Experts Give Their Wisdom On Today’s Best Sustainable Building Practices

As the world confronts the urgent realities of climate change, top architects are reconsidering the way we live, pioneering new approaches to building in the fight to reduce carbon emissions. So what makes a house most sustainable today? AD asks the experts, capturing their latest wisdom—and rounding up some inspiring and environmentally friendly new finds along the way.

Earlier this year, a modernist mansion overlooking Biscayne Bay, marketed as the only solar-powered house in Miami Beach, sold for $15.25 million. By some estimates, the 112 photovoltaic panels on its roof are enough to operate the entire 5,500-square-foot building for weeks—or even months.

Does that mean the house is green? As with so many things, definitions matter. Building a house—a process that can include pouring concrete, importing marble, and forging steel—requires vast amounts of energy. Producing that energy releases tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, exacerbating the “greenhouse-gas effect” that causes climate change. In fact, buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. And much of that isn’t from operational energy—the electricity to power lights and air-conditioning—but from energy used to construct the buildings in the first place. That’s known as embodied energy.

Architect Michael Green worked to minimize embodied energy when updating a 1912 North Vancouver house.

Architect Michael Green worked to minimize embodied energy when updating a 1912 North Vancouver house.

“There’s no denying that homes of this size and complexity contain lots of embodied energy,” says architect Max Strang, who designed the Miami Beach residence. He hopes that the solar panels will produce enough excess energy to pay off some of that debt over time. “To not try to offset embodied energy would just be sitting idly by,” Strang says.

But that repayment could take 100 years or more. Today, Strang and his peers are grappling with the reality that the world doesn’t have that kind of time. “If we’re going to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is the goal of the Paris agreement—or anything close to that—we’re going to have to deal with embodied energy right now,” says Vancouver architect Michael Green.

So when Green renovated a 1912 craftsman-style house in North Vancouver for a couple with grown children, the did whatever he could to minimize the energy expended. “The first green thing we did was to not tear down the house. Reusing what you’ve got is a big part of sustainability,” he says. And when he enlarged the back of the house, he chose wood as the main structural material. Unlike steel and concrete, wood is created “using the power of the sun,” he says. “I’d rather use photosynthesis than photovoltaics,” he adds, meaning that reducing embodied energy now, by choosing wood, is better than trying to produce more energy in the future. (Particularly because it takes a lot of energy just to manufacture PV panels.)

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Solo House, a prototype by Perkins&Will, follows 
passive house principles.

Andrew Latreille

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On Whidbey island in Washington, architecture firm Miller Hull used reclaimed materials and a 
modest footprint to minimize environmental impact.

LEED, the leading “green” building-certification system, puts little weight on embodied energy, which is why architects are turning to apps- like Tally (from the Philadelphia architecture firm KieranTimberlake) to add up the energy that goes into their buildings. Even with an app, computing a building’s embodied energy isn’t easy. But common sense goes a long way. The less you build, and the less concrete and steel you use, the better. And the less shipping you have to do, the better. Thomas Bercy and Calvin Chen of the Austin architecture firm Bercy Chen Studio tend to use stone rather than concrete whenever possible—it requires no energy to produce and, because they work with local quarries, little energy to transport to the building site. When designing a private house on Whidbey Island, outside Seattle, local architecture firm Miller Hull used reclaimed materials (some from another home in the clients’ family) wherever they could.

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