The good news is that many building decisions regarding green and efficiency are driven by code and building science.
These will generally get you to the building you are required to have. Getting the building you want takes a little more effort and a lot more knowledge. That knowledge, however, can be organized into a few key tips:
How green do you want your building materials? The bottom line for green materials: forget all the media hype and branding claims. The things that make something green versus not are the green standards. All building materials have standards; green standards identify the product’s attributes that help it pollute less, use fewer virgin materials or use less water or energy. Paint, for example, can have huge impact on the quality of your indoor air. If you want a building that does not make you sick, reference the green standards which restrict emissions that affect indoor air pollution and can cause health risks to occupants. Most, if not all, building materials have green standards that you can reference to assure how you will feel in your new space.
What energy performance level? Energy performance is easily measured with your utility bill, capturing both electric and gas use. The oft-used term “net zero” refers to a building that, over the course of a year, creates all of its energy on site and does not take energy from the utility grid — netting a zero energy use. This, however, does not provide the entire picture. Energy performance includes where and how energy is being used, not just how much is offset by onsite renewable energy.
The first consideration in energy performance is to reduce the energy need. For example, in an office setting, the No. 1 electricity use is lighting. Building science will assist in selecting the most energy-efficient light fixtures and installing motion sensors to turn off lights in an empty space. Electric lights, however, never have been proved to increase occupant wellbeing, Daylight has — and, if designed for correctly, can increase a building’s energy performance and create wellbeing in the form of less absenteeism, increased learning capacity, and quicker healing. And it’s free!
Whenever there is an energy-use consideration, lurking close by there is usually a regenerative option such as daylight, sunshine, precipitation or wind.
What about material efficiency? The building-material market is flooded with recycled and bio content, sustainably harvested and local products. This is capitalism at its best; the market has stepped up to provide more responsible materials. What is rarely considered is the possibility of using fewer materials. For example, a structural floor, be it concrete or a wood deck, to remain as the finished floor; or that the wall is one product including structure, insulation and finishes (such as an SIP-structural insulated panel). Material that will age in place, grow a patina, and become more beautiful with time will not only use resources more efficiently at installation but will continue to save maintenance time, money, and material as well as provide a beauty bonus.
How do we want to feel in our new space? I am pretty sure this question is rarely if ever asked. Yet, we spend up to 90 percent of our time in buildings which can impact our physical and emotional health. Think about what you want your building to give back to you. Health? Joy? Inspiration?
A quick recap of the tips to getting the building you want:
• Ask for the green standard for your materials and systems so you can decide what attributes are green for you.
• Consider a regenerative option for your materials and systems which can often reduce energy use and create wellbeing.
• Use fewer materials and no finish materials that can age in place.
• Don’t forget to put the question of how you will feel in the space on the table. After all, it is your building, and you should get what you want.
ml Robles, an architect at Studio Points and a researcher at PatternMapping, is author of the “Better Buildings Guide.” She can be reached at 303-443-1945 or firstname.lastname@example.org.