To delve deeper into our coverage of the 2012 COTE Top Ten Awards, ECO-STRUCTURE asked the winning firms to detail their experiences with sustainable design. These offices didn’t just happen upon a winning scheme—rather, they’re all well-versed in making high-performance strategies an integral part of each project. Below we take a closer look at some of the core values that shape each firm’s ethos.
Location: Portland, Ore.
Principals: Alec Holser, AIA
Little-known fact: "We thought it would be good to walk the talk, so we went out a bought a 20,000-square-foot, 1910 horse stables that we converted to a LEED Gold–certified studio for Opsis. Last year honey bees that live on our rooftop made a gallon of honey for us. Recently, we covered the exterior of our building with paint formulated after the chemistry found in the lotus blossom. Our building is now 'self-cleaning' through the use of biomimcry."
What was the biggest lesson you learned from your 2012 COTE Top Ten project, the Music and Science Building at Hood River Middle School?
Alec Holser: Creating a net-zero-energy building required setting a goal early, and keeping it at the forefront of the process. Among the myriad design decisions that an architect makes about aesthetics, function, program, cost, materials, systems, and so on, energy use was not always the most important factor, but it was always something that needed to be considered. This meant that the design team needed to put in a lot of extra effort modeling different design scenarios and energy-efficiency measures so that decisions were based on actual modeled data. For example, numerous configurations of skylights and clerestory windows were run through both the energy model and the daylighting model so that a solution that balanced the needs of both could be found. Not only did the models sometimes yield results that led to decisions that were not intuitive, they also were useful in giving the design team confidence in defending decisions when value-engineering options were considered.
We discovered that user education and commitment is one of the most important performance criteria to attain and maximize high-performance buildings. The project included a personally committed science teacher who integrated performance and curriculum. With everyone on board and understanding the goals, we met and exceeded project aspirations.
What insights from this and other sustainable projects would you share with other professionals?
We learned that everything matters when your aspirations are true net-zero energy. No component is too small to maximize and leverage its value to the project. In addition, all decisions should be thought of holistically, as every part is a piece of the total building performance. As noted above, education should be an integral part of every sustainable project.
While creating sustainable buildings can sometimes involve the use of cutting-edge technologies or systems, a much greater portion of what makes most buildings sustainable is simply good design—traditional systems put to use in a thoughtful way.
The use of an integrated design approach is necessary for a successful sustainable project. Appropriate stakeholders and decision-makers need to become involved at the beginning to set project goals such as LEED certification or energy use. This allows the design team to organize the steps to achieve these goals in an effective manner. An integrated design team is also essential; having architects and engineers at the table in beginning saves time and money along the way. The most sustainable design solutions often involve several systems working together. By having the correct players at the table at the right time solves many problems that would otherwise show themselves later on. If coordinated properly, this type of design doesn’t have to mean more meetings and email, just more upfront preparation by the parties involved.
In addition, the design itself needs to be integrated. Operating on a limited budget and with lofty sustainable goals in mind, it is important that building systems work together, and materials are used for more than one purpose. For example, a radiant slab can be a heating and cooling delivery system, a structural floor, and a finish floor all at one time. Finally, the construction team should be integrated and on board with the project goals. Construction details need to be thoroughly thought out, drawn up, and executed. Their role is essential because a building that leaks air and water, despite how good the design is, will ultimately fail in its sustainable goals.
What is your firm's philosophy on sustainable design?
We approach each project with a simple set of beliefs that sustainability is integral to the design process. It is never an additional component. As integrators, we offer projects that seamlessly exceed aspirations. We believe simple solutions are the best, and we seek them first in every project.
What kinds of sustainable solutions are non-negotiable for your firm? What are the baseline standards your firm aims to meet with every project?
We have been resistant to set standards. Each of our projects offers a divergent set of variables unique to its own set of criteria. That being said, we are registered and dedicated to the 2030 Challenge, and integrate the key criteria for building performance into each project. Opsis Architecture finds creative ways to integrate sustainable solutions without additional costs, often finding a balancing point of achieving owners needs and fulfilling our responsibilities to the planet. Because sustainable design is essential to our practice, our enthusiasm inspires others to think beyond the norm. We have multiple LEED Platinum–certified projects, and we currently are certifying a pilot commercial project with the Earth Advantage Small Commercial Efficiency Pilot (SCEP) at a Gold level certification. We also have two projects that have met a net-zero-energy goal, one of which has received Petal Recognition and Net-Zero-Energy Certification under the Living Building Challenge.
How do you think these types of innovative green solutions might become standard?
The implementation of highly sustainable projects is directly linked to a verification of high-performance buildings. Case studies and post-occupancy evaluations are critical to a broad understanding of the successful design of innovative green solutions. I see the solutions becoming standards when metrics for their performance have been confirmed and operations understood to not be overly complex.
More information about the Music and Science Building at Hood River Middle School is available here.