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Green Building



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Design & Comfort

Designing for comfort is an important aspect of Green Building that is typically overlooked, and sometimes even at odds with the other principles.  In most discussions of Green Building, the "green" aspects are mostly about the planet although they do encompass the issue of toxicity.  In this section, the discussion is about the much more difficult to measure issues of design that relate to how a house functions and feels, which in our view is an equally critical aspect of green building.  More specifically, we reject the idea that "green" means sacrifice, and instead take a hard look at how good design can enhance our lives.

If you're already into green building, click here to go straight to the patterns.  You can always come back if you want background into "why".

Because these are highly subjective topics, there are no rules here, only vague guidelines. Since this section deals with many ideas depend on human psychology and culture, and since people exhibit a wide variety of preferences, some patterns will seems less important than others, and some may even seem to be wrong.  The intent is that most rules are good for the majority of the population, and some work for virtually everyone.  Our list is by no means complete, and those who are interested should refer to the sources (see resources).  Use the ideas you want and ignore the rest.

In order to make them more useful, we've attempted to enumerate what the beliefs and biases are behind them so the reader gets a better idea of the "why" behind the guideline.  We've also tried to distill out ideas that appear to be based on culture or whether a house is a rural or urban setting.

The design guidelines are organized as a group of "patterns" since the most of them are based on "A Pattern Language" (see resources).  Since it  is almost exclusively about design with little discussion on the typical Green Building topics, I've modified the patterns to include these issues, as well as integrating ideas from other popular sources such as the "Not So Big House" series of books.  

Status, Comfort & the Notion of Home

Historically in western culture, buildings have been much more about status than comfort (see "Home"  for a highly entertaining history), so the current fad of building "starter castles" has a long historical basis.  In the current practice of architecture, the discussion about comfort is limited to issues of physical comfort due to temperature and humidity.  Pragmatic things like what makes a house "comfortable" from a psychological viewpoint are ignored, while most schools concentrate on the aesthetics instead.  Comfort is a much harder topic, because there is no fixed answer; after all if status is important to a person then living in a house which doesn't convey status is certainly going to cause that person a certain level of discomfort, possibly to the point where a house with drafty rooms, an awkward layout and high heating bills is totally acceptable.

We humans actually have a high capacity for ignoring mildly uncomfortable things, so it often the case that when an aspect of a house doesn't work quite right, most people will ignore it for as long as they can.  When you read the patterns and try mentally evaluating every house you go in, you'll find that most houses don't follow very many of the patterns (although do follow others).   We believe that once you understand the patterns, you will want a house that follows many of them, although exactly how big the overall impact is will probably vary greatly from person to person.

Further complicating the issue are the related concepts of what constitutes a "home" and a "dream home", because like "status" these ideas heavily influence what a person expects of a home.  It is a rare case that a person is not aware  of these ideas, although often people are not good at expressing them in words.  A person's notion of home is typically based on things like experiences in houses growing up, or stylistic ideas that fit their personality.  Its just as likely that a person living is an off grid strawbale house is making a statement about who they are as much as the person in a suburban starter castle, and undoubtedly there is someone living an "eco house" somewhere that ignores the design patterns just as flagrantly.  This isn't about who is good or bad, but in trying to find something that is better for everyone.  It involves knowing yourself and being open to ideas that aren't prevalent in our culture.

The whole idea of the "sensible house" was that there are solutions that are "green" as well as enticing to a broad spectrum of the population.  Any person with an open mind ought to be able to find a way to get a home that matches their idea of what it should be, and still be green.  Admittedly it involves learning things, and can be emotionally challenging (any one who has been thru a big construction project know that this aspect isn't avoidable anyhow), but the results are generally better because you are forced to spend more time thinking everything through.

For starters, there appears to be no reason you can't build a house that is very "green" in any style, although it is likely that certain aspects of many styles will have to modified a bit because they conflict with other green building concepts. Likewise, there is no reason that a dream home can't also be green if you're willing to really examine what your notion is, distill out it's essence and then integrate that with the green building ideas. Experience indicates many people currently think in terms of features like jet tubs, fireplaces and bonus rooms and are not particularly even aware of what makes a house "comfortable", so this can be an emotionally challenging task.  Even status can coexist with green building, if for example one uses intricate hand built items to express their status rather than things like oversized houses, huge vaulted ceilings and acres of nonfunctional granite countertops.

The ideas about comfort presented here are ultimately based on the observations of a handful of architects who have watched how people use homes and knew some things about psychology.  Some readers may find these to be radical ideas, like for example that idea that most people will find some locations in a room more comfortable than others.  (Skeptics who think psychology isn't that relevant ought to read Paco Underhill's "Why we buy: the science of shopping", where he shows that when a store layout is done understanding psychology, sales go up).  

You & Your Planet, Necessity and Desire

Since this section is about those elements of design that cater to human needs and desires  (aka "what makes it feel good") here is some ammunition to feed to both your leftist enviro friends as well as your conservative ones.  My goal here isn't actually to piss everyone off, but to rather to show that this isn't a liberal plot to force everyone to live in a yurt and eat only on organic granola, but in fact takes ideas from across the political spectrum.  Which of course means it actually will piss everyone off.  So be it.

First, we see no value in building a house that isn't as good an environment as all the ones we want to save.   Stated more dramatically: what's the point of saving the planet if the result is you spend most of your life in a building that doesn't make you feel good?

Second, as individuals we can't "save" the planet: we all have to work together on that one.  While our impact on the planet is partially determined by the level of gluttony and waste, its is also strongly impacted by the sheer number of humans on it.   

Third, any solution which doesn't account for human psychology is bound to fail.  I'm no expert, but it certainly appears to me that the combination of alternately appealing to people altruism with photos of endangered things and trying to scare them with doomsday scenarios doesn't work, regardless of how true they are.

Fourth, people who don't think there is a problem are like smokers who think they won't experience severe negative health effects.  Ignore them and wait till the tipping point makes it so the only way they can continue their beliefs is standing outside, 25 feet from any door, preferably in the rain.

Fifth, those that think technology alone can fix everything haven't spent enough time trying to build such technology themselves.  I'll consider changing my mind when software doesn't fail regularly.

Sixth, as cultures go, we appear to be no happier than many poorer cultures, in fact many would probably argue we are less happy.  Somehow we haven't accepted that our buying frenzy isn't much different than a hit of drugs.  Spend a day at the landfill before you violently disagree.  Patterns like "not so big" are intended to help you find a happy medium.

Seventh, our whole economy is run on discretionary spending and that isn't about to change any time soon.  We are better off trying to funnel that spending into sustainable things, and work on things like cradle to cradle design than running around attacking people for being gluttonous.

This should help you understand what's behind our design bias.

Designing for Yourself or Re-sale

Every house design ends up being a compromise between being for a specific set of owners and generic to the population as a whole.  Ideally a house is designed to be adaptable, but this is rarely done.  We've attempted to limit the patterns to ones that are likely to be valued by a large audience in hopes of designing buildings that are also valued by a lot of people.  Our general inclination is to design for your own family, while thinking about how a future family could adapt it to their needs.  This allows the house to fit your current needs, avoiding locking you into trendy design ideas that will disappear while still giving you good protection on resale vale.

Other Design Practices

The ancient Chinese practice of Feng Shui has been somewhat popular in Green Building circles and recently the Ayurvedic principles as well.  These practices tend to have similar ideas behind them (the notion of harmony with nature), but are stated in ways that can be difficult for westerners (I admit they're hard for me).  If they work for you, you can use the patterns here as an alternative source, although you will probably find some areas of conflict.  Someday, someone will probably find a way to integrate all these ideas into one, and the average westerner can adopt some of the principles without having to know about Chi or Jyotish.

Psychology & Comfort

These patterns make assumptions about what people like and don't like, none of which are all that easy to find in any of the resources. They have been compiled over time from the various resources and I no longer have exactly where they came from.  Some are likely to be taken from discussions over the years with other people in the Northwest Ecobuilding Guild, rather than any written source.  Keep in mind that humans are notoriously difficult to define, so rather than thinking of these notions as applying to everyone, think about them as applying to most people.

1) People like sun.  Even when they want to be in the shade they want to be near the sun.

2) People prefer daylight to electric light.

3) People have a sense of being protected or exposed based on whether they can be approached by surprise.  Most people would prefer to feel protected and so won't linger in a place where they don't feel that way.

4) People are inherently social, they want to be around other people, even when they are working by themselves.

5) People need quiet time.

6) People need to feel connected to the earth: the soil, the plants, wildlife, and weather.

7) People need the option of being away from other people.

With these principles in mind, we can then think about design as a process involving the usual elements (the building is strong and contains the necessary features), the green design elements (materials, energy, water and health) combined with the elements from this section which pertain to comfort & convenience.

The Patterns

The patterns are divided into groups in which the patterns are presented more or less in the order they need to be considered, although you really have to read the whole thing (20-30 pages) because its a holistic approach. 

Site - what makes a good place for a building
Layout - how the rooms interact with each other & the site
  Size  - how to think about size
  Adaptability - how to make the house easier to remodel
Features - what things work in rooms
Construction - ideas about materials and their use
Landscape - how to make your site into useful space



A Pattern Language,  Alexander et al, Oxford University Press 1977

Patterns of Home: The Ten Essentials of Enduring Design, Jacobson, Silverstein & Winslow,
Taunton, 2002

The Not so Big House, Sarah Susanka, Taunton, 1998

Creating the Not so Big House, Sarah Susanka, 2000

Not so Big Solutions for Your Home, Sarah Susanka, 2002

How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand

Home, Witold Rybczynski, Viking, 1986

The Passive Solar Energy Book, Edward Mazria, Rodale, 1979

EEBA Builders Guild to Cold climates (etc), Joe Lstiburek, 1998

"Future proofing your building", Environmental Building News, V12 #2 Feb 2003

"Small is Beautiful", Environmental Building News, V8#1, Jan 1999













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