Green Design: Then and Now

by Geoffrey Butler, AIA

Everyone wants to be “Green” now. I won’t go so far as to say that it is fashionable to be “Green,” but maybe it is that we are all waking up to the fact that our energy resources are finite and wasting them is just not smart. It has taken quite a while for us to come around and I have to say that I am happy we¬†are embracing¬†“Green” now. But what does that mean really? Is it all about certifications? Having a LEED badge on your project? Or, is it a deeper, more real thing? I think that it is a lifestyle thing and it means making changes in how we live, work and play.

For us, as architects, we have to stop doing things that require energy to overcome or wastes resources. Our forefathers didn’t have the luxury of air conditioning to provide a comfortable work place or home. Of course, the definition of “comfortable” was also different. Before air conditioning, it was not possible to set the stat at 68 degrees and have it happen. Comfortable might have been 80 degrees with a breeze.

What did they do? They planned their buildings with orientations to capture prevailing breezes, provided high ceilings with very tall windows with double hung sashes. The top window sash would slide down to let the hot air out, and the lower window sash slid up to let the cooler air in. Cross ventilation was achieved with windows on opposite sides of the building. Most windows were covered by broad roof eaves or porches so that the sun would not shine in and heat up the space in the summer, but let the winter sun in to capture some solar heat gain when you need it. Multi-story buildings had internal ventilation chases which allowed warm air to rise through convection and then be exhausted out at the highest peak of the building. This natural convection would draw cooler air in from the lower windows and doors thus creating cooler breezes in the space and provided the comfort they desired.

Our current situation is different. We have always had air conditioning, and we would simply do what we wanted to do with the building design (make it look really neat). We would orient the building for compliance with visibility, access, zoning rules, and arbitrary set backs. We would add fenestration to suit our design whims, and then turn it all over to our ever-trusty Engineers and let them apply the AC to counter act our design and make the space comfortable. In the sixties we didn’t even care much about proper insulation. Over time, we have learned to provide better insulated buildings and have even added tinted glass to reduce the energy consumption – some. We learned to think about infiltration and reacted by sealing the buildings up as if you put the thing in a ZipLoc baggie. That brought its own problems with mold and sick buildings.

We are learning more and more every day, and we are figuring out how to be responsible. It is all about providing healthy buildings that use all of our resources well. It is going to also require that we change the way we live. We need to walk the talk. I would propose that we can learn a lot about being green by looking back in time and learning from those who did remarkable things with their built environment using the resources they had available to them and just being smart. It is all about providing simpler, smarter solutions. We are all about that.