Gaines Group Architects
vegetated roof

30 things you can do to make your commercial building Earth Friendly

30 things you can do to make your commercial building Earth Friendly

How do you start? How do you create a commercial building that is sustainable? Here are 30 things you can do to make your commercial building Earth Friendly. Click the links and learn more.
  1. Upgrade the fiberglass insulation to foam
  2. If you cannot afford better insulation – make the building air tight as a minimum
  3. Install a solar thermal system to produce hot water
  4. Add more insulation in the atticharrisonburg energy audit
  5. integrate pre-heated warm air into the HVAC system
  6. Add natural light where you canChesapeake Western Depot Harrisonburg
  7. Use the floor as mass storage by installing dark tile or leaving concrete exposed and adjust overhangs to allow sunlight in the winter and shading in the summer
  8. install a better water heater
  9. install a light-colored roof
  10. look at USDA grants, “solar barn raising”, or federal tax credit options for adding solar PVsolar photo-voltaic dairy queen
  11. Move the HVAC systems in the attic inside of conditioned spaces instead of outside the thermal envelope
  12. install better windows
  13. install operable windows so you can breathe fresh air
  14. insulate under entire slab
  15. select energy star appliances
  16. install motion sensors on lights in restrooms and sleeping rooms
  17. install motion sensor on bath fans with a timer
  18. select products that are no voc
  19. install a rainscreen behind siding to prevent moisture in walls
  20. Keep plants away from exterior walls and HVAC equipment
  21. collect rainwater in a cistern20150630_142909
  22. Advocate for measuring the Energy Use Intensity to know how efficient the building will be
  23. Check the comprehensive plan for your community to see if they say anything like “we will have an environmental performance standard”
  24. make it easy for someone to bike to work by installing bike racks
  25. understand carbon
  26. reduce stormwater runoff
  27. install a vegetated roof20150630_142856-01
  28. install water conserving fixtures
  29. require a duct leakage test on the ductwork after installation
  30. set up a recycling center in the facility so product does not go to the landfill – if it is not easy people will not do it
solar photovoltaic

Green Design vs Design – What Do You Want?

Green designWe have built a solid reputation for delivering “green” architectural design for our clients. We were even named the “best small architecture firm” in the USGBC Best of Building Awards – that was a worldwide vote – fairly cool – showing our dedication to “going green.” Green design is simply a solution that is healthy, energy-efficient, and durable for our clients who want their homes to be green. Our designs are healthy through selecting products that do not off-gas dangerous chemicals and by using a HVAC system that includes a proper ventilation / fresh air strategy. Energy-efficiency is gained through an in-depth understanding of building science. Durability is included by selecting quality products that are proven to last without regular maintenance.

Green designRecently I heard from another architect that his clients simply do not want “green” design so he does not focus on it. My question to him – “so your clients want buildings that make them sick, are expensive to condition, and are hard to maintain.” Of course his answer was NO. His clients in fact want green design, they just don’t call it “green”.

We should call green design just simply design. If we are doing our job right as an architect, we should be delivering the highest value to our clients. Design should be built upon building science solutions that create healthy, energy-efficient, and durable structures to live, work, and play in. We should not have to decide whether or not to “go green;” it should just be the best solution.



Can you live in a “tiny” home? What is “right sized?”

The tiny house movement has gained a huge amount of momentum since Katrina Cottages became mainstream news. Do you think you can live in 150 sf? What about 6oo sf? So what is a tiny house to you?


When designing a green home determining the right size for you is as important as designing for energy-efficiency. Conserving resources comes in many forms in the building industry. Local resources are a huge part of creating a sustainable solution as well as making your home energy-efficient. However, both of these strategies are directly dependent on the size of your home. How much space do you really need to live life to the fullest?

Nelson County Custom Home

Making your home right sized takes careful thought and planning. There are no universal sizes for a dining room that works for all families. How do you use the space, do you even need the space? Learning how you live life, think about planning for the future ways you may live, and working through your personal values will inform size of rooms. Taking care to think through these questions is one of the more important aspects of the design process. These are the kind of questions that come with custom design and does not get addressed when purchasing plans online or from a drafter. 
Mt Crawford Basement Renovation
So what is the right size home for you? How many bedrooms do you need? Do you need a formal living room, what about a dining room? How much time will you spend in the bonus room, how much stuff do you have that you need to store in the off-season (decorations, sports equipment, keepsakes)? Perhaps a 150 sf house is too small for you, but maybe we can reduce your 2,500 sf program into a 2,000 functional solution with a little conversation.

Design Matters – why it matters to me and I want it to matter to you.

Design – Why it matters to me.

I blog a lot about building science, the importance of holistic design, and occasionally local business leaders. I have told stories about a typical day in the life of an architect, the value of memberships in industry organizations, and my daughter’s view of the world – “you just have to stop being lazy and fix things.” It takes about two hours to put together a meaningful blog post (1 hour if I keep it short). I have posted 379 entries to my blog and responded to 256 comments over a span of three years. This is the equivalent of almost 19 full weeks of work. So why do I spend my time writing stories, posting ideas, and celebrating local business? Why do I repeat stories about design and spend energy pushing for better solutions?

CAPS Harrisonburg

Design – Why it matters to me.

My blog is an outlet for me to help the community understand the value of design. Most people, myself included at times, are willing to accept something that is convenient even if it is not exactly right. Design often not the first criteria as we often don’t know how to evaluate good design vs bad design. A loaf of bread could look terrible and taste incredible, it is not just about aesthetics. A car could be beat up on the outside and still get good gas mileage, it is not just performance. A store could be an energy hog and still carry the brands we love, it is not just function.When design is done right, a loaf of bread look as good as it tastes and is nutrient filled using local healthy ingredients. Design matters because it makes the world, our community, our lives better. Holistic questions are required to understand the full impact of design on the buildings, tools, cars, and clothes we encounter everyday. A comfortable shirt that did not use toxic chemicals in the manufacturing will not be more comfortable (well maybe it will you should test that theory) – however, the community will be better off for you selecting that shirt. Design is holistic, it should not be limited to one aspect of the solution but should cover all aspects.










Design – Why it matters to me.

Buildings are huge energy, resource, and water hogs. Your home, your business, your shopping destinations have a huge impact on your health, comfort, and vitality. Living and working in a healthy building will contribute to you living a more full healthy life. Knowing that you have minimized your impact on your neighborhood, community, and world resources will give you peace of mind. Holistic design that focuses on aesthetics, building science, function, durability, and resources is the only way to achieve this peace of mind. These are things I understand and want to share with readers.

Home Show









Design – Why it matters to me.

Design that Matters is my goal for every project. My blog is simply a place where I can share ideas. I hope you enjoy my rantings, benefit from my experience. If nothing else, the next time you are making a decision for a building (home or office) I hope my posts have given you enough information to look beyond aesthetics.

Simple solutions that reduce energy consumption – transpired solar collector


In the commercial building world, design is often overlooked from the performance side. The focus often goes to aesthetics and maximizing the built area while balancing the environmental impacts on the surrounding site(s). The indoor environmental quality and energy consumption of the building design is left out of the process. This is a huge mistake in this competitive new economy where every dollars spent is critical to the success of future tenants of your building.

One easy way to reduce energy usage in a commercial building is through the implementation of a transpired solar collector. A transpired solar collector is an air-preheating system. The sun hits a south facing (dark colored) vertical wall and gets hot. Tiny perforations in this exterior rainscreen panel allow the warm air to rise in a cavity that can then be incorporated into your heating strategy. In the cooling season this air collection system can bypass vents effectively creating a heat dump and reducing cooling loads in your facility.

A transpired solar collector is just one of many low cost solutions that can make your commercial development more competitive. A focus on daylighting, durability, and indoor environmental quality are also critical. While the first question a potential tenant asks is probably not about monthly energy consumption and durability, these are the answers you can provide that will set you project ahead of the competition.



My journey with Climate Change as an architect. Trying to find a design solution to save the world.

In 1994 I started my career as an architectural student at a University focused on sustainable design. We did not call it that yet, but the name came soon. William McDonough, that year, was named a hero of the planet by Time Magazine for his innovative design work. He was the new Dean at The University of Virginia School of Architecture and was setting a new direction for what architects investigated. The discussions had started about reducing energy use, healthy materials, and conservation.

When I graduated in 1999 I started pushing for different design solutions, better solutions for the “because that is the way we always do it” ways in our industry. I was young and thought I could change minds. I asked a lot of questions. I challenged a lot of answers. I am lucky I did not get fired. I am lucky I did not get kicked off of job sites. I had little influence. I was viewed as “full of unrealistic ideas” learned in academia that don’t apply to the real world.

I left the “real world” for Graduate School for a couple of years to figure out my beliefs about design. At The University of Tennessee I studied sustainable design, LEED, and building science. I learned that there was a strong movement in the industry, it just was not mainstream. When I returned to the industry in 2003, things had changed. I joined a committee that eventually adopted the EarthCraft building standard statewide in Virginia. I designed the first LEED for Homes project in the Southeastern United States. I had traction on job sites with changing some minds. It was still a limited influence and not mainstream.

In 2006 the movie An Inconvenient Truth was released and the conversation became mainstream. The economy was booming but trouble was on the horizon. The discussion became political thanks to Al Gore. The discussion became unpopular thanks to the economic collapse in 2007/2008 (and because it became political).

Here is just a brief look at the evolution of media coverage on a topic of global warming.

January 2007

March 2007

April 2007

April 2007

August 2007

Notice the gap here as the debate heated up between the new ‘sides’ believers vs deniers. The conversation seems to have disappeared from mainstream media. Where it was once covered and debated it turned to political fights. The conversation turned to who is right rather than how can we fix it. It became a choice to go green or not. I have always seen it as doing it right – which does not leave a choice.

April 2009

November 2009

Now that disaster has hit one of the highest populations areas in the United States I wonder if we will continue to debate how to deal with it? I wonder if we will continue debating if it is real?

August 2012

September 2012

There are solutions that we can implement now. Will it slow down climate change? Will it reverse climate change? I don’t know, but for 20 years now I have stood by the same position: We know how to do it better, it does not cost more to do it right, and it is the least we can do for the next generation. 

Timberlake Place – Affordable Elderly Housing in Charlottesville

There is nothing better than working with great clients on projects that offer the community a great resource. Timberlake Place is that type of project in Charlottesville. The end result will be 27 affordable, green, apartments in town that are designed for people of any ability. These homes are located on a bus line, has a planned community garden, and a conservation area on the site. There is no better feeling that getting to work on a project with such a good purpose. Check the links for some press we received from the local news media.

I always wonder, why doesn’t the reporter ask the designer about the project for stories on the design of the project? If anyone knows, let me know.

Timberlake PlaceTimberlake PlaceTimberlake Place

For more thoughts on saving money, protecting the environment, and on architectural design visit my websites:

Value Added Design – Go Green

Reblog from

The construction industry is slowly recovering from a dismal couple of years and there appears to be hope on the horizon.  U.S. architectural firms have reported the fifth straight month that billings have held their own or increased, with a modest improvement in March over the February numbers. Inquiries for work remain strong and competition among firms is even stronger. It appears that our new economic reality is here: lower fees, shorter deadlines, and higher demands. This reality is not really any different than the last economy with the exception of more firms competing for smaller and smaller projects. So what is the next big thing that can help you stay ahead of the competition? Based on our experience, it continues to be that politically polarizing word ‘green.’
The term ‘green’ is the worst (and best) thing that could have possibly happened to the building industry. We took a concept that has existed since the beginning of our industry and put a label on it, which then provided consumers with a choice. Do you want code minimum (the worst possible construction that is allowed by law) or do you want a higher quality?  Even worse, we allowed the option of going ‘green’ to become a political issue. Is your building contributing to global warming, destroying local streams, or causing your employees to get sick? The up side to naming the movement ‘green’ is that we are now engaged in a conversation about building science, health in buildings, and the availability of resources. Our clients are asking us to use local materials and recycled content. Consumers know what FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) is and can make a value judgment as to the importance to them. The tools that have been developed, such as LEED, EarthCraft, and Energy Star, allow us to have a measure of how sensitive our buildings are compared to other buildings that also use those same tools. We are engaged in a dialog about types of energy production, government subsidies that support popular energy options, and the need for development of local energy options.  We have political figures debating the merit of funding a solar project, geo-fracking, and wind turbines. There is a whole new world of opportunities and conversations in front of us that probably would not be happening without the term ‘green’ being introduced.
The term ‘green’ has certainly added to our need to stay on the cutting edge to understand the holistic picture when we are designing buildings and developing. So with all the extra issues that we now have to face, does ‘green’ really matter? I believe that it simply means ‘doing your job to the best of your ability with the best information available at a given time.’ It is our responsibility to our clients to have healthy debates on subjects that will impact the quality of the product we deliver to them. For instance, should we advocate for solar photovoltaic (PV) panels in Virginia where traditional energy is really cheap and PV is rather expensive? Or should we simply push for more insulation in the building, which would be less expensive and easier to estimate timely payback? The other option is to assume that code minimum is enough. Why else would it be the code? Sure there are still going to be clients that are looking for the least amount of up-front cost. However, I believe as construction professionals we have an ethical duty to provide our clients with the option to cut their overhead for the project by reducing utility costs. For a developer that will not inhabit the space, sure that is sometimes a tough sell, but as energy prices keep rising and businesses are asking questions about utility rates, it might make their project a bigger success. If we can keep finding common sense ways to integrate sound construction practices into our designs that save clients’ money, shouldn’t we all ‘go green’ if that is the label we have to work under?
I have heard the debates about having governments mandate building to a green standard. If they have the result of decreasing the demand on the public infrastructure and my future taxes, it seems like a good thing. Since government buildings are run using our hard earned tax dollars, requiring them to be as efficient as possible seems to make sense. They should not invest in experimental green practices, but should incorporate proven options that result in less energy and water used (and most important, money spent in the life of the building). On the other side, for private developers, if building to green standards slows development and pushes factories and businesses to other areas, it is not a good idea. I do believe that a business that has a long range business plan should take into account the utility savings it will experience from a well-designed building, whether it is LEED certified or not. I think we should give incentives to build energy efficient green buildings because, again, it will reduce the need for future infrastructure upgrades. So as the debate goes on about how the government should be involved in the green movement, clients continue to come to me looking for common sense solutions that add value to their projects. I see that market demand is working, and informed developers want the added value that ‘green’ options provide. They are able to market their buildings not only as green, but as requiring less money to operate.
To me the real debate should be focused on how to build healthy buildings. It seems we should be well beyond the basic debate of reducing our energy and water use. We should be asking how we can build buildings that make the occupants healthier, happier, and more productive. As a designer, I want to explore the options that not only add value through good design and construction practices, but also through healthier and happier employees. It has been shown that people learn more, work better, and recuperate faster in buildings that embrace biophilic design. The idea of learning how to make buildings better by looking at nature is the next step in our green movement. Are there elements, colors, and shapes that we can incorporate into a building that will reduce stress and anxiety and help with focus? By giving views to the outside and access to natural light, will employees work harder and be more productive? I believe we should be exploring these concepts while we continue to investigate our understanding of building science. We need to have a holistic approach to building that takes into account more than just initial cost.
So as the economic recovery slowly creeps into our market, I continue to investigate options, techniques, and theories that allow me to offer higher value to my clients. Sure, there are always going to be those that accept and even demand code minimum solutions, but there is also a huge market of clients looking for added value.