cost any more ... and it helps make the home allergy-free and nontoxic. He adds that new construction is the best possible time to install efficient mechanical systems. He never installs electric resistance heat, preferring instead to use closed-loop radiant hydronic systems or heat pumps--preferably gas-powered.

Educating the Clients Before clients will agree to spending extra on insulation, they usually need some education. The need for education varies a lot with the clientele. Many of Kobet's clients suffer from environmental illnesses. They already understand how uncontrolled pollutants can find their way around traditional buildings. Rather than resisting his suggestions for how to build a house, these clients are appreciative. They're just grateful that anyone believes them. They're so used to being called kooks or hypochondriacs, they're glad that I can offer them solutions. Kobet calls himself blessed for having had a career in which he has never had to deal with the consumers who are merely looking at resale value and floor area.

At the other end of the spectrum, Thompson reports It's more difficult to get people interested in energy in a mild climate.... They're unlikely to give up square footage to get energy efficiency. I bring it up, but if the client isn't interested, I don't push it.

Barley has found that people who are educated about home performance will spend over 50% more on a home if they can foresee a return on investment or improved comfort. He says that most customers will respond to a 15%-20% annual rate of return.

And Kobet adds, Telling people that a home is passive solar or energy-efficient doesn't get nearly as much response as if the home has daylight, it smells good, and they feel good being in it.

How do these architects get clients interested in new products or ideas? All of them say that getting the first customer interested is hardest. Once they can point to a building with a new technique or material, it is much easier to explain or sell the concept.

Barley explains that he started out in 1977, when there was a widespread interest in passive solar. At first, he says, the only clients were the early adopters--those rare individuals who are willing to take a chance with new technology. It's hard to educate people, so you get the environmentally conscious people first. But over time, he built a track record. He used ads and word of mouth to develop the client base. Today, he says, People are less educated about solar, but you can show them successes from the past. Thompson reports similar results when showing clients new green materials. It's hard to get the first person interested, he says. He was able to demonstrate many low-cost green materials in an office where the tenants gave him free reign to experiment, so long the price stayed constant. With that office built, people could go and look before accepting the materials in their home.

Rather than educate homeowners one by one, Thompson has found a way to reach them in a classroom format. Santa Barbara has adult education classes for homeowners and potential remodelers. Thompson volunteers as a speaker to explain how recycled or low-impact building materials, efficient envelopes, and efficient mechanical systems all work together to save money, improve comfort, and reduce environmental impact. This way I can reach 40 people at once, he says. Thompson gets occasional referrals through his classes, and other architects and builders concerned with home performance also get a boost.

Staying in Business When there's a community of efficiency-minded architects and builders in town, it is possible to create a guaranteed demand through the political process. With support from Thompson and other green building aficionados, Santa Barbara County now uses an innovative building review committee. If you exceed Title 24 [the state energy code] by 15% for residential or 25% for commercial buildings, they give you an expedited plan check, Thompson explains. A volunteer committee checks the calculations, so there's no cost to the county. And the plans are checked in ten days, not four weeks. This really interests the big builders and a lot of homeowners.

These public incentives are still the exception, rather than the rule. Environment-minded architects still market primarily through word of mouth. Thompson, for example, has eagerly pursued personal referrals through the local environmental community. Because of his interest in green building, he was able to sit on the board of a local environmental group. Many clients, in turn, have come from referrals from that group. Barley has received similar referrals through the thriving building science community in Raleigh.

Once a cutting edge architect has found a niche, the clients keep coming. With more environmental hypersensitivity cases appearing, Kobet says, I expect to run out of years of life long before I run out of work. He is now passing on information to students by teaching at Carnegie-Mellon University. They don't get destructivism or postmodernism. They might not even get Frank Lloyd Wright, he says. But they get this stuff. They know people with allergies, they know how buildings feel. It's a personal connection.... When you combine it with sustainability, there's some passion there.


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