Opinion

Green buildings focus of conference

Bob Graef -
Bob Graef
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Architects and builders from across Snohomish and King counties converged on Everetts Events Center to hear leaders in the building industry expound on green issues. Over 750 building-trade professionals took the day to hear and share whats new in the fields of design and materials. But first they had to get past a clutch of demonstrators wearing goofy costumes. They were such a jolly lot that it was difficult to determine whether they were seriously peeved over Weyerhaeusers timber practices or just out having a good time.
Though it cost attendees $250 per head to get inside, the full house indicated that price didnt dissuade many from taking part. The program provided a satisfying mix of technical advice and cheer-leading for the green building movement. Excellent speakers and tasty catering softened the price of admission, and judging from the tone of between-sessions coffee bar discussions, the crowd was deeply involved.
Did the conference indicate that a green ground-swell is actually altering construction standards? To answer that I embarked on a web-search to see if similar meetings might be scheduled in the Puget Sound area. What follows is an eight-day sampler:
March 14, A conference targeting rainwater collection systems was held at Seattles Phinney Ridge Community Center.
March 15, The Recycling Foundation held a design competition at the Pike Street Market. The theme title was, Increasing Electronics Recycling.
March 20, A short course titled, Green Home Remodel 101, was presented at the Ballard Library for homeowners considering a major remodel. Real life examples from the Seattle area are featured.
March 21, Rain Gardens and Permeable Paving Systems is the topic of another presentation held at the Seattle City Hall.
March 22, The Ballard Library again. Learn about reclaiming and recycling materials when homebuilding. Local green-building experts shared their expertise to help builders cut waste and improve profits.
You get the idea. A person could attend four or five green seminars or conferences each week without having to leave the tri-county area. And for those who want to see the ultimate in green construction in the flesh, there is the new Dave Porter home at Warm Beach. Check it out at www.goinggreenatthebeach.com.
The word, sustainability, kept surfacing at the Everett Convention. At first, it didnt seem to be a good match for a green conference. Yet as the day wore on it turned out that sustainability has come to mean not falling down, not succumbing to natural hazards, not leaking, not rotting, not harboring mold and not falling victim to other calamitous events or conditions. In other words, sustainability means not wasting resources by building short-lived 50-year structures or making mistakes that will call for re-building.
This is the stuff of survival for designers and builders. Profit margins arent so broad as to cover the cost of taking structures apart when customers blow the whistle on design or construction flaws. A large part of building green turns out to be building right. Making sure that buildings are not only energy efficient, but durable.
Not all green proposals work out as planned. Take the tankless water heater. Their gas or electric flash-burners fire up whenever someone turns on a hot water tap and continue to heat water until the tap is turned off. Heaters are situated close to the point of use so pipes from remote water heaters dont have to be re-heated for each use. Nor does heat constantly bleed away from a tank of stored hot water.
If tankless heaters are so efficient, how is it that so many homeowners gripe about their electricity or gas bills soaring after theyve installed them? Heres the situation. Think what happens when you give teenagers an unending supply of hot water. With a tankless system they may luxuriate under the spell of a pleasantly hot cascade for hours. With a conventional system, they run out of hot water within thirty minutes.
Another issue is that style preferences still may trump green-design. If home designers were totally committed to energy efficient houses, they would design dwellings with a minimum of exterior surface from which to lose heat. If we all opted for the absolute best ratio between inside space and outside surface wed live in spheres. Efficient ratio of space to surface? Yes, but round homes would take off like tumbleweed if hit with anything over a gentle breeze. The practical compromise is the cube. When out driving, note that it is less expensive homes that best approximate cubes.
Another green issue the conference missed was orientation. Like Navaho hogans that traditionally face the rising sun, there is a best way to orient homes. That is, if solar energy is to figure into the plan. Since the greenest of roofs are specially angled toward the sun to harvest maximum solar energy per square meter, roofs in a green village would all face the same direction. The question becomes, will individuality of architectural expression override our need to harvest solar energy.
All these considerations are coming together in a ten-home development planned for Issaquah. Ranging up to 1,500 square feet, the homes will use 50-70% less energy than surrounding homes. Much of the material will be recycled. Rainwater will operate low-flush toilets. Roofs will be designed as bases for solar panels.
While green homes cost more, living in one costs less. And as bidding for increasingly scarce energy resources is pushing costs ever higher, the cost of a green home will become accepted as a practical investment.

Comments may be addressed to rgraef@verizon.net.

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