How Green Can You Go?
AIA DESIGN THEORY-March 2011
Edited by Rebecca Falzano
Photography Trent Bell
Chris Briley helps homeowners navigate the road to sustainability
Architect Chris Briley, principal of Green Design Studio in Yarmouth, thinks he might have to change the name of his firm in a few years. “The word ‘green’ is becoming more meaningless as it gets applied to everything from local food to carpet fibers,” he says. And while everyone seems to be touting green these days, for now Briley believes the word does still carry some weight. The endless choices in products, systems, building standards, and construction techniques make it difficult—if not overwhelming—for homeowners to figure out where to begin. “Everyone wants to be as green as they can,” says Briley. “But usually there is a limit to what people are willing to spend based on the return on their investment.” Here, Briley explains to Maine Home+Design how architects help their clients wade through the options—and the hype—when deciding how green they want to go.
Q: So how do you start the process of deciding how green a house will be?
A: I often have clients who come to me and say they’d like to build a green house. Great! I think, then immediately wonder what that statement means to them. As architects, we always go through a process of getting to know our clients—their lives, tastes, dreams, desires, and their inclination to certain design philosophies. This process is never more important than when it is applied to explore “how green” my new client’s house is going to be. I usually start by asking them what they know about building green and what excites them about it. You’d be surprised at the variation among their responses. Some view the concept from a purely economic standpoint (investing up front and saving money over the long term in lower energy bills); some want to tread more lightly on the planet and reduce their carbon footprint; others want a healthy house that’s free of toxins and full of natural and local materials; others want all of the above. It’s a discussion, really, that happens over the course of several meetings filled with litmus questions such as “How do you feel about composting toilets?” and “How much do you spend on utility bills now, and how much are you hoping to save with the new design?” After this lengthy dialogue with my clients, I go about designing their house with an understanding of their budget, space needs, lifestyle, site constraints, and passion for green design.
Q: How do you balance green design strategies with budget?
A: I let my intuition, based on my past experience, be my primary guide, but it’s not what is ultimately relied upon. An energy model is made after the design development phase but before the real construction. This model helps to answer some of the many questions pertaining to green design and helps us put real dollars to real design decisions.
Q: Like what?
A: Well, the building envelope is a good example. When a client is able to play the “What if?” game using the model, then questions can be asked, like “What if I spend more money on triple-pane windows? How much would that save me a year?” Likewise, when I make recommendations to beef up the insulation values in the house, you can actually put a number to how much savings my clients should expect. Usually the model verifies the decisions that are already made, but sometimes it will trigger some discussions that lead to upgrading (or downgrading) the exterior envelope or even the heating, air-conditioning, or electrical systems.
Q: Can this energy model let you play the “what if?” game with systems too?
A: Absolutely. It can be so overwhelming for clients to decide among all of their options—solar hot water, gas boilers, masonry heaters, ground-source heat pumps, pellet boilers…The choices are numerous, and every one of those systems has someone who swears that it is the only way to go. With the energy model, we can just share the house design and the energy demands with various mechanical subcontractors and renewable installers and have them provide their estimates. All of a sudden there’s real data from which good decisions can be made. We have real numbers for cost and savings.
Q: Do you find that you get a lot of resistance of contrarian opinions from builders?
A: No. With some builders we might get some skepticism at first, but usually the contractor plays a very critical role. Right about the same time an energy model is being done, we are inviting a contractor into the process where he or she can render their own opinion of construction cost, as a ballpark estimate. Once the builder is on board, he or she becomes a member of the team and is able to look over our shoulders as the construction documents are produced. This helps eliminate surprises and also helps to put budgetary numbers to design decisions based on the more robust construction methods that will increase the building’s performance.