Residential sustainability at two different scales
Projects in two different cities provide proof that sustainable design methods can be applied to homes in ways large and small.
Climate change is hitting an inflection point. In the last few weeks alone, people around the world have protested to advocate for institutional action to mitigate the effects of climate change. While more than 600 firms have signed AIA’s 2030 Commitment to date, the 2012 U.S. Economic Census found there were 20,869 operating architecture firms in the country; that’s an adoption rate of just under 3%.
To help push the 2030 Commitment forward and bring broader awareness to architects’ roles in combating climate change, the AIA Board of Directors recently ratified a resolution to “prioritize and support urgent climate action to exponentially accelerate the ‘decarbonization’ of building, the building sector and the built environment.” AIA’s long-standing efforts toward greater sustainability in the built environment have culminated with the association’s announcement of Big Move Toward Environmental Stewardship.
And design excellence is set to be a big part of the conversation.
“We treat design and sustainability as completely separate things,” says architect, writer, and environmental advocate, Lance Hosey, FAIA. “Sustainability is seen as a technical strategy instead of a design strategy,” he says. For this to change, a holistic approach that weaves sustainability into the very fabric of architectural thinking is necessary.
There are two projects that might lead the way: a 70,000 square foot mixed-use affordable housing development in a small city in upstate New York designed to be net-zero and a small accessory structure rising in the backyard of a home in a historic Washington D.C. neighborhood designed to maximize energy-efficiency while providing a healthful, volatile organic compound (VOC)-free environment.
Taken together, these two distinct projects showcase how architects are employing systems-thinking approaches toward incorporating sustainable design and building practices. They epitomize how architects can employ sustainability at every scale, in every environment.
A grass house grows
The Grass House, designed by bld.us, the firm of Jack Becker, AIA, and Andrew Linn, sits proudly and politely in the backyard of an 1892 Queen Anne Victorian, across the street from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Anacostia, a historic D.C. neighborhood. The home serves as the workspace and library for the firm.
The project is the first on the East Coast to be completed using BamCore, a structurally solid timber bamboo. The home is insulated with sheep’s wool. Its dark earthen hues evoke wilderness; its tight enclosure and urban siting inspire community.
Linn describes their design process as being akin to other cultural touchstones where sustainability has become de rigueur, or even aspirational. “We were looking to do something more in line with the farm-to-table [food] movement,” he says, “than with high-tech, technological energy efficiency.”
The building serves as an updated model of traditional American craftsmanship, taking inspiration from Eric Sloane’s “A Reverence for Wood.” Sloane’s soft polemic, which reads like an architectural paean penned by Wendell Berry, elevates the seeming simplicity of early American building materials into a treatise on the ingenuity and resiliency of the country’s early European settlers from the colonial era through the beginnings of the 20th century.
Linn and Becker filter this ethos through a contemporary design lens, knowing the challenges of today equal the economic and environmental vulnerability of earlier ages, and that an appropriate architectural response can serve as a model for building anew. “Even though we’re using new products, using modern technologies, we’re looking at the Arts & Crafts movement for inspiration,” says Linn.
The materiality of The Grass House consists mainly of Bamcore, a bamboo-based structural plywood system. Bamcore, based in Windsor, CA, was founded in 2008, but according to Zack Zimmerman, director of business development, it “didn’t hit commercialization until 2016.” That year, Bamcore received code compliance by the IBC, deemed ready and applicable for use. For Zimmerman, using bamboo as a building material is a no-brainer.
“It’s used heavily [as a building material] where it’s grown,” he says. “It’s the strongest and fastest growing mechanical fiber. Why haven’t we used it? Because soft woods grow here; bamboo doesn’t.”
Bamcore intends to make timber bamboo a standardized building product. The majority of their bamboo is sourced from Colombia and Guatemala, and they are now in talks with a number of builders nationwide for projects at larger scales, including condos, a commercial winery, and a 5-story, 78,000 square foot hotel in Petaluma, Calif . Its ease of use is a selling point. With panels delivered from Bamcore precut to client tastes, it reduces construction costs and time. For Linn and Becker, The Grass House grew in three days.
For Linn, one of the benefits of Bamcore was “the need for less materiality”. The precut plywood system eliminates the need for studs, simplifying the structural elements and opening up the ability to use, as in The Grass House’s case, non-hazardous insulation such as sheep’s wool. The building had no need to off-gas, no VOCs present. It is a breathing structure.
The motivation of the project, according to Linn, was to see “what healthy building materials can we bring into our vocabulary.” In 2019, AIA|DC issued a Chapter Design Award to The Grass House. The home was also awarded a 2019 Washingtonian Residential Design Award.
Context-sensitive design meets energy-efficiency and affordability
RUPCO is a non-profit, affordable housing developer in Kingston, NY. The small Hudson River Valley city, approximately 90 miles north of New York, has the architectural heft of a place many times its size, playing host to pre-Revolutionary War stone constructions and buildings of Dutch, Germanic, Italianate and Industrial-era lineage.
According to Kevin O’Connor, chief executive officer of RUPCO, the organization applied green principles to their operations back in 2006, joining the U.S. Green Building Council, and conducting an environmental audit of their operations in 2010. Their developments increasingly featured green and sustainable elements as well. One project had a geothermal system installed in its parking lot; another, an affordable housing development for artists, boasts one of the largest residential solar arrays in the region.
When RUPCO was approached to redevelop the site of a former bowling alley into a mixed-use affordable housing development, directly off the city’s main thoroughfare, they decided to up the ante and go for “net-zero for living.”
“Energy is one of the big exacerbating costs of affordable housing,” explains O’Connor. “We are in a leadership position to show how these projects can be realized.”
To help them bring that realization into focus, RUPCO tapped Dutton Architecture, a Kingston-based firm and oft-time partner of the organization. Principal Scott Dutton, AIA, and senior architect Chris Smailer were tasked with translating the stated ambition into an actionable program, while also being sensitive to the historic architectural fabric surrounding the site.
The result is Energy Square, a four-story, 70,000 square foot building housing 57 housing units, a rooftop park, community space and the new headquarters for the Center for Creative Education, an arts and wellness educator for low-income, minority and at-risk youth.
“The drive to achieve net-zero informed every decision we had to make [regarding the design],” says Dutton. Smailer adds, “And understanding that that one decision is related to eight other pieces of the puzzle.”
Before they could design the building, Dutton and Smailer had to design the framework that could readily test their ideas against net-zero feasibility. What emerged was a process, developed in concert with energy consultants, to look at how every component part of the building worked in tandem to achieve its stated sustainability goal.
A working model emerged in which the introduction of necessary design elements was gauged through energy models, and then re-run through the schematics. Energy Square is the interplay between the two.
“All of the elements become organized communication,” says Dutton, likening their process to an inversion of typical architectural practices where the design can dictate direction; for Energy Square, the inputs directed toward net-zero – in addition to more traditional challenges like zoning requirements - dictated design.
Working within a constrained urban site required Dutton and Smailer to produce a vertical orientation of the building. This density added another challenge to meeting the net-zero goal. Pasquale Strocchia, principal of Integral Building + Design, the main energy-efficiency consultancy who helped guide the process for Energy Square, says, “the denser a project, the more units it has, the greater amount of energy required.”
Yet this tension was resolved through the careful balance of systems – geothermal and photovoltaic; materiality – double-hung windows, masonry walls, and dry foam framing; and aesthetic sensitivity to the vernacular and character of the surrounding streets. And of course, staying aligned with partners to meet the intended goals.
Which evokes another of Hosey’s core beliefs: that for architects to truly adopt sustainability into the practices, that “the solution will not be a technical, but a cultural one.”
Ben Schulman is a writer and editor based in New York’s Hudson River Valley. His work focuses on architecture, urban planning, and policy.