green building practices

Sustainable Design and Green Building Practices

There is something romantic about creating an architecture integral to nature. An architecture that is sustainable and carefully uses green building practices to share with nature rather than dominate it. Sustainable building practices take time and energy to be done correctly.


What is Green Building?

Green building is the design and construction method that focuses on reducing environmental impact. Green building practices can be thought of in two major categories, Active Design, and Passive Design. The active approach creates and saves energy on-site by using solar panels and other devices to offset energy consumption. The passive approach is typically more delicate and thoughtful. Passive green building design can be as simple as building orientation, cross ventilation, or thermal mass techniques. Passive design approaches don’t typically require additional cost just additional thought.


The Carbon Footprint and Misinformation

In recent years society has become more focused on sustainability and green living. This buzz about sustainability also comes with a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about this sector of design. In architecture school, these topics were quite common and always led to big-picture thought exercises about carbon footprint and other issues not tied directly to the “green” product or the local benefit of whatever system was being placed. The biggest issue regarding most green products is the underlying environmental impact of shipping and/or manufacturing the product itself. This is known as life cycle emissions. Take solar panels as an example. From mining the material to melting the silicon, all these processes of manufacturing need energy and create pollution as most of the energy used comes from coal power. This is always the case in a hybrid grid system. However, 0nce the solar panels are in place they produce zero emissions after production. Life cycle emissions studies from IPCC have been conducted extensively resulting in solar panels having 20x less carbon impact than coal generation and 13x less carbon footprint than natural gas. This means that solar panels can be used to help reduce future environmental issues such as climate change.

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Benefits of Sustainable Building Practices

Saves Money:

Energy-efficient buildings will save you money…eventually. There is no doubt that sustainable design and construction is a long-term play. Depending on the system it could take years to recapture the cost. That being said, it’s not for everyone. Building a forever home is one thing, but recapturing the cost on the spec side is almost impossible because all residential buildings are sold from comps. If you don’t plan on selling anytime soon, whether you are living in the home or renting out apartments, reducing operation costs is the most attractive part of sustainable design.

Convenience and Well-being:

Another benefit to consider is power outages. Many homeowners are opting for solar panels for not only energy savings but also in place of a generator. Other conveniences include lots of natural light and ventilation. Having the ability to bring the natural environment indoors not only helps reduce power consumption but is also good for your well-being.


Green Building Features

Carbon footprints and life cycle costs are large-scale mostly active design-related issues that span regions if not the globe. How do we make an impact at the local level? How do we design sustainably at the scale of a building? One of the best ways to design more sustainably is by making use of specific products and techniques that reduce energy rather than replace it. Designing homes that have better insulations, less thermal bridging, and uses shading devices to control sunlight can make a bigger impact on green building than most. Buildings account for 40% of all energy consumption. There are simple ways to help solve big problems. Let’s explore a few examples.

Passive Solar Overhangs

Reducing the energy needs of your building could be as simple as larger overhangs on the south side of the structure. This is not a new technology by any means. Large overhangs on the south side of a building will shade windows during the summer avoiding additional heat gain. In the winter the opposite occurs. During the winter, the sun is low in the sky. This allows the sunlight to take advantage of the heat gain when it is needed most. This method does not have to come from overhangs. Porches are perhaps the world’s oldest form of sustainability for this very reason.

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Passive Solar Trees

Another simple way to control sunlight during summer and winter months is by strategically planting trees. Deciduous trees can provide shade during the summer and allow sunlight in during the winter. Coniferous trees on the other hand can create great windscreens during winter months. Using a combination of tree species can offer many benefits for little cost. This is a truly simple example of how easy it is to design sustainably with just a little strategy.

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Reduce Thermal Bridging

Let’s discuss a more complex example. One of the greatest energy issues facing most homes is thermal bridging. Thermal bridging is simply when a material (like a stud in a wall) interrupts the insulation creating a bridge for the heat to escape. Take a standard stud wall as an example. Between each stud, it is standard to see insulation that has a high thermal resistance while the wood stud itself has a low thermal resistance. Ultimately the combination of these studs makes up a large percentage of the wall and increases the home’s energy consumption through heat loss. The diagram below shows a thermal image of a standard home built in the US. It’s obvious from this image that the more lumber and more windows, the more thermal bridging.


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There are many ways to reduce or even eliminate thermal bridging. In the commercial world, buildings require continuous insulation (foam board) placed on the outside of the building just under the exterior finish. One example more common in residential architecture is through the use of a product like “T-Studs”. T-studs are a lumber product that reduces thermal bridging through the use of dowels and spray foam insulation. By separating the stud into dowels and webs this product allows the insulation to pass through the internal and external web virtually eliminating the thermal bridging. Although T-studs are not cheap compared to their standard stud counterparts costing as much as 4x the price. Using T-studs is a long-term play as you recapture the additional cost over time. I believe their price will come down as they scale up and are able to manufacture more of them in less time. These are just a few examples of how to design and build more sustainable structures.

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Why Does Green Building Design Matter?

From saving you money to saving the planet green building offers us the opportunity to increase our own well-being by living with our environment instead of against it. Knowing the right information and how the products we select are not only benefiting us locally but globally is important. Having an understanding of life cycle cost and carbon footprints allows us to truly evaluate how impactful we are being. Designing and building more sustainable structures is easy. It’s easy to improve because it is so rare to see any sustainable thought going into most homes today. Building more sustainable shouldn’t be a struggle but a more natural move, pun intended.

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