Green Design on a Roll: Economics and Environment Align for Energy-Efficient Buildings

Article excerpt

Lindsay Suter, a green architect in Connecticut, made a vow. He wasn't going to design mega mansions or outsized additions. Instead, he was going to devote 100 percent of his practice to environmentally themed designs. It's a promise he kept.

Suter lives in a 220-year-old former grain mill next to a dammed river in North Branford, with solar panels on the roof. He admits that leaf-shaded Connecticut river valleys are not necessarily the best place for photovoltaics (PV), but he's been stymied in the green home project he'd most like to see realized: hydroelectric power. "Every time I look outside at the dam I see four or five kilowatts going over the top," he says.

The regulations that have held up Suter's hydroelectric project are the same ones that prevent a lot of destructive development in wetlands. But the old ways of doing things tend to slow down what would otherwise be a full-fledged green design revolution. Many of the concepts have been around for decades, even before the first Earth Day in 1970, but new design improvements and price reductions for green materials (coupled with the high cost of fuel) have made green design practical and cost-effective.

John Rountree calls himself a solar architect, but his projects in that field were few and far between in the 1990s, when systems were expensive and required a lengthy wait for return on investment. Today, Connecticut-based Westport Solar Consultants is thriving, partly because photovoltaics have come of age, and partly because the utility-funded Clean Energy Fund was created by the state legislature, with a $21 million budget for residential renewable projects. For solar, homeowners can receive awards of $5 per installed watt (up to a $25,000 maximum), which effectively means they can offset half the cost of installing PV. And there's a $2,000 federal tax credit, too.

"Global warming has become a household word, thanks in part to Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth," says Rountree. "A few years ago green design work was three percent of my business; now it's 20 percent. People want solar on their existing houses, or an addition with solar integrated into it." And incorporating solar is easier than ever, because six companies now make roof-integrated PV systems that do away with unsightly freestanding panels. Two of Rountree's clients have also installed home-based geothermal systems.

"The people who do these projects are highly educated, and they understand the ramifications of high energy use," Rountree says. "Their motivation is largely environmental, because there's still no immediate payback."

Colleges have also become hotbeds of green design, generating interest in a new crop of consumers. David W. Orr is director of the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College in Ohio and author of Design on the Edge: The Making of a High-Performance Building (MIT Press). The college practices what it preaches, having just completed a cutting-edge green building, the Adam Joseph Lewis Center. Designing the building was a 10-year effort, led by some of the premier thinkers in the field, including architect William McDonough, energy guru Amory Lovins and closed-loop "living system" pioneer John Todd. "There wasn't the integrated design expertise in any one firm," Orr says, "so we put together an all-star team."

The solar-powered building processes all its own wastewater through Todd's Living Machine, incorporates recycled and reused materials, and is surrounded by native plant gardens. The two solar installations, 59 kilowatts on the roof and 100 on the ground, generate 30 percent more power than the building can use. Because Ohio is a "net metering" state, Oberlin can sell its excess electricity back to the grid to offset its expenses. …