San Diego Business Journal

Goals Include a Decrease in the Consumption of Resources

Sustainable Design Aims for Energy-Efficient Buildings

Special to the Business Journal

Since 1940, we have used as much of the earth's mineral resources as all of humanity's previous generations combined.

Sustainable design is an approach to building that protects the natural environment and creates healthy indoor spaces. Although sustainable design is currently enjoying resurgence in popularity, some of the best examples date back to past civilizations.

For example, the cliff dwellings of the Southwest feature high mass walls that temper the transfer of heat and cold as well as south-facing orientations, that optimize sunlight in winter while providing solar shading in the summer.

These sustainable design strategies , high mass walls and building integrated shading ,are still logical, cheap and easy to implement. However, the industrial age gave the Western world access to cheap energy, which made it easier to harvest the earth's natural resources and to provide artificially conditioned interior environments. The availability of air conditioning, large sheets of glass, and piped utilities meant that buildings were now able to defy their natural environments.

During the 20th century, many pioneers promoted various sustainable design strategies, but the concepts finally started to gain wider acceptance in the early 1990s. Various U.S. buildings helped to mainstream this movement.

- 'Sustainable' Remodel

Ripples Through Nation

On the East Coast, the Audubon Society commissioned a sustainable design remodel for their historic headquarters building in New York. The success of the project rippled through the building and design industries.

On the West Coast, the city of San Diego completed the Ridgehaven Green Building Demonstration Project, which houses the City's Environmental Services Department. Ridgehaven was the first building in the U.S. to earn an Energy Star Label. It performs at 50 percent higher energy efficiency than required by the 1995 California Title 24 standards and is cited by the building's occupants for the healthful quality of its indoor environment.

Currently, many of San Diego's public agencies, especially the city of San Diego, request sustainable design for public buildings. San Diego's private sector is also stepping up to the plate, with businesses like National University requesting sustainable buildings.

The increase in the popularity of sustainable design is, at least partly, attributable to simple necessity. As our population continues to grow, so does the consumption of natural resources. Currently, we are depleting our natural resources faster than we can replenish them.

Sustainable design also addresses people's increasing concern about indoor air quality. On the average, we spend 90 percent of our lives indoors.

- Indoor Air Quality

Can Impact Health

If a home or business has an unhealthy indoor air quality due to product off-gassing or toxic maintenance materials, chances are higher that the occupants will develop health problems. From 1980 to 1994, the incidence of asthma in the U.S. increased 75 percent.

A testament to sustainable design's growing influence is that most architecture schools now offer sustainable design courses, suggesting the new generation of building designers will have a greater appreciation and enthusiasm for creating buildings that sustain the user and the environment.

These students are also learning that the architect can act as teacher to inform and educate clients about the benefits of sustainable design and how it functions as a total design approach, not just a few isolated design decisions.

Buildings in the Western World produce almost 50 percent of the emissions that create global warming. The benefits of sustainable design range from energy efficiency cost savings for the owner, to increased occupant productivity due to healthful indoor environments, to conservation of natural resources for our future generations.

Although California leads the nation in energy efficient standards, we can actually design buildings that go far beyond the regulated standards. Energy efficient building systems can pay for themselves within one to five years when designed in concert with other building systems.

Correct building orientation and envelope design reduce heating and cooling loads and maximize natural day lighting so that energy use by electrical and mechanical systems is reduced.

- Material Use Affects Buildings'

Longevity, Impact on Community

By using light colored materials to roof a building, we reduce the "urban heat island" effect. The vast amount of dark paving and roofing in our cities helps to heat up the air and increases the chemical reactions that create smog. Light surfaces must be used with caution, however, to mitigate adverse effects of reflectivity.

A building owner can also benefit from a longer building lifespan. By planning and designing for future growth and change, a building can accommodate users further into the future, avoiding the wasteful act of demolition and the expense of new construction. Using recycled and recyclable materials also reduces our depletion of the earth's natural resources.

Finally, sustainable design reduces employee absenteeism. Healthier indoor air quality will mean less sick days for employees and greater productivity for the employer. Remember, 136 million tons of building construction debris is created yearly in the U.S.

So, how does one implement sustainable design?

o First, plan early. Sustainable design strategies should be identified at the inception of design. Consider not just the building itself, but the origins of the building materials, the needs and habits of the users, the surrounding culture and environment, and possible future uses of the building.

o Next, work as a team. The team may include the client, the architect, the subconsultants, the users, community members, and the utility company. The Savings By Design Program offered by SDG & E; provides incentives for incorporating energy saving systems in building designs.

o In the design process, consider using recycled and recyclable materials with minimal off-gassing. Research the embodied energy in the materials you specify. How much energy did it take to harvest and transport the material? Is the material renewable or recycled?

o Work with your subconsultants to integrate mechanical, plumbing, electrical, and structural systems that contribute to and comply with the design approach. Work with the client and the users to determine their operational needs.

o During construction, consult with the contractor about how to minimize waste and how to create the healthiest environment possible, even during construction. Vent the building constantly for two weeks prior to occupancy to expel off gassing from building materials.

o If possible, wait to install soft materials like carpet and upholstered furniture until after the venting, as these materials absorb gases and emit them later. Ensure that all systems are operating at peak efficiencies.

o Finally, to ensure that the building users maintain efficiency and indoor air quality, leave behind a maintenance manual that recommends healthful and energy efficient maintenance and operations techniques.

Whitelaw is president of Platt/Whitelaw Architects, Inc, teaches sustainable design at NewSchool of Architecture & Design and is a past president of AIA San Diego.