Charles has the pleasure of speaking about building science and sustainable design in a variety of venues and to diverse groups of people. His years of experience speaking on these topics has given him an insightful perspective on the future of sustainable design and building. Below, he shares his thoughts on the future and the hope he feels in the progress to be made.
I have been on a “lecture circuit” discussing building science and sustainable design since 2005 when I designed what would become, one of the first LEED Certified homes in the country. Ray Gaines is the architect of record for that project and our entire team was part of the process. As I continue to learn more about sustainability including the economics of climate change, I evolve in the knowledge I am capable to share. However, the building science basics have not changed in all that time. We have seen tremendous progress in what we can achieve in energy efficiency and healthy indoor environments, new products have entered our market to make some things easier, and we have found more and more demand for healthy, energy-efficient, and durable design solutions. The only thing that remains constant is the building science.
One of the key things to understand when talking about sustainable design comes from a phrase I heard many times while attending UVA to study architecture: “We have not learned how to be good, just less bad.” The inherent nature of creating places for us to live, work, play is that we have a negative impact on the environment that existed before we got there. We dig a hole, use chemicals, cut down trees, use valuable resources to create and define a space. Don’t get me wrong, we have come a very long way since I began learning about sustainable design. Our solutions today are tremendously better than what we were doing in 2000 or even in 2005 when we used LEED for Homes to measure our success. We have better products that are softer on the environment. Our buildings are even more energy efficient. We better understand how to minimize our carbon footprint. We know how to better manage site disturbance. However, at the end of the process we are still not creating healthy regenerative environments that benefit the overall environment. Ultimately, we continue being “less bad”.
I think there is certainly hope for a future where we can build regenerative environments to live, work, and play. I see glimpses of it now with clean energy installations, vegetative walls and roofs, and biophilic design strategies. I see our industry moving towards holistic design solutions that acknowledge our contribution to climate change and environmental degradation and a desire to fix our problems. The AIA code of ethics in fact demands that all architects take up this challenge and design better and more holistic solutions. Even the building code minimums that we see numerous buildings built to meet has embraced the need for energy-efficiency to our carbon emissions.
While we have no shortage of challenges ahead, I see many that are rising to meet them. I see architects coming together to figure out best practices and understand building science. There are new products coming to market that embrace a healthier future, some will work, and some will not, but we have to test and experiment to find the right path. I see hope in the generations ahead and their desire to take on these challenges and solve some big problems in new, inclusive, and holistic ways. We are moving in the right direction, slowly, but we are still moving.
When you think of great public buildings, what comes to mind? A particular museum in Washington D.C.?
Perhaps a World Heritage Site?
I agree these are architectural treasures, however, I want to raise the question about ALL the everyday public buildings in our community. A great public building does not have to make a significant architectural statement – although as an architect I would prefer them to be at least architecturally interesting. It should be functional, economical to maintain, and last for many decades without the need for major modification.
Good design is the key for our public buildings and as a result highly qualified firms are procured to design them. These firms are given standards to meet and most often the hardest standard is a very tight budget for up front construction costs. This is where the train has gone off the tracks. Building to the tightest construction budget and only requiring the building meet code minimum standards does not provide for a great public building. Our most precious resource is the future costs of these buildings. Our tax dollars go towards maintenance of materials, energy costs, and the productivity of the workers inside them. A building that is expected to last decades MUST be healthy, energy-efficient, and durable or we are wasting our tax dollars on a daily basis. If you can construct a building that is enjoyable to work in, has healthy indoor air quality, require little maintenance, and is extremely energy-efficient for the same amount of money annually as one that is simply a lower cost to build, has minimal standards for energy efficiency, indoor air quality, or quality of life, which is better. One option will save you money during construction. The other option will save you money on a annual basis for decades.
Building Code: set of standards established and enforced by local government for the structural safety of buildings.
The building code is simply a set of rules that set minimum standards for construction of structures – the absolute worst possible construction allowed by law. The purpose of the building code is to protect health, safety, and general welfare as they relate to the construction and occupancy of buildings. It is not intended to be the final goal for a project. I remember in the late 90’s when the construction industry was humming along, one local builder advertised on television that he built to code. That commercial used to frustrate me since everyone is required to build to code – he was spending a lot of money on television ads to say nothing. So why did he do it? Why brag that you are only building to the minimum standard allowed by law? Somehow in our industry, that has become a measure of quality. We have somehow allowed the general public to accept a minimum standard as good enough.
In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the governing code is called the Virginia Uniform Building Code (USBC). It is an adaptation of the International Building Code and the International Residential Building Code. It sets standards for wind loads (these seem to be on the minds of clients after the devastating tornadoes in the mid-west), snow loads, occupancy, sprinkler, and egress requirements and many other aspects of the built environment. It does nothing, however, to set a standard for the quality, durability, and comfort of the construction. These added requirements can only come from design. You have to look beyond code compliance and ask harder questions of your building materials and technologies to create a lasting, efficient, durable, and healthy built solution. Again, code is simply the minimum allowed by law, it is not quality construction.
Don’t get me wrong, having a minimum allowed by law is a good thing. It gives us all some assurance that when we walk into a building it will remain standing, the roof will remain attached, and the average size person will not fall over railings on the porch. However, building code is slow to adapt to building science and material technology development. The only way to get better buildings is to create demand for better buildings. You have to ask the right questions of your builder and architect to get the desired level of quality you expect and deserve. “Because that is the way we always do it” only works if a new better way to solve the problems it “always creates” has not been found. For instance, there are new ways to lay tile in a bathroom that are much better than the old way of laying it directly on the plywood sub-floor. Those VOC laden products that worked so well in years past have equal quality and performance substitutes that have eliminated the toxic off-gassing of their predecessors. We know more about air sealing and insulation products that make the old way of insulating a home obsolete and potentially hazardous. Advancing technology and tested solutions are not code mandated, they are driven by builders and designers looking to add quality to their projects through understanding the latest science of building. The “because that is the way we always do it” builders are falling behind in the latest building science understanding. They are simply delivering shiny boxes with little consideration to performance, durability, or occupant comfort.
You have all the power in the world to make the construction industry, the built environment, and the homes and offices we spend all our time inside of energy-efficient, healthier, and more durable. You must create the demand for higher performance, better value, and a more sustainable future. Code is not going to solve the problems we face in the coming years. Demand more and I guarantee this industry will meet your call.