Sustainable building practices

Since the issue of climate change and global warming have hit the media, cities have had to deal with the energy use of their own buildings. Condominiums with centralized systems are often too energy consuming, as the heat and the cooling system is distributed unevenly and through sometimes poorly done infrastructures that tend to waste a lot of energy. older low rise homes are sometimes too old to provide a proper insulation against the weather conditions. This problem has been addressed by a number of architectural firms and it is the topic of a discussion at Subtle Technologies this afternoon.

According to the moderator of this panel on sustainable building practice, Russell Richman issues of sustainability concern  occupant health, material choice, durability.
A professor at Ryerson university and the chair of a boutique Consulting Engineering firm specializing in the fields of Building Science, Facade Engineering and Sustainable Buildings,Richman points out that the challenge for architects is not only to incorporate sustainable choices in the construction of new buildings, but also in making sure that older buildings reduce gas emission and energy waste.

the solution, for  Lorraine Gauthier, a partner with the design studio Work Worth Doing  is to bring design changes that provide a better insulation and air circulation for older houses. she reminds a phrase once uttered by Jane Jacobs,  the great community activist who spent most of her later life fighting for sustainable cities:  we need “new ideas need old houses”

the pilot project Nowhouse acknowledged that the residential sector is responsible for 17 % of emissions today and took the challenge to take older houses and reduce their gas emission to 0 energy use, and according to  Gauthier, it succeeded. You can find details of this project here

Lisa Moffitt, senior designer at PLANT Architect, Inc. took a different approach, by exploring sustainable possibilities in rural houses that are currently off the grid that is, not linked to urban infrastructures. The problem here is not only constituted by environmental sustainability, but also by economic and cultural factors. in fact, rural houses need to comply to a certain design that make them adaptable to the surrounding environment, and agree with the farmer’s mentality that encourages the use of material and reuse. thus, material redundancy had to be addressed when making the construction project.

While these projects have to be commended, as their effort constitute  a model for future sustainable projects, one cannot but notice that their main goal was to provide the same comforts a regular home would deliver by implementing maximum insulation. the problem is that we don’t know how the material used will affect the inhabitant. in fact, in order to literally seal the house so it doesn’t disperse energy it is necessary to use a huge amount of industrial foam. we don’t know whether the chemicals contained in this material will leak into the house. In addition, and unfortunately,  the heating system (a combination of solar panels, propane and photovoltaic power), the insulation and the hair circulation system are still unaffordable for most average home owners. finally, the government has yet to implement any policy regulating the building of sustainable houses and the renovation of  older building. these are all issues open to discussion and sure will unfold in the next few years with, hopefully, some interesting results.

I was a bit surprised when, the following day, I attended the presentation of the body of work of Jill Anholt.  A public art artist, her work is profoundly architectonical, so I thought she could be involved in the debate on sustainable architecture. Her  approach to sustainability is broader though. she interprets the concept as  “connection between people and nature”. her sculptures make the connection by linking the history and culture of the specific location with its natural environment (she usually shape her sculptures to “match” or to set a dialogue with such environment) and the technologies she is using for each specific project. rather than describing her works, it is worth exploring her rich website that contains her full body of prolific works