What’s new in sustainable residential design? Experts — including CTA’s David Koel — weigh in!

By: CTA In The News
31 May 2018

Aimed at would-be homebuilders interested in sustainability, a recent Big Sky Journal article [excerpted below] solicited trends and tips from David Koel of CTA Architects Engineers, Lindsey Love and Lindsay Schack of Love | Schack Architecture, and Leo Crane of Energy-1.

BACK TO BASICS
By Melissa Mylchreest

If you ask a handful of architects, engineers, and builders from in and around Montana, “What’s new in sustainable residential design? What are the latest and greatest green innovations that you’re excited about?” you might expect their answers to be full of gizmos and widgets, high-tech solutions for saving energy and money. But while you might hear a bit about in-home battery banks, electric car chargers, or how solar power has come a long way (but still has a long way to go), you might be surprised by the take-home messages you hear: Less is more. Keep it simple. Keep it natural. Source locally. Better relationships lead to better homes.

“It all comes down to some really straightforward things,” said David Koel, design principal at CTA Architects Engineers. “Just bringing it back to basics, and trying to work with nature rather than against it.” All [interviewees] agree that in order to be sustainable and environmentally friendly, homes ideally should be designed with that goal in mind, right from the start.

“It’s an important early step to take with the homeowner and the architect,” Crane said. “Just sitting down and saying ‘OK, how can we make this house as efficient as possible?’ Having those good collaborative relationships right at the beginning is key for smart design.” That said, he emphasized that clients shouldn’t worry that they’ll need to sacrifice their aesthetic vision for the sake of sustainable design. “The earlier we get involved, the better we can create a situation where we’re working within their design to make it as efficient as possible.”

Schack agreed, stressing that beauty and a holistic approach to design are critical pieces of the sustainability equation. “You can have the views you dream of, and a beautiful gathering space for your family, and at the same time operate on a minimum of energy — and that can be achieved without a lot of architectural gymnastics.”

“Confluence House,” a David Koel design, highlights many key sustainable elements: strong southern orientation with an overhanging roof, low western exposure, regionally-sourced materials, concrete floors to provide a heat sink, solar panels, and, most importantly, a small footprint.

CTA_project_ConfluenceHouse_Williamson (2)

Efficiency, Koel said, is inherently tied to size. “I know it sounds contradictory coming from an architect who makes his money off of fees, and the bigger the house the bigger the fee, but the truth is that when you talk about one of the simplest ways to make a house sustainable, or just a good use of resources — less costly to heat and cool — it is just to make it smaller.” While he acknowledged that some owners are still opting for larger showcase homes, he sees that trend slowly shifting. “A lot of folks, especially younger, more savvy folks, are now asking for somewhat smaller homes.”

“Ultimately for us,” Schack said, “we were thinking about economy, efficiency, and best value — what’s the best home that you can build? — and that’s what led us to Passivhaus design.” Passivhaus design (also known as “passive house”) is an approach to building ultra-low energy use homes by maximizing solar orientation, using continuous insulation, constructing an airtight building envelope, and installing a well-balanced, efficient ventilation system. The resulting homes are super-efficient, leading to lower energy bills and a lower carbon footprint.

Beyond siting, size, and design, it’s important to think about what materials go into a house as well. “We’re currently on a no-foam kick,” said Love, referring to the standard blue-board insulation. Natural fiber and cellulose insulation in double-stud walls perform as well if not better than foam insulation, cost the same, and are produced without potentially harmful chemicals.

Sustainable approaches to other building materials are gaining traction now too. “Years and years ago, back when energy didn’t matter, people were willing to grab materials that they thought were beautiful from anywhere in the world,” Koel said. “And some still do, but that’s sort of the old way of thinking. Now we think about, what would you do to build a house if you only had the resources around you? We try to use local wood — sometimes reclaimed — local stone, and manufacturers of glazing as close by as we can get, in an effort to reduce that footprint.”

Ultimately, the three companies want to remind clients that building sustainably doesn’t have to be complicated or cost-prohibitive. “I think we’re in a good spot for this kind of building,” Schack said. “The people who are contacting us just appreciate performance and beauty and quality in their own lives, and they want it in their homes. There’s been a lot of messaging out there in the past few decades saying it’s too expensive, or it’s not really effective. But people are starting to realize it’s within reach.”

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