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The Meaning of Green

Members of Barnard's Architecture Faculty on Home-Building for Sustainability

What does it mean to build green? Is eco-architecture a term people truly grasp? A sensitivity and duty toward the preservation of landscape and natural resources has become a widely understood value. As more businesses and homeowners are looking to build with an aim at sustainability, professionals like Barnard and Columbia architecture professors Joeb Moore and Nicole Robertson are helping them do so.

Whether it is an individual installing solar panels or a municipality trying to conserve energy in its town hall, becoming more “green” is a hallmark of an environmentally and cost-minded society. Robertson, who with her partner Richard Garber runs GRO Architects in Manhattan, observes more people are beginning to understand the term “green” and how integral it is to lifestyle choices that become embedded in the design of the built environment. Corporations and government agencies are also getting on board. “It’s not just the counterculture, not just academics who are interested,” remarks Moore, whose firm, Joeb Moore + Partners Architects in Greenwich, Connecticut, has completed a number of green projects. Thalassa Curtis ’92, an associate principal at Moore’s firm, concurs, “With cities across the country adopting green building standards (such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED) for municipal buildings, green building is increasingly the norm for larger buildings.” Many towns require new construction to comply with national energy performance recommendations.

In the experiences of Moore and Robertson, clients seeking environmentally friendly projects want to build the best building at the optimum price, both in the short term and over the life of the building, with efficient and cost-effective elements. “At a minimum, this means building systems are efficient as a budget permits, windows, walls, and roofs are super insulated, and storm water is managed onsite. Other features we see are geothermal systems, locally sourced and recycled materials, and green roofs,” says Curtis. Many do not want unnecessarily large homes that consume more energy.

A testament to the “smaller is better” philosophy, Robertson’s recent and noteworthy PREttyFAB house stands in a tiny lot in the Bergen-Lafayette neighborhood of Jersey City, New Jersey. After the property owner approached the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to find an architect who could design a “green” concrete home (the budget was $250,000 or less), he was referred to Robertson’s firm. She and Garber were immediately intrigued by the challenge. PREttyFAB’s primary green feature is the overall geometry of the massing strategy based on the specifics of the site. Being a small urban plot, the first parameter was the orientation of the house. Once set, Robertson and Garber established “due south” as the leading point of the triangular roof that was clad in photovoltaic panels and rotated vertically 30 degrees in order to optimize solar collection. The house also uses pre- fabricated insulated concrete panels that increase the house’s energy performance beyond that required by the residential building code. Natural ventilation also plays a key role; Robertson located windows at each level of the house so that the first floor windows can be opened and air will flow out loft-level windows. Ceiling fans help facilitate air flow of both warm and cool air. The floors are all radiant-heated; objects are warmed as opposed to air. PREttyFAB’s owner has agreed to show his energy bills to Robertson’s firm to see how the design lends itself to savings.

Robertson sees PREttyFAB as a prototype, and hopes it is the first of many. “We really saw this house as an opportunity to explore sustainable and affordable alternatives to the typical stick-built frame single- and two- family homes you see throughout theresidential districts of Jersey City,” she says. And the name? PREttyFAB refers to the architects’ intention for its existence as a prototype, one that could be customized; the name also incorporates the “pre-fab” nature of the concrete panels that make up the shell of the house.

Two homes in Connecticut illustrate green design for a more suburban and rural experience. In New Canaan, Moore created the first modern house at the town’s center, a few minutes’ walk from downtown shops, restaurants, and the commuter rail station. Called the Town-House, the home has insulation systems designed to comply with the current energy-saving standards. There are solar panels on the roof. Water from the roof is collected and used to sprinkle the lawn. The project was also about reengagement with the town, which can be seen as part of the trend of people moving closer to revitalized main streets.

Bridge House, located in Kent, which Moore describes as “classic New England rolling countryside,” integrates the natural topography of the site to create a feeling of exterior living space; every space in the Kent house is oriented toward open fields and a hill. Moore explains, “The building pops out of the ground and sits across the landscape so there is a reflective correspondence between indoor and outdoor living and dining spaces. You feel like you’re camping.” Both the Kent and New Canaan houses include green features for environmental sustainability, such as wood from sustainable regrowth forests. While the Town-House is focused on the social sustainability of returning to closer- knit town centers, Bridge House utilizes a strategy where architecture and landscape are dependent on each other.

Both urban and suburban projects incorporate similar elements: green roofs, recycled materials, high- efficiency appliances to name a few.But sustainability also incorporates location. An urban dwelling may make more use of community resources, such as transportation (Robertson’s client does not own a car, preferring to ride his bicycle and take public rail); a suburban project may offer more options to rely on natural resources, such as a geothermal heating and cooling.

Green buildings work more efficiently, but are aesthetics sacrificed in making a house eco-friendly? Moore remarks, “If you like historic homes, yes, part of the aesthetic will be sacrificed for new, sustainable, systems.” The cultural reaction to the energy efficient home from the ’70s was negative, but systems and technology have become less cumbersome, such as solar panels that are now thinner and less obtrusive. Recycled materials and found objects form part of the aesthetic, but these are emerging aspects of “green” building. Robertson sees this type of construction and design based on performance objectives, not on preconceived ideas of style or taste. For economy, the PREttyFAB house was stripped down to its essential components; aesthetics were rooted in functionality. “It is a highly pragmatic aesthetic,” says Robertson. “[The house] is very, very green.”

Green building has naturally found its way into the Barnard curriculum.

Karen Fairbanks, professor and chair of Barnard’s architecture department, emphasizes that Barnard is committed to teaching students an awareness of environmental issues as they relate to design. Required design studios introduce concepts of sustainability through projects using recycled materials and based on the understanding of climates and micro- climates. This semester the department offered a Special Topics course, “Known Unknowns: Architectural Research and Climate Risks,” looking at climate- related risk in a contemporary city. The College has embarked on its own green architectural projects, including the Diana Center, the first LEED-certified buildingon campus. Fairbanks has been involved in discussions about how Barnard is meeting the New York City mayor’s PlaNY2030 challenge for city institutions to reduce their carbon emissions by 30 percent.

Moore and Robertson do not use their professional projects as classroom case studies, but they do bring issues from their practices to their teaching. This semester Robertson’s students tackled the “real-life” green issue of recycling. She explains, “The students began by looking at recyclable objects, and through research into their fabrication and recycling processes of these objects, extracted diagrammatic techniques that were then used to transform their objects into new spatial and temporal organizations.” Students’ final (hypothetical) projects involve designing a recycling “pod” to serve as an information outreach point for the Department of Sanitation. The assignment was inspired by Robertson’s response to a request for proposals for a marine transfer station in New York City, a facility for recyclables before they are put on barges and shipped to outside facilities. In another course, Robertson and colleagues David Smiley and Peter Zuspan challenged students to design an urban green market and a bike stop along many of the new bike routes in Manhattan. “If we do anything, we take students to visit sights. Instead of lecturing, we like to take them out and embed them in the environment, in the building. New York is the great learning center,” says Moore.

“I think major buildings that push green objectives are super inspiring, and we’re seeing more and more of them,” says Robertson. Housing can also be an incubator for new ideas; the small can inform the large. However, Moore warns about the “green toupee.” This means a building looks eco-friendly, but under scrutiny is conventional in its environmental performance.

For those unable to commission anentirely green home or building, there are basic actions to take with existing spaces. “Anyone will tell you to start with insulation and heating and cooling equipment. Robertson advocates natural ventilation and facilitating airflow with ceiling fans. Selecting environmentally friendly materials is an easy way to be eco- conscious; more companies are making accessible and affordable sustainable products. Moore suggests a common sense approach of practical, low-tech responses to how energy is consumed in a building, and climate awareness. He acknowledges the mindset of wanting everything to be bigger, better, and mass-produced, but stresses smaller homes. City-dwelling is an inherently “green” decision; in denser environments, materials are four to five times more efficient because of the smaller living spaces, which reduces energy consumption.

Still developing, the field of green architecture will continue to spur new and creative ideas—ideas that will surely be influenced by the next generation of architects and designers. Barnard students show great enthusiasm for this type of architecture. Students’ perspectives on architecture have shifted away from formalism to greater interest in preservation, sustainability, and technology, and the Barnard-Columbia program emphasizes architecture as a social as well as fine art. Students are receptive to and interested in an architecture and design process “that incorporates a larger picture of both the environment and social costs of design and construction,” observes Moore. This union of social activism and environmentalism inspires students to see the interconnected world in which we live. Moore continues, “It is no longer a local or global question—the two are intimately linked and must be thought of together and simultaneously, without contradiction.” Thus, the meaning of green is as much about the environment as it is about the people who share it.

- by Stephanie Shestakow '98