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10 Sustainable Buildings

By Jane McGrath

Green building. You’ve heard the words, but what do­ they mean? Green building is a trend in the architecture field to build structures that are water and energy efficient out ­of environmentally friendly materials. Manuel Cadrecha, a design director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention building, a structure we’ll learn more about later in this article, believes that the green building process not only benefits the community at large but will soon become the norm [source: AIA]. We picked ten sustainable buildings that stand out as inspirational examples of green building methods — buildings that just may thrust green building into the realm of standard construction methods. By striving to keep these buildings sustainable in new and creative ways, architects and designers have successfully erected structures that reflect a growing sense of stewardship for the environment. They have found solutions to problems such as water runoff, heating and cooling energy consumption, construction waste and water waste, among other issues. These buildings span different climates (in states such as California, Ohio, and Georgia) and different functions (homes, courthouses, offices), displaying just how versatile green building can be. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has distinguished many of these buildings with places in their annual top ten lists of Green Projects, and the U.S. Green Building Council has bestowed high LEED ratings on most as well. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, uses a rating point system to measure sustainability and awards silver, gold, and platinum status to a completed project. Among the other advantages of sustainable building, it turns out that going green might actually save you green — dollar bills, that is. Although green building construction can be pricey up front, the money you spend initially could come trickling back in the form of lower water and energy bills. So whether you want to reduce your ecological footprint, you are interested in architectural trends or you just want to save some cash, read on to learn about some truly inspirational sustainable projects.

One way we can help sustain our planet is by changing how we get power. Image Credit: Robb Williamson

10: CDC Division of Laboratory Sciences, Building 110

Even th­e U.S governm­ent is jumping on the green building bandwagon, eviden­ced ­by this building, used for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. It achieved LEED Gold status (and was the first high-performance government building to do so) by incorporating several green building techniques. For instance, the water conservation systems allow rainwater to collect in cisterns and seep into the ground to irrigate the landscape. Even the condensation that forms on the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems collects in these cisterns.

The material used for the building includes renewable resources, like bamboo, and builders recycled over half of the waste from construction.

­To save energy, lights throughout the building are equipped with sensors that detect when a room is empty or when sunlight is sufficient, in which case the sensors would trigger the lights to shut off. Architects call this technique solar harvesting.

Adequate sunlight is especially important for the lab areas, as they are frequently occupied. The architects designed the building to permit lots of sunlight (even though the position of the building made this difficult). Sixteen-foot- (4.8-meter-) high ceilings allow sunlight to extend deeper into the lab rooms. In addition, a brise-soleil system (or sun shade structure) takes in light and reflects it throughout the building, while at the same time blocking solar heat. The efforts have paid off — the building saves about $175 thousand in energy costs each year [source: AIA]

On the next page, we’ll find out how one building produced only one-tenth of the waste the typical home construction projects creates.

The CDC Division of Laboratory Sciences, Building 110 Image Credit: Perkins + Will

9: Z6 House

The Z6 House in S­anta Monica, Calif., gets its name from the philosophy behind its construction. Specifically, it refers to the goal of attaining zero levels of these­ six factors: waste, energy, water, carbon, emissions and ignorance. This philosophy drove the owners and arc­hitects to use every green building method they could to make a sustainable and livable home. Builders succeeded in producing only a fraction (one-tenth) of the waste typically put out by home construction [source: AIA]. How did they do this? By actually building the house in pieces in a factory and then assembling these pieces on-site (which only took 13 hours). Not only is this method efficient, but it allows the owners to disassemble the house and move it to a new location should they choose. In addition, movable walls in all the bedrooms allow inhabitants to adapt the rooms to their needs.

As with many of the projects we’ll discuss, the builders of the Z6 House incorporated an array of PV panels in hopes of providing 60 percent to 70 percent of the home’s energy consumption [source: AIA]. The owners also chose energy efficient appliances. Using a solar hot water heater, which collects heat to use for the water, also reduces energy use significantly. This heater also contributes to warming the home by powering the radiant floor heating system. Special glazing on the house also allows for the winter sun to warm the house effectively. In the summer, ventilation in the structure allows breezes to cool the home. Architects also made sure balconies provided significant shading for hot days.

In their efforts to conserve water, architects incorporated several different green building methods. For example, a green roof with sedums and other plants allows a reduction in runoff. Other rainwater collects in a large water cistern, which irrigates the green roof when needed. Meanwhile, gray water irrigates the plants on the ground. In addition to these features, low flow faucets and showerheads contribute to reducing the amount of water used.

Owners made sure to select materials made with recycled products for things such as tiles and countertops, and even the steel frame. They also chose cork for the floors. Green building experts recommend cork as a practical and sustainable material because it is obtained without needing to cut down the tree from which it grows.

As with most sustainable buildings, architects expect the energy-efficient features, such as PV arrays, to save the owners enough money in energy bills to pay for themselves eventually. In this case, that payback should take eight to 10 years [source: sunenews]. To help keep the inhabitants aware of their energy use, a system allows them to monitor the home’s consumption.

On the next page, we’ll learn how a wall of plastic bottles can heat a home.

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This photo features the green roof atop the Z6 house. Image Credit: LivingHomes/Amy Sims

8: Factor 10 House

­Like the Z6 House, Chicago‘s Factor 10 House gets its n­am­e from its philosophy — the claim that the structure consumes one-tenth of the environmental resources that the average home uses (in other words, it minimizes the ecological footprint by a “factor of 10”). In an effort to find affordable methods to green build, Chicago’s Department of Environment and Housing held a competition for designs, and Factor 10 was among the winners.

The Factor 10 house incorporates dozens of creative green building techniques, not the least of which is the solar chimney, which both warms and cools the house using fans. In addition to temperature functions, the solar chimney, which harnesses sunlight from windows for warmth, also provides light for the house, so to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and electricity.

In addition to appliances and low flow fixtures that reduce energy and water use, the house uses a green roof planted with sedum. This roof both significantly reduces water runoff and causes evaporative cooling. Architects also oriented window placement so that few windows face north and south to reduce heat loss in the winter.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the house is a wall made of water bottles. Not only is the material itself being recycled, but the wall serves as a heat sink which collects heat all day and releases it into the house during the cool night. Insulation for the house was manufactured from recycled paper, and the concrete used for foundation incorporates fly ash (a substance produced during the burning of coal.) Even the carpet consists of recycled materials — specifically, material from recycled plastic bottles.

Read on to the next page to find out how a bowling lane can be used as a longer-than-average table for students.

The Factor 10 House view from the street.

7: Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies

Oberlin College likes to practice what it preac­hes. To reflect what students learn inside, the construction of the school’s environmental studies building has focused on redu­cing environmental impact. Located in Oberlin, Ohio, the building, funded by private donations, implements several green building techniques to keep this large structure energy-efficient and yet comfortable.

For example, to minimize water consumption, the Lewis Center employs a water treatment system it named “The Living Machine.” As the system takes in wastewater, the machine treats and purifies the water so that it can be reused for toilets.

The photovoltaic (PV) system on the building’s roof also works to reduce environmental impact. Using the sunlight, this system provides a significant amount of the energy for the building, which reduces its reliance on coal-fired power plants. Whenever this system provides more energy than the building needs, the local power company purchases the gratuitous electricity. Sensors that detect sunlight and movement regulate lights, so to avoid unnecessary use.

As with the Factor 10 House, appropriately positioned windows help the building take significant advantage of the daylight. Geothermal wells also help to heat and cool the building.

When possible, the construction utilized scrap materials from the rest of the campus. For example, an old bowling lane is now a table in the Lewis Center.

The students and faculty also strive to use surrounding land in the most environmentally conscientious ways as well. Part of their mission included creating a nearby wetland to help reverse the effect of human elimination on wetlands in Ohio. Wetlands are swampy areas that organizations like the EPA seek to protect because they provide habitats for wildlife and can even improve water quality by grabbing the nasty ingredients out of runoff before it becomes drinking water. Also, fruit orchards on the Lewis Center land provide produce.

On the next page of this article, we’ll learn about a house that lets in so much sunlight during the day that artificial light is pointless.

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The Lewis Center at Oberlin College with its adjacent wetland Image Credit: Robb Williamson

6: Solar Umbrella House

The initial structure for this house in Venice, Calif., dates back to­ the 1920s with a renovation 10 years later. In 2005, owners decided to renovate sections of the h­ouse as well as add portions, increasing it to more than twice its original size. These changes, which focused on making the structure more sustainable, included adding a “solar umbrella” of PV panels which ended up providing 95 percent of the home’s energy [source: AIA].

In addition to providing most of the energy for the house, the PV panels shade the house, reducing any energy needed for cooling the house. In addition, the structure allows cross ventilation to provide significant cooling. Also, three solar panels contribute to heating water for the hot water supply as well as for the swimming pool. A heating system that releases heat through the concrete floors of the house heats the house very efficiently. The structure allows for significant use of daylight — so much so that artificial light is not necessary at all during a sunny day.

Construction materials used for the renovation included concrete that is 50 percent fly ash and recycled mild steel as well as other recycled materials [site: AIA]. Because they started with an existing structure, the builders were able to forego using a significant amount of new material. Not only that, but builders recycled about 85 percent of the waste that resulted from construction [site: AIA].

The amount of water runoff from the house is low as well, thanks to gravel that lets water seep into the ground. Eighty percent of the water that doesn’t enter the ground doesn’t turn into runoff either because of a water retention system that collects the water in a basin [site: AIA].

Owners chose particularly energy-efficient appliances and also implement lighting systems to reduce electricity use. After all is said and done, the home ends up consuming half of the gas that it did before, even though it is more than twice its original size.

If you really want to encourage earth-friendly behavior, don’t just build a sustainable structure but make it difficult for the people who use the structure to park cars there. Learn more about this strategy on the next page.

This is an image of the Solar Umbrella House Image Credit: Lawrence Scarpa

5: Colorado Court Affordable Housing Project

In a district of Santa Monica, Calif., where the cost of living has skyrocketed, city officials have­ been seeking ways to help low income people stay in the area. These efforts helped lead to the Colorado Court apartments, an environmentally conscious approach to affordable housing. With two on-site energy generation systems, this complex became the nation’s first energy neutral affordable housing project [source: AIA]. These two systems are a PV panel system and a natural-gas turbine cogeneration system. In addition, the heat generated as a byproduct of the turbine system helps contribute to the hot water supply and radiator system of space heating.

Part of what helps make this building so sustainable is that it incorporates no air conditioning systems. Architects made this possible by maximizing the use of breeze with window placement to encourage ventilation. The sides that don’t get as much of the breeze benefit from shade of solar panels. Also, lights turn off in unoccupied rooms by the use of motion sensors. Management chose appliances, such as refrigerators, in the units that are especiall­y energy efficient.

Another system constructed for the building collects rainwater from the entire block behind the building and filters it through the ground to reduce runoff. Low flow toilets and shower heads minimize water waste.

The design of the parking facilities also strives to contribute to environmentally-friendly practices. For instance, with only one parking space for every four units, residents are encouraged to take public transportation. The facility also designates space for bike storage as well as a station for recharging electric vehicles.

During construction, builders only needed to remove one tree from the area, which they then had replanted. The concrete used consists partly of fly ash, and recycled material makes up all of the carpets. In addition, builders used recycled newsprint for insulation.

On the next page, you’ll learn about another facility that discourages driving through green parking lot design.

The Colorado Court Affordable Housing Project Image Credit: ­Lawrence Scarpa

4: Austin Resource Center for the Homeless

When the city of Austin, Texas, required that public projects in the city qualify for LEED s­ilver status, the architects of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless jumped on board. This public building serves the homeless population in the city in addition to offering a computer room, an art room, and offices for other public organizations. Using energy and water saving methods as well as environmentally-friendly materials, the architects succeeded in building a highly sustainable and useful building.

Various structural designs that keep the building shaded reduce the energy needed to cool the building in the summer. Special coating on the roof reflects a significant amount of heat to keep the building cool. PV panels, donated to the project, help contribute the energy consumed in the building. Also, a solar hot water system supports the hot water supply and motion sensors turn off lights in rooms that are empty or d­on’t need artificial light. All these factors mean the building uses 20 percent less energy [source: AIA]. Otherwise, using energy from renewable sources was a priority for the building’s designers as well.

To efficiently use water, the building collects rain water, which is in turn used for flushing toilets and irrigation of the landscape. Sensors on the faucets cut down on water waste, too.

Architects also wanted to use recycled material wherever possible as well. So, cement partially composed of fly ash was used. And, although construction always entails producing waste, more than half ended up being recycled

In an effort to encourage alternative, clean transportation, planners designed a parking lot that limits spaces for cars (to encourage carpooling) and contains more space for bikes. In addition, the site includes a station for recharging electric cars. Its proximity to several bus lines also makes public transportation convenient.

One of the biggest challenges in green design is water conservation. On the next page, we’ll learn how one building uses aerated faucets to reduce water consumption.

Some sustainable buildings, such as the Austin Resource Center, incorporate a charging station for electric cars.­ Image Credit: Daniel DeFabio/iStockPhoto

3: Lake View Terrace Library

The Lake View Terrace Library in Lake View Terrace, Calif., ties the community tog­ether with a structure that represents environmental sustainability and utility, as well as beauty. The efforts to attain a platinum LEED rating were successful and resulted i­n a highly sustainable building.

A PV array provides shade for the entrance and is the source for 15 percent of the library’s energy use [source: AIA]. The library also agreed to a contract to ensure that the building uses wind energy, rather than fossil fueled energy. To minimize the need for artificial light, the reading room in the library lies along an east-west axis, which takes full advantage of daylight. Architects designed arch structures for the library to allow ventilation to keep the building cool without reliance on air conditioning. This works well even when there isn’t a strong natural wind.

Design specifications incorporated plenty of room for landscaping, while making pavement for parking more space-efficient. With this landscaping, the library reduces the amount of its runoff by 25 percent [source: AIA]. To save water needed for irrigation of landscaping, many of the plants are drought-tolerant, and the system stops irrigation when it’s raining. Plumbing features such as aerated faucets reduce unnecessary water consumption as well. These kinds of faucets mix air with the water to maintain a strong water flow while still conserving water use.

Builders were able to use material consisting of recycled content for much of the building. That includes the insulation, carpet and steel structures. In addition, the building’s cement consists partly of fly ash. During construction, builders succeeded in recycling about 75 percent of the waste [source: AIA].

The next building you’ll learn about uses waterless urinals to cut down on water consumption. Read the next page to learn what other ways this building conserves water.

­The Lake View Terrace Library uses wind energy garnered from wind turbines such as these.­ Image Credit: Travelpix Ltd/Getty Images

2: Wayne L. Morse U.S. Courthouse

­Like the CDC, this courthouse in Eugene, Oregon is a sustainable federal government building. This massive structure is on a site previously occupied by a cannery plant that contributed to water runoff in a climate with 51 inches (about 1 meter) of rainfall each year. Efforts to reduce runoff led to the construction of underground parking, allowing for more landscape, instead of concrete, to surround the building. Moisture sensors that regulate irrigation and plants that can sustain little irrigation also reduce water consumption for the site. Waterless urinals and low flow plumbing fixtures help as well. All in all, this structure reduces water consumption by 40 percent [source: AIA].

To conserve ­energy, the building’s architects designed the roof with clerestory windows which let significant light into the courtrooms, restricting the need for other lights (which have sensors that detect occupancy and other light). Glazing on the structure also insulates heat. Although buildings with such high ceilings are costly to keep warm, a heating system in the floor offers a solution for efficiency. Because heat rises, warming these rooms through the floor helps keep some heat near the floor. To keep the building cool in the winter, architects designed the structure to provide shade for certain areas of the building.

Builders also placed a high priority in using recycled content in such structures that used steel and aluminum.

The last building you’ll learn about is no building at all, but a barn. Find out how this barn could help you appreciate sustainable design.

Materials for the Morse Courthouse construction included recycled aluminum. Image Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

1: The Barn at Fallingwater

This barn in western Pennsylvania lies on land adjacent to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Fallingwater house — a structure acclaimed for its artistic appeal and use ­of the natural landscape. In keeping with Fallingwater’s brilliant integration of nature and civilization, the Western Pennsylvania Conservatory (WPC) uses the barn as a both a forum and example for visitors to learn about green building. It also holds community social events, such as barn dances, during its three-season availability. Originally built in the 19th century, the WPC had the barn renovated to become sustainable as a way to reflect their mission to connect the community to nature.

Among its numerous energy efficient methods, the barn uses a geothermal heat pump for heating and cooling needs. This device minimizes the need for fossil fuels by using the earth’s ground as a source of heat in the winter and a place to get rid of heat in the winter. Other tools include sensors that shut off lights when a room is empty and when sunlight is sufficient to light a room. To preserve water, the facility recycles gray water. It also employs low flow fixtures that allow it to use less water to perform the same tasks. Using these has resulted in reducing the consumption of potable water by as much as 71 percent [source: AIA]. Bioswales, ditches that catch water and reroute it, also allow the facility to use water runoff from parking lots. In addition, the sprayed-on polyurethane insulation materials used in the barn are HCFC-free. HCFCs, or Hydrochlorofluorocarbons, are harmful to the ozone [source: EPA]. Other parts of the barn use straw bale insulation as well.

Striving to stay environmentally conscious from the outset, the construction teams were able to recycle 81 percent of the trash that resulted from renovation [source: AIA]. In addition, the site provides shaded parking for idle buses visiting the Fallingwater house so that they use less air conditioning.

Low flow faucets, which restrict the amount of water that comes out, are common in sustainable buildings. Image Credit: Janis Christie/Getty Images

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