Expert Offers Green Alternatives for Design Professionals

BRANFORD, CT — While a much beloved childhood character once bemoaned the difficulties of being green, Lindsay Suter wants design professionals to know that it’s actually quite easy. And, designing ecologically friendly projects can not only keep the environment healthy, but bring in some extra green to your firm, as well, since consumers value having a healthy home, and will pay to ensure this. Suter shared his thoughts on green design at a recent meeting of the Southern New England Chapter of the NKBA.

The first step to designing these types of projects, he explained, is understanding what green design actually means. “People ask me what sustainability is, and the bottom line is not using more than you can make, and not messing up more than you can clean up,” says Suter, AIA, critic at the Yale School of Architecture and principal of Lindsay Suter Architects in Branford, CT.

To accomplish this, Suter offers a two-part solution based on material choices and energy consumption, and the systemic decisions in choosing those materials. Or, put simply, looking at the big picture.

“The largest thing is energy consumption, both from a resource standpoint and an air pollution standpoint, because all things are linked,” he states.

For instance, Suter cites embodied energy, or the amount of energy it took to get a piece of material in the right place, as a critical part of the equation.

“There is a quote from the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) that predicts that over a presumed 40-year lifespan of a single-family residence, six to seven times the amount of energy will be used operating the house as was used in building it.”

He adds: “Therefore, [we want projects to] make more energy than they use, and use materials that have come from somewhere else so that when [we’re] done with them, they will be of at least equal value [of the energy used].”

Suter cites aluminum windows and glass as examples of this practice, offering: “When these windows are done being windows, they can be melted down and used first-grade for anything else. The glass goes back to being glass and the aluminum goes back to being aluminum.”

He continues: “Design professionals should ask themselves how they can design a bathroom or kitchen so that it makes as much energy as it uses, or gives back as much material as it uses in its construction.”

If this approach could be adopted industry wide, Suter notes that over a relatively short amount of time, people would begin to see better air quality, more diversity among plants and, quite possibly, longer lifespans.

He continues: “We have to look at things holistically. For a long time, we have been giving short shrift to environmental impact because we don’t see it. We are paying a price for that and unfortunately, it gets shuffled down to generations. Above all, we have the chance to leave a place worth inheriting.”

Material Options
While some people have the perception that green design is too expensive to be practical, Suter believes just the opposite. In fact, many affordable, natural materials can be used to help create environmentally friendly kitchens and baths. Topping the list, he says, is bamboo flooring and casework.

“Bamboo is a grass which is twice as hard as maple, three times as abrasive-resistant as oak and has natural anti-bacterials in it,” he points out.

He continues: “It has a clear finish and is essentially non-toxic. Plus, you don’t have to stain it because – since it is a grass – it will darken when heated due to the sugar in its cell walls.”

Another material to consider is natural cork, Suter says, because “it feels great under your feet and has a little give to it.”

“You can buy it in raw tiles, put it down with non-toxic adhesives and then add a finish on top of it,” he says. “That is much better because when you put a finish on top of it afterwards, it seals up the seams between the tiles.”

He further notes that natural cork or porcelain would be better choices, environmentally speaking, than a vinyl impregnated bathroom tile or kitchen tile.

Suter also cites coconut palm as a material worth considering, since it’s both ecologically friendly and aesthetically pleasing “The heartwood of it is beautiful, like a purplish brown that resembles purple hearts. And it is one of the hardest materials you can put on your floor.”

For countertops, local stone is a good choice, he notes. “It’s inert, it’s an earth product and it’s non-toxic. Plus, you don’t have to waste embodied energy by having it shipped from a foreign country.”

Cleanability is also a key issue in creating rooms that are healthy for both the user and the environment, and to that end, Suter points out that hardwood floors – combined with good air quality – will lead to a more efficient use of energy when cleaning up dust or dirt particles.

Of course Suter recommends specifying Energy Star appliances – which can offer nice rebates – as well as low-flow toilets and showerheads to conserve water.

Air Apparent
According to Suter, air quality is one of the most critical elements of a sustainable home – both in terms of energy conservation and overall health.

“If you have one dollar to spend to make your house greener, it should be put into insulation and into stopping air infiltration,” he says. “This will continue to reward you [and your family] year after year.”

Therefore, Suter suggests units called ERV’s (Energy Recovery Ventilators) and HRV’s (Heat Recovery Ventilators) to better pull out exhaust air.

“It’s just like a water-heat exchanger, except it is done on a finer scale for air,” he explains. “You don’t get all of the heat energy back, but you get a lot of it back – up to 90 percent in some cases.”

Even more importantly, this also helps prevent a potentially dangerous situation, Suter adds.

“[Without these units], you can have things literally sucking the air out of your home and that means drawing it from places that you don’t want it drawn from, like the flu from your furnace, and those combusting gases are dangerous.”

He continues: “An energy recovery ventilator is a terrific thing for someone designing a bathroom, especially since they’re probably not going to be able to put in more insulation.”

The Heat is On
Homes oriented to take advantage of passive solar gain and solar cooling lend themselves well to green design, and kitchen and bath designers can incorporate windows and skylights into their designs to maximize the benefits of these.

“A south-facing window,” he adds, “should have an overhang on it because it will let the sun in, which gives you natural lighting when you need it most and heating when you need it most.”

He continues: “In the summertime, it will block the sun and help shade the window surface. This way, you’re not getting heat when you don’t want it. Really, the best heating and cooling system is no heating or cooling system.”

Hot water heaters are also an option, he adds. “You only need one unit for the shower and basin, so you’re saving a lot of water.”

He continues: “Generally, hot water heaters use electricity heated gas lines, and while you don’t want to heat your water with that per se, it is a great idea for summer house or guest house that’s not used very much.”

He also cites high-efficiency boilers for heating shower water as a good way to save on gas use.