Top green-building innovations: one architect’s viewpoint

Written By: Kathy Price-Robinson - Jun• 01•13


I asked green-leaning Berkeley architect Robert Nebolon to make a list of the top green-building innovations from his perspective. Of course, he had to make two lists— architectural and non-architectural — and if you know any architects, you’ll know it’s pretty typical that he did more than was asked for.

Robert also consulted a colleague, Steve Means, a certified energy analyst.

Here are the two lists Robert came up with:

My list of top architectural green-building innovations includes:

1. Site planning — This takes advantage of each site’s micro-climate to assist in cooling and/or heating a house. Arrangement of rooms can strongly affect the comfort of the occupants.

2. Downsizing the house — People have come to realize that a smaller, well-designed house can be as livable and pleasant as a much larger house. Since smaller houses require less energy to operate and make a smaller impact on the environment, smaller well-designed houses with “green” features are becoming popular.

3. Informal floor plans — Informal floor plans tend to have rooms with multiple uses instead of rooms dedicated to one use, like a formal dining room, for example. Building costs being what they are, it is best to merge many activities into one or two rooms. This reduces energy costs since unused areas of the house are not heated.

4. Architectural form — By simply applying some smart architecture, reliance on mechanical systems for thermal comfort (heating and cooling) can be reduced. Use of major architectural elements, such as atriums, courtyards, massing of the building, in conjunction with the local micro-climate, can greatly reduce dependence on mechanical systems for thermal comfort all year long. Simply introducing a breeze can make a hot environment much more tolerable even if the temperature didn’t decrease. Look to structures constructed before there was air-conditioning and forced-air systems to see how they dealt with heat loss and heat gain.

5. Architectural details — Use of minor architectural elements, such as eaves, shading devices, well-placed operable windows and skylights, covered porches, breezeways, all in conjunction with the local micro-climate, can greatly reduce dependence on mechanical systems for thermal comfort all year long.

6. Landscaping — Well-placed trees and plantings can reduce the heat gain by any building.

To see the non-architectural list, click below.

My list of the top non-architectural green-building innovations includes:

1. Hyper-efficient (92% or better) heating/cooling systems, including ground-source heat pumps (systems that use the earth as a heat sink and as a heat source—not the same as geothermal heat pumps).

2. Cool roofs and radiant barrier roofing, which reduces solar heat gain.

3. Tankless natural gas water heaters.

4. High-efficiency and low-water-use appliances.

5. Low-E (low-emissivity) glass, used in double-glazed panes with or without argon gas.

6. Use of pre-engineered wood structural components for construction.

7. Recycling of construction waste.

8. Use of durable materials (with higher upfront costs) that will last longer, require less maintenance (with very low maintenance costs over the life of the building). Materials that are not durable will require more energy in maintenance costs and in their eventual replacement.

9. Photovoltaic systems. And incidentally, the State of California Title 24 requirements for energy efficiency do not give credit for PV systems. When the state begins to give credit for PV systems in Title 24 calculations, expect to see many more PV systems installed on houses.

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  1. Travis Bennett says:

    It seems so natural or obvious to me to place “Building Information Modeling(BIM) systems” as number one on both of the lists that you have created here, but to not even list it at all, come on!

  2. sheila says:

    Thanks for this. They are all so obvious, yet people seem not to focus on them at all! People are totally oblivious about how their buildings are destroying the planet. Just the utility-scale renewable energy plants and lines being planned in Southern California’s pristine wilderness alone account for over a million acres to be totally and permanently destroyed, while the selfish idiots in their McMansions blast the A/C and leave 3 plasma TVs on all day.
    I hope Mr. Nebolon has success in convincing clients and other architects to do the right thing. Life-cycle pricing, as he mentions, is very important when considering the cheaper more toxic materials and objects we use. Rooftop PV panels also are effective at reducing thermal heat island effects, as they turn light into energy before it becomes heat.

  3. Mark Smith says:

    Good suggestions. I’d like to add Mindfulness to the considerations. For the environmental, economic, and social (think neighbors/neighborhood) impact of buildings, there is strong interdependence between design and our lifestyle–because how we live in and operate our buildings everyday means a lot. Daily awareness accummulates knowledge of the buildings, climate, and ourselves. We add layer upon layer of wisdom about how to be more effective. So time is our ally too.

  4. Robert Nebolon says:

    A response from Robert Nebolon.
    A reader above commented that BIM (Building Information Modeling) should be #1 on both lists. BIM is basically a computer model which shows absolutely everything in a building (pipes, electrical, HVAC, structure..) and is updated as the building progresses from design to built form by everyone involved. The idea is that an owner has a computer model of his building (complete with revisions, etc.) instead of a set of as-built plans (on paper). The model also as the specs and manufacturer of each specified item. One could “click” on anything. Its a terrific tool to use over the lifetime of the building by the building owner or its caretakers. For the sake of brevity, I left out other nice things about BIM.
    Two reasons why BIM not on my list:
    1. BIM is not something thats considered inherently “green”, but it could be used to make a building more “green” just as easily as less “green”.
    2. This blog is tailored for residential work, be it new house or remodeling. BIM is very expensive and usually reserved for big-budget huge buildings like skyscrapers, air-ports,etc.. BIM could be used for a house or an addition, but its use would be cost-prohibitive and overkill for residential projects (except for Bill Gates, I guess). My guess is that an Owner would much rather use the money towards the cabinetry budget, or something else. So I left it out since I figured a homeowner could never afford to use BIM on their house.

  5. Oliver Smith Callis says:

    BIM doesn’t have to be cost prohibitive on residential projects I have been using it on residential passive home designs for a few years now. It must be a matter of scale and how much detail you work into the model, but it has proven to be an invaluable investment for our clients, both for space renderings and for energy analyses by our energy engineer. We’ve been able to make various modifications to building design and detailing based on the modeling that make a huge impact on how well the homes function. We feel like we can stand behind our claims that our homes are “green” and they turn out to perform well once built.

  6. Robert Nebolon says:

    A response from Robert Nebolon:
    If a house is a new one or has an addition, then chances are very great that a crude form of BIM (MicroPas6) has already been used to prepare the Title-24 Energy Report. In most cases, MicroPas6 v6.01 models the energy performance of any residential building. The energy consultant simply plugs in the location of the building (the program knows the weather in that location), the window areas, the wall areas, and roof areas of both new and old building–anything to do with the building envelope plus the building orientation. The various kinds of heating/cooling systems, and water heating systems can also be modeled.
    Then, an architect can make changes to any one of these things to see how the building performs in terms of energy usage. But the program does have its limitations, one of them being that a 3D image is not possible. Because of this limitation, MicroPas tends to be a tool that clients rarely see or hear about.
    More complete BIM packages that can model more variables are available which have 3D modeling which clients and architects both enjoy.

  7. Justin says:

    Simply beautiful! I love the white space. They are always so obvious, but most people simply look past the details and think it looks great. :)

  8. Eco Handyman says:

    A great list of suggestions! So many people want to be more green these days so it’s great to see so many people trying to help the world. Also I feel another thing someone could do is to use as many green building material as possible. Thanks for sharing!

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