Yet another avid reader of the Carfree Chicago blog contacted yours truly! Matt Nardella, a car-free architect, emailed me last week looking to connect with “sustainably-minded real estate professionals.” Matt and his wife, Laura Cripe, own moss, an architecture and design firm located in Lakeview. Check out their new blog: strawville.
What was the inspiration behind naming your firm?
I did not want the studio to be about Me (with a capital M); I wanted it to be about a movement toward better design. I would love to see the studio survive after I am gone, so that eliminated Nardella Architects as an option. It had to be something that could tell the story of our design ethic and what kind of work we wanted to specialize in. It also had to be something that would elicit ideas of nature and is native to pristine habitats.
We are both avid photographers and always seem to return from the same destinations with tons of close-ups of–you guessed it–moss. One day, flipping through images it clicked, and that was it: moss was the name. The final decision was bolstered by a characteristic of moss we found: mosses affect the community in which they live, as they supply shelter for living organisms. Well if that isn’t the very definition of what the studio should be, I don’t know what is! It also didn’t hurt that moss is literally green in color.
The term “green” building is all the rage these days. What makes a building green?
“Green” buildings have a wide array of definitions depending on whom you talk to. Some developers will tell you that their bamboo floors make them green, others will say the CFLs do the trick. This is what is now commonly referred to as “green-washing.”
The most popular regulatory outlets for “green” building include LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) which is a rating system administered by the USGBC (United States Green Building Council) that allows a building to collect credits in five main areas: Sustainable Sites (site design and selection); Water Efficiency; Energy and Atmosphere; Materials and Resources; and Indoor Environmental Quality. After design and construction are complete, the design team submits the information to the USGBC for auditing and they award a level of achievement ranging from certified to platinum.
The other rating system is Energy Star, which is geared toward single family housing, focusing more on energy efficiency and paying less attention to building materials and site selection/design. Even the City of Chicago has entered the fray with its Chicago Green Homes rating system. There are a few other fringe “green” building rating systems but none of them have really taken off and LEED remains the front-runner.
So that is the technical response but, in my opinion, it is much simpler. A building, like a tree, should give more than it takes. That means a truly sustainable building produces more resources than it consumes. To achieve this we need a paradigm shift so that a building becomes a member of the landscape: collecting solar energy from the sun for its electrical needs, while sequestering carbon and producing oxygen; harvesting rainwater for potable uses and maintaining an edible forest; and supplying waste water to on-site wetlands. Since there is no possible way to produce infinite resources in a finite system, this is the way it must be if we expect long-term prosperity.
The beauty of our current predicament is that most sustainable design features are essentially free–given that you design it well–and have been proven by the builders of past civilizations. Too much of the “green” building movement has been about consumer products, forcing you to have to buy your way into the trend. However, this is diametrically opposed to what sustainability is at its core: to use less stuff. With that in mind, you actually should spend less money and effort to become more sustainable.
As for buildings, proper site planning and orientation are crucial to long-term efficiency. For example, instead of installing the most energy efficient, largest and most expensive air conditioner on a traditional, let’s say, tract house; why not reinvent the design of the house so you don’t need as much cooling or any at all? The story I love to tell is of the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings built by the Pueblo natives around 1200. The dwellings were oriented south under the overhang of the cliff above. This would allow the low winter sun to warm the buildings, while in the summer the sun would be shaded by the cliff, helping to keep the dwellings cool.
The same principles could be applied today to any new building at no extra cost. And this is just one design element; there are plenty more which I refer to as the non-consumer’s guide to sustainable design.
What elements of sustainable design might you incorporate into an existing property? And how, in the midst of a recession when up-front dollars really count, would you “market” your design?
Dealing with existing properties is tougher. Often it is not feasible, economically or structurally, to make major changes to a building in the effort of sustainability. However, I think it should start with the passions of whoever is occupying the space. If someone is interested in reducing energy, then installing solar-thermal panels for hot water is an inexpensive start; or replacing windows would have a great impact. If someone is concerned that they are using too much water, they can inexpensively add aerators to plumbing fixtures to reduce flow; or collect rainwater for irrigation. If you like local food, convert your roof or yard into a native, edible landscape, which is something we have done at our office.
We have assisted people with all of these measures and more. You would probably be surprised how much energy is wasted in a typical building and how much could be harnessed. I think the point here is that we all have an incredible ability to vastly curb our impact on the planet through our lifestyle habits. According to “Earth’s Law,” Earth does not care much whether we can afford to make a change or not; it will proceed as it sees fit. We have to be interested in long-term results, not short-term gains.
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