The Economy of Green

Sustainability, energy consciousness and being kind to Mother Earth are concepts that have been with us for a long, long time. We really began to see dramatic impact to our lifestyles following the 1973 oil embargo, which shut down our high-consumption party for a brief period.

Now after decades of debating global warming and the supply of finite resources, we find ourselves deep into a Middle Eastern debacle that involves fossil fuel. The impact of energy conservationism can be seen within our industry in rising construction costs in every direction. This directly affects our design clients as it impacts affordability, resulting in reduced square footage and limited architectural features.

The architectural community is probably one of the strongest advocates behind the green movement, which has literally redefined our vernacular vocabulary. Words such as “sustainability” and simply the word “green” now carry architectural and environmental connotations. As architects, our contribution toward sustainability might include better definition as to how green translates into the physiology of the homes we design.

The American Institute of Architects just hosted its 150th anniversary celebration last month in San Antonio as part of its annual convention, close to my home town. The gathering was aptly named “Growing Beyond Green” and proffered ample information and discussion on environmental design and the latest building products. Unfortunately, the convention offered no other topics relating to residential design and even the CRAN initiatives [Custom Residential Architect Network], introduced at last year’s AIA convention and held to high expectations, were not included. Local and national green builder programs are great resources for continuing education and just to keep abreast of the latest practices and standards.

With green building information so mainstream today, our clients are arriving at the design table already somewhat informed. We need to become experts in the variety of products and systems available to assist with evaluation of performance levels; cost vs. return in energy savings; impact on aesthetics; and alternate lower-impact options. You don’t want the client to know more than you do.

Many of the more technologically advanced installations are cost-prohibitive for most clients. What works and is financially feasible in a $2 million home may be out of budget range for a $500,000 home.

Passive energy features that add relatively little additional cost have become standard in typical home design, and if you haven’t included them in your specifications and plans, you need to bring your product up to date. Things such as climate-responsive design, and drought-resistant and indigenous landscaping are viable, basic concepts.

Products that won’t break the budget include: low-E glass windows; home recycling system; whole-house wrap; radiant roof barrier; finger-joint studs; and flyash concrete, to name a few. At the next level, green products offering reasonable homeowner return include: tankless water heaters; low-flow toilets with two flush capacities; spray-foam insulation for whole attic and roof deck seal; and rainwater-harvesting systems. As architects, we need to become experts in green building design and stay abreast of the new products as well as their costs of implementation. While it’s ultimately our clients initiating the discussion on energy-saving features, it’s up to us as professional architects to be informed and bring valuable expertise to the design table.

Luis Jauregui, AIA, is a registered architect and a member of the local and national chapters of the American Institute of Architects for more than 20 years. He has been an active leader within the Homebuilders Association of Austin, Texas, serving as president in 1999, and as director at the local, state and national homebuilders’ association levels. Jauregui was appointed to the National Committee on Labor Shortages and was instrumental in the formation of Austin’s Custom Builder Council and served as its chair in 1997 and 2001. He has served as chairman for HBA’s Parade of Homes committee for several years, and is regularly solicited to judge residential award competitions throughout Texas and the United States.