[I had hoped to get this review posted at one website or another that gets a bit more traffic than my little blog, because I think this is a pretty good book. I’m posting it here, but if you’re interested in using this review elsewhere, drop me a line.]

Book Review: Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide – David Bergman

David Bergman’s “Sustainable Design” is a slim but information-packed book on sustainable design that is accessible enough for a general audience and, at the same time, remains engaging for more experienced building professionals. Far too many books on sustainability lean toward the bean counting, number-crunching side of things, and sustainability is simply a scorecard. Bergman, however, sees things in a wider perspective. More than many other books on the subject, this a sustainability book for designers rather than for accountants.

The book is extensively illustrated, with graphics to explain general concepts, diagrams to show how certain systems operate, and renderings and photographs of project concepts and completed buildings that incorporate the principles of what Bergman likes to call ‘ecodesign’ and show what these buildings can look like.

Topics are covered in brief, but with good explanations of the key features that they offer, and noting how they can offer benefits when used in a building. This book strikes a better balance between introducing the concepts and giving the reader an understanding of how they might be implemented than many other books tackling the same subjects. It won’t replace further reading and deeper research into a particular topic for a full understanding of how it might be implemented in a particular project, but it gives a clear explanation of how various systems work and what makes them sustainable.

The chapters are laid out to address the major themes of sustainability and the built environment using categories that will be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with LEED. (Site Issues, Water Efficiency, Energy Efficiency, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Materials closely match the major point categories in LEED.) However, the book doesn’t handcuff itself too tightly to LEED. Energy Efficiency is divided into two chapters, separating Passive Techniques and Active Techniques. There is also a chapter on Labels and Ratings, which delves into evaluating measurements of sustainable claims for products and for buildings, and a coda on the Future of Sustainable Design.

Throughout the book, Bergman often points out the trade-offs behind different choices. Sustainability is never a black-or-white choice, and the reader is often reminded that there can be drawbacks as well as benefits, and that no solution is right in all circumstances.

“The objective is not necessarily to create completely self-sufficient buildings. Off-the-grid buildings are useful in remote areas, where the environmental and economic costs of bringing in power or fuel may be prohibitively high, but in developed areas, maximum efficiency may be more advantageous than self-sufficiency. Is on-site renewable power environmentally preferable to, say, a remote wind farm or tidal power? This is another example of an ecodesign question that does not lend itself to a single answer.” (p 67)

Good basic design fundamentals and concepts, such as surface-to-volume ratio for a building, are also discussed in this book. While this is not a factor that any green building rating system explicitly considers, it is certainly a concept that plays a vital role in a building’s relative energy efficiency.

The approach Bergman brings to the book is that of a working architect instead of that of a generalist author (or of a committee), making it more direct. Whether the reader’s perspective is that of a designer or a client, it’s less abstract. For example, when talking about something like lighting options, he notes some of the drawbacks to fluorescent lighting such as not being able to be dimmed the way incandescent bulbs can be. Color temperature and acceptability of lighting quality are important as well as the simple lumens-per-watt. Ultimately, sustainability isn’t about buildings, it’s about people who use those buildings.

All too often, books about sustainable design and sustainable architecture are so rooted in the immediate moment that they fail to offer much vision. They can be defensive works, aimed only against the current plight and laying out strategies to overcome the problems they see before them. Bergman’s ‘Sustainable Design’ differs by not only thinking about how to solve what are viewed as the current problems, but looking ahead to how sustainability can become a more fundamental part of all design. He hopes (as do I) that what is currently thought of as the “green building movement” progresses to being a part of “design as usual,” and that sustainability is incorporated into the design of every building as a matter of routine.

144 pages; softcover; color illustrations

Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide (Architecture Briefs) on Amazon

This is a newly revised portfolio of projects, including residential work, libraries, and other commercial projects. Some of the projects were carried out when I was employed at other firms, but all of these are projects where I had a major role in the design and construction of the building. Almost all of the photography is my work, as well.

psproefrock-portfolio2012 (10 MB PDF file)

Some of these projects haven’t been posted here or on my website yet, so this is a chance to for me to share this work some more. Updating the website is on the list next, and these (and other) images will be posted there in a more web-friendly format soon.

I disagree with the analogy in Michelle Kaufmann’s statement, “building a house on site is like having your car built in your driveway. It’s not efficient!” Makes a pithy slogan, but I think it’s misguided.

This is in advance of a forthcoming debate between Kaufmann and Chad Ludeman to be held on Treehugger tomorrow (3:30 ET May 26; rescheduled from a week earlier).

Efficiency may or may not be served by prefabrication, but site specificity and orientation doesn’t matter for a car and is all too easily forgotten when you are doing prefabricated buildings. A car doesn’t have a north side or a south side; a car is mobile, and is a fundamentally mass-produced object. Architects, designers and homebuilders have all been trying to figure out the “house as car” model since the early 1900s. There have been lots of attempts at this, from mobile homes to Fuller’s Dymaxion house, but I don’t think anyone has ever solved it.

Of course, on the other hand, it’s not very practical to imagine that all housing is going to be crafted with site specificity. Fundamentally, I think that, as with many debates, neither perspective is completely right or wrong. There’s a lot that prefabrication has to offer. But I disagree with the absolutism of the premise, “Be It resolved that Prefabrication is a greener way to build.” Some degree of mass-production could be useful, but prefabrication could be as badly done as any other process.

The FreeGreen house design competition voting period has ended. And even though my project wasn’t one of the official finalists, I did still manage to collect 32 votes (which would have put me in the middle third of the finalists). Thanks once again to everyone who voted for my entry. I would have liked to have more comments and feedback, but I’m glad a few people bothered to look.

Since the entry wasn’t on the main page, there were far fewer views than any of the official finalists had. Italia9 got 32 votes in 315 views. The apparent winner in the Traditional category got 367 votes in 3006 views. That’s a similar ratio of votes to views. But there were others that had 400-700 views that only got 10-20 votes (and one only got 3).

It looks to me like the designs that got the most votes tended to be the ones with very realistic renderings and had realistic figures in them. Maybe that’s what’s appealing in a voting context, since it looks most ‘real.’ But would that really be what people would gravitate towards if they wanted to find a plan not just to vote for, but that they would actually buy and use to build a home for themselves? Or would that sense of it being too finished, and not able to be adapted and adjusted for their needs, turn them off from it?

I’ve always thought that architectural designs should be sketchier, and less hyper-realistic, because reality never matches the glossy CGI. It’s better to trigger the imagination than to try to make a representation of something that won’t really turn out the way it is shown. But then, I think plan houses are about selling a product, rather than engaging the imagination and participation of the buyer, so maybe that’s the right approach for them.

Andrew Maynard (whose Twitter account concisely describes himself: “I’m an Australian Architect.”) recently posted an interesting comment: “Film crew in the office asking me about containers as bldgs. Tho I try not to be negative, I must say that I think containers make bad bldgs

Despite my own obvious interest in them, I don’t think that shipping containers are the be-all and end-all for construction. However, I think that, as with many other materials, interesting things can be done with shipping containers as one of the key elements of a project.

Maynard expanded on his thoughts with a couple further comments: “To clarify – Yes I agree that there r MANY gorgeous container bldgs. I simply don’t buy the “sustainable/reuse/cheap” arguments.” and “Containers are difficult to work with and require a huge amount of effort to make them thermally effectiveness (sic)”

While it’s hard to express an idea in the course of a couple of 140 character messages, and I don’t disagree with the general points that he is making, I’m less ready to dismiss the idea of using shipping containers.

I don’t disagree with him on the sustainable point, but that’s not just for shipping containers. A lot of what gets built right now is not meaningfully sustainable in the true sense of the word. I think it can be an option for green building, but that’s a very nebulous term, so that’s not really usefully saying that much about it.

I think the reuse question is more to the point. There are thousands of these containers being produced and getting stacked up. Being able to put them to a more productive use, rather than scrapping or recycling them is a beneficial and positive thing to do with them, and so I think it is overlooking a useful material to dismiss them out of hand.

To get a 8′ x 40′ space (320 square feet) for just a few thousand dollars is cheap and quick space. That’s roughly $10/square foot if the container itself costs $3000. There are certainly many things that need to be done to that raw space to make it comfortable and habitable, but I think it can be useful in some cases.

There are certainly many people who think that anything that uses a shipping container must necessarily be green architecture. I don’t think even that is true (even with the admitted slipperiness of the term ‘green’). There is far too much belief in the magical greening of a building by contagion. Slap some solar panels on it and it’s green. Use this green feature and the whole thing becomes virtuous and wonderful. And that’s simply not the case.

I expect Andrew Maynard has seen a number of badly done things that use shipping containers. I don’t doubt that they are out there. But I think there is some potential in the material, and I’m not so quick to dismiss them out of hand.

image: CC-BY-SA-3.0 by RaBoe/Wikipedia

[Originally posted at Inhabitat. I think Mike definitely improved the title, especially for a non-technical audience; my title for this was “Magic Boxes” Provide Integrated Mechanical Systems for Efficient Homes.  There are a few more pictures, as usual, with the original article, although, if you really want to delve further into this topic, you will need to read the source article and then visit some manufacturer websites to get a complete picture of what these systems are all about.  But hopefully this is an interesting article and helps people understand a bit more about this sort of HVAC.]

sustainable design, green design, magic box, passive design, passivhaus, hvac system, green building, sustainable building, energy efficient appliances

Looking at the incredible examples of green architecture featured on Inhabitat, you may have wondered what kind of mechanical equipment is used for these homes. Solar Decathlon competitors, Passivhaus designs, and other high-efficiency houses rely on highly efficient mechanical systems — in addition to the construction and design of the buildings themselves — in order to reach the level of performance they achieve. Obviously, there is not just one system used everywhere, but a number of features common to many of these systems are now being assembled into single, combined unit systems – read on for a look at these “magic boxes”.

Writing for Green Building Advisor, Martin Holladay calls the combined mechanical systems “magic boxes.” These are combination appliances that incorporate ventilation and heat pumps for heating and cooling. In may cases, they also include hot water heating. Because of their efficiency, “magic boxes” may offer reduced greenhouse gas emissions even in comparison with other efficient systems such as condensing furnaces or ground-source or air-source heat pumps.

While heat recovery and energy recovery ventilators (ERVs and HRVs) are not yet common to most homes, they are an essential part of the mechanical systems for Passivhaus homes and other high-efficiency buildings. Most high-efficiency buildings have very tight construction, therefore mechanical ventilation is needed to bring fresh air in and exhaust stale air from the building. ERVs and HRVs transfer energy from the outgoing air stream to the incoming one to recover some of the energy that would otherwise simply be lost in the exhaust.

Since high-efficiency buildings often need only limited heating and cooling, it can be possible to combine that function with the ventilation of an ERV into a single unit. While most of these “magic box” systems are larger than the furnaces they replace, because they incorporate several functions, the total footprint required for all mechanical systems is smaller than what would be required for all of the functions if provided by separate pieces of equipment.

Several of the units are not carried by distributors in the United States. These “magic boxes” are better suited for European conditions (with milder winters) than they are for those in North America. Holladay outlines the reasons for this, noting that the costs of these units are generally higher than the cost of individual pieces of equipment. Some manufacturers point out that the faster installation time for only a single piece of equipment helps offset the higher cost. However, unless space is at an absolute premium, in most cases it is probably better to use separate pieces of equipment.

Via Green Building Advisor

[Originally posted at Inhabitat. As usual, more pictures are included with the original article.

It also looks like the building is part of another green building rating system, but I couldn’t find enough information about it or a reference source on the system to link to so that I could write about it. But it looks something like an Italian version of Passivhaus or of the German system I found out about a while ago.]

sustainable design, green design, matteo thun, green building,  underground building, eco hotel, energy efficient building, hillside  building

Architect Matteo Thun has designed this striking eco-friendly hotel to be located on a mountainside in the National Park of Stelvio in the Italian Alps. Composed of a series of underground buildings linked by undulating green roofs, the complex takes advantage of passive design principles and ground-source heat pumps to conserve energy. In addition, the construction of the units, the way the units are situated on the site, and the materials used have all been carefully considered to minimize the complex’ impact upon the environment.

The hotel is comprised of eleven individual units, each appearing as no more than a slight rise in the ground with a large, south-facing window protruding from the hillside. The units are set into the earth and covered with vegetated roofing which serves to moderate the temperatures inside the units throughout the year. A deep overhang above each window shades it from excessive summer sun, and the earth sheltering helps keep noise levels low. Triple-pane windows help with energy efficiency while contributing to the sound control, and heat pumps taking advantage of the constant water temperature of a local natural spring to provide efficient heating and cooling.

The hotel is meant to offer an entire range of green benefits. The architect’s website describes the KlimaHotel standard as having “three pillars of sustainability … the concepts “nature” (Ecology), “Life” (socio-cultural aspects) and “Transparency” (Economy).

+ Matteo Thun

Via Greenmuze and Ecofriend