Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Meet John Picard at G Living

One of the many colorful, passionate and gifted people I met while serving on the Greening of the White House National Task Force, in 1993, was John Picard. He's aged a bit in this interview with San Francisco's G-Living TV host Sarah Backhouse, but he is still leading America's corporations down the path of green as the new black. That's black as in profit. Among his clients are Interface, GAP, Sony and now, BP. His message is timely. Why just do green or sustainable when you can go restorative?

Check out this interview, but stick around a while to enjoy many of the other videos archived at this elegant, fun and informative web site. While you are there, check out Zero House.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Gardening On High

The heirloom tomato seeds have sprouted in the peat pods in our kitchen and soon it will be time to plant them in the garden. Last year I had great success with my side yard plot which was constructed according to the book, Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew. You construct raised 4’x4’ beds constructed from 2” x 6” lumber, throw some landscape fabric over the lawn to keep the weeds from growing through, and fill the squares with a special mix of lightweight soils and organic soil amendments (composted kitchen waste is ideal). The soil mix is designed to hold water, cutting down on irrigation requirements.

This experience has led me to speculate that a similar vegetable garden would work very well on a flat roof. If my house had a flat roof, I could have a garden roof with a view that the rabbits wouldn’t eat and I could make a productive, pleasant place to read the paper and sip coffee in my PJs while watching the dewy tomatoes grow at sunrise. I’ll put this on my list of design strategies for my next green dream home (more on that in future articles). The money view from most buildings is from the roof. That's why penthouses are so expensive.

I know what you are thinking. Conventional wisdom says that flat roofs leak and putting wet soil on a roof is insane. Conventional wisdom is a good starting point for design, because it is usually informed by past failures. History has also shown repeatedly, however, that when innovators overcome conventional wisdom with new techniques, civilization makes progress. Let’s look at some unconventional wisdom for a moment.

The technology to plant stuff on the roof is now well proven and growing quickly in popularity across the country, thanks to groups like Green Roofs for Healthy Cities spreading the word about how to do it correctly. An example of the state of the art can be found at Oaklyn Public Library in Evansville, Indiana, which supports an 18-inch deep native mesic (wet) meadow with ponding elements and a subterranean trickle irrigation system for dry spells. That must have been one dimwitted architect!

Uh, as the architect for this project (when I worked for another firm, Veazey Parrot & Shoulders, in Evansville), I can attest we did learn how to put a wet natural meadow on a library roof in 2002 and it is still dry. The meadow extends over much of the seven-acre site in which this earth-sheltered 18,500 square foot building is integrated, such that it is difficult to tell where the building ends and the site begins. In case you were wondering, it cost no more to build this earth-sheltered library. The roof is expensive but three of the walls are just buried cast concrete with no expensive exterior finishes, which allowed it to be constructed for less than the established budget and less than a typical gabled-roof library building. Oaklyn also saves many thousands of taxpayer dollars each year through reduced energy and maintenance costs. For a typical above-ground building, garden roofs do add costs and those costs escalate with the thickness, complexity and amenities. Garden roofs do have paybacks, however, that will eventually recover the initial costs in most cases. Those costs and paybacks vary with each site, garden roof type and building type. The biggest payback is often reclaimed usable space and design schools now refer to the roofscape design as the “fifth facade.”

Oaklyn inside lets in sunlight through a "Lightbridge" clerestory.

When approaching new technology, it is important to examine precedents, research best practices and find the best experts. It didn’t take long for us to find the complex garden roof of Chicago City Hall and the designer of its complex garden roof, Charlie Miller, president of Roofscapes, who is one of the world’s premier experts on garden roofs (also known as green roofs or vegetated roofs). Working with Charlie and the rest of the design team, we figured out a way to pull that off. This “particularly robust” national-award-winning garden roof is designed to last for 50-75 years before replacement. It also makes the building more energy efficient, helps with stormwater mitigation, and the earth-sheltered strategy makes good use of an otherwise almost unbuildable hillside site. I would consider a similar, but less complex system for my dream home edible roof garden design. But Oaklyn is a good example of some of the technology available for less ambitious projects. Let’s go through some of the basics.

A growing medium that will support vegetables will need to be at least five inches deep to emulate the Square Foot Garden that occupies my side yard. The weight of five inches of wet soil needs to be added to the normal structural calculations. This would be known in garden roof language as an intensive system, as opposed to an extensive system, which typically are 3 to 4 inches thick and can go where you may already have a gravel ballasted roof. Ford Motor Company has a very large example of an extensive system at their River Rouge Plant. The Indianapolis Museum of Art (by BDMD Architects) has a new parking garage covered by a very intensive system that supports an allee with large trees. Other commercial garden roofs feature pools and fountains or even a full golf course hole. It is a way to reclaim expensive urban space. Chicago is bullish on green roofs because they cool the city and reduce combined sewer overflow issues. They now have 300 garden roofs throughout the city.

Eleven-foot tall windows help daylight earth-sheltered Oaklyn Library.
Oaklyn Library used a composite concrete deck (where the poured concrete locks into a specially-designed corrugated metal deck and both are strengthened) to support a very deep garden roof. A concrete deck would probably not be necessary on a residential garden roof, but it may be a good choice if you are using cast concrete walls, which would be a great way to go on a home for other reasons (more on this in a future article). Larry Crane at Crane Builders uses this type of system to build floors in his multi-level insulated concrete form (ICF) walled homes. With typical wood-framed construction, garden roof capacity could be achieved with deeper joists, parallel chord trusses or engineered wood microlam or glulam beams or with I-joists. On existing homes, it would probably mean sister joists, but be sure to check with a licensed architect or structural engineer before doing anything on your own. There are other considerations, like lateral loads in earthquakes, to consider, depending on your location and loading capacity of your walls and foundation.

Corporate roof golfing!

Many existing buildings, including the building I work in, already have the structural capacity for garden roofs as they were constructed in such a way as to be added to later and the roof was actually designed to be a heavily-loaded industrial floor. Reclaiming such space for use by people, instead of leaving it to the pigeons and the rooftop compressors, has become a hot niche market for many firms.

When you have the structure confirmed, the key decision is what type of membrane to use to keep the elements out of the building. For Oaklyn, the choice came down to two systems; a liquid-applied membrane by American Hydrotech and a heat-welded reinforced PVC sheet membrane system by Sarnafil. Both systems had been proven in very high profile projects around the world and either probably would have worked. Sarnafil allowed for the incorporation of ponding elements (plastic pipe dams heat-welded into a secondary protective cover sheet), which was also heat welded. Oaklyn’s roof system is “robust” in that is has two layers of heat-welded, reinforced PVC membranes, the primary layer and a protective layer. This type of membrane has been used in underwater tunnels and has a thirty-year history in Germany. This membrane is also impervious to root growth, while most organic materials require some type of additional root growth barrier. To prevent excessive ponding of water that would kill the meadow, Oaklyn’s roof has a slight slope and a subterranean drainage system consisting of low-profile rectangular perforated drain pipe. The overburden of soil protects these premium membranes from ultraviolet light, extreme temperatures and physical damage. Welds are tested prior to adding soil mix by flooding the roof for 24 hours. Another advantage of a heat-welded sheet membrane is that the same system can be used to flash penetrations, parapet walls, and other interruptions where leaks are most likely to occur in any roof system. Sarnafil also has certified installers, which means you get experienced crews who know what they are doing. It is also a good idea to compartmentalize sections of the roof and embed electronic leak detection so that any eventual problems can be discovered before any damage is done and repairs can be made without removing large sections of overburden. Consider this cheap insurance.

Garden roof technology continues to improve rapidly, with new developments like pre-planted trays for rapid starting of the living part of the system. Live Roof seems to be leading this trend.

Sixteen species made up the initial meadow planting at Oaklyn Library

Oaklyn used plugs of living meadow plants in 16 species. The key consideration for roof gardens is whether they will be accessible and frequently maintained, like a vegetable roof garden, or if they will have to fend for themselves without much maintenance and without irrigation. In the latter category are plantings of sedums and mosses that can survive extreme conditions normally seen on rooftops without irrigation.

Getting back to a garden on your home roof; some of the advantages, other than more usable outdoor space, include: increased energy efficiency, sound isolation, disaster resistance (fire, hail, high winds), significantly longer roof life, less stormwater runoff and a supply of very fresh food. Aesthetically speaking, this will work best when the building is already designed in an architectural style that features a low-slope roof. My guess is your subdivision's covenant would prevent you from lopping off your massive neo-French hyper-hip roof that matches those of all your neighbors. This would be great in an urban setting, however, when you don't have much of a yard or garden space on the ground plane or on a contemporary-style custom home. For a design from scratch, you would have the option of raising the garden to the roof, or, if you have a nice south-facing slope with a view, put the house under the garden. Since you have all that new flat landscape, you may also want to put some solar hot water panels and solar photovoltaic panels up there to wipe out your electric bill and charge your electric car. More on that later as we continue to explore the green dream home.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

What To Do When Your Left Brain Shuts Down?

Indiana native and IU School of Medicine neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor recently made the big time as a speaker at the TED conference in Monterey, California. This is no ordinary professional conference and Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor is no ordinary brain scientist. Imagine you are a Harvard-trained expert on brain function and your own brain suddenly experiences a massive stroke that essentially shuts down the left side of your brain. Her story is one that transcends biology. Watch her dramatic 18-minute presentation that received a rousing standing ovation and that has been widely recognized as one of the most powerful of the many earthshaking presentations in the remarkable history of the TED conference. Hang around and view more of the presentations. Prepare your own $100,000 idea worth spreading for the next TED Prize.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Dynamic Virtual Design

A well-designed and constructed building should last for a century or longer. Design decisions last for generations, but they are often made with little more than guesswork. Experienced architects eventually learn from their mistakes, but those mistakes tend to outlast the architect. A better approach is to model the building in detail during early design and tweak the design to optimize the building's performance. When you optimize a design, you make it work better for less money - for a very, very long time.

Sun Path Diagram for a net zero energy public library (analysis by Nick Worden and Daniel Overbey, BDMD Architects - Green Dream Team)

With the advent of sophisticated computer modelling software, it is possible to get an accurate idea of how a building design will perform long before the building is constructed. A good suite of modelling software can tell you:

  • How much ambient light will be provided by natural daylight on December 21 on a cloudy day?
  • What is the effect of adding wall or attic insulation on the size of the heating and cooling system?
  • How many photovoltaic panels will I need to balance the energy needs of this building on an annual basis? What if I changed from fluorescent to LED lighting?
  • What size of clerestory windows will allow the best natural ventilation and will all parts of the building be adequately ventilated?
  • Will the building next door shade the solar panels on my building?
  • If I put a white roof on this building instead of a black roof, how does that effect my heat gain and heat loss for the year? What if I put on a vegetated roof?
  • How much energy will this building use and what will it's carbon footprint be?
Many architects today still use pencil and paper and build physical models (if any), but a growing number are moving to 3D software that allows a design to be "built" in the computer before it is built in the real world. One 3D modelling software program that anyone can learn to use is SketchUp, which provides some rudimentary evaluation tools, such as simple shading analysis. There are also add-ons to export these simple models as green building extensible markup language (gbXML) files which can then provide the basis for detailed energy and building performance analysis with energy, ventilation and daylight modelling software.

Daylighting analysis for a net zero energy public library showing daylight levels on a cloudy day in the middle of winter in Cass County, Indiana. (analysis by Nick Worden and Dan Overbey, BDMD Architects - Green Dream Team)

To get more accurate modelling data, however, sophisticated building information modelling (BIM) programs like AutoDesk's Revit Architecture are typically used. This software helps architects visualize the design but it also can help determine how well its systems will function. When the whole design team utilizes these tools during early design, little effort is wasted on guesswork. The computer model removes the guesswork and informs a more dynamic and accurate design process, which leads toward a more successful end.
I've been impressed with a relatively inexpensive analysis tool called ECOTECT from Square One Research, which generated the images in this post. Another interesting analysis tool is Green Building Studio, which is about to be acquired by Autodesk, which means it will probably cease to be free. GBS can do a whole building energy analysis of your model when you export it and upload it in gbXML format. GBS can also export to popular engineering energy analysis tools like DOE-2, eQuest, EnergyPlus and Trane Trace700, which can provide energy performance data for any hour of the day any day of the year.
We are finally entering a time when architecture is no longer just a fashion show. We want our buildings to look great and we want the experience of the architecture to be elevating, but we also want them to PERFORM! Green buildings perform by delivering delightful, healthful, daylit, comfortable spaces that are energy and resource productive. The best way to get there is by means of a dynamic collaborative design process assisted by state-of-the-art design tools that can tell us how well the building will perform before the shovels hit the ground and before you open your first utility bill.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

In Defense of Michael Pollan

When my wife and I saw that author Michael Pollan would be speaking at Butler University near our home, we immediately marked it on our calendar. He has had my attention since The Botany of Desire (2001 Random House), but his The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006, Penguin Press) began to change our eating habits. We just finished his latest book, In Defense of Food (2008 Penguin Press), and that was the basis for most of his talk this past week. We weren’t the only ones in Indianapolis who are apparently avid Pollan readers. Atherton Hall was filled a half hour before his talk and university officials quickly opened another lecture hall linked via closed circuit broadcast.

Pollan began his lecture with the words that opened his latest book, with the advice to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Then he developed his convincing case for that recommendation. He described the irony that we live in a country where millions of people are suffering from obesity and malnutrition at the same time. Food-related diseases like Type II diabetes and obesity have become so common as to create new “lifestyles” with their own magazines and supportive industries. These “Western Diet” diseases have similar effects in other countries as the impoverished increase their incomes to the point where they can afford to consume American-style processed food. Wherever our food goes, so goes our lethal food-related diseases.

"Eat food." The test for this is to eat only that which your grandmother would recognize as food. That would probably not include spray imitation “cheese” in a can, for example. The shorter the ingredient list the better. One unprocessed ingredient is ideal. Much of what we eat is so highly processed that most of the nutritional value is missing and we are left with little more than the calories and chemicals. Pollan recommends staying out of the center of the store and sticking to the whole foods on the outside of the store. The best food has no health claims or even labels. Think vegetables and fruits and other real whole foods. Better yet, get your food from the local farmer’s market or your own garden. Yes, that means you may need to relearn how to raise a garden and cook, but the rewards of unadulterated fresh food are worth the effort.

"Not too much." This is pretty obvious, but he notes that we eat more than our healthier counterparts in other countries, such as Italy, where eating is a slow, social process with smaller servings that are more mindfully consumed over a much longer period of time. In our fast food nation we tend to eat so much so fast that we overshoot our signals of satiation and miss a lot of food appreciation along the way, not the mention the loss of the family sit-down meal. Pollan cited an unbelievable statistic that 20% of American meals are consumed in cars.

"Mostly plants." Numerous studies, notably The China Study, by Collin Campbell, have shown that consuming a diet that includes a significant portion of animal products, especially red meat, can lead to health problems ranging from heart disease to cancer to premature puberty in girls. In those populations where the diet is all or mostly plants, these diseases are virtually nonexistent and people enjoy longer, healthier lives. Pollan recommends consuming free range or wild animal protein, if any, to avoid the health problems associated with meat produced in confined industrial farm operations with unnatural diets that require massive doses of antibiotics augmented with growth hormones.

The bonus of an organic, local, plant-based whole food diet, other than better eating and personal health and longevity, is significantly reduced environmental impact. A 408-page report by U.N scientists, Livestock’s Long Shadow, indicated that raising animals for food is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all vehicles in the world combined. More than 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared to create cropland to grow grain to feed farmed animals; farmed animals are fed more than 70 percent of the corn, wheat, and other grains grown in the U.S.; and almost half of the water and 80 percent of the agricultural land in the U.S. are used to raise animals for food.

So what is it like to really veg out? We have been learning to prepare whole plant foods from our garden, from the local farmers’ markets, from our local whole foods stores (and the mainstream stores increasing their whole foods selections) and from our local farm delivery service for the past six months and it has been a journey from the artificial and the bland to the real and the delicious. We have learned how to cook again and we have learned to appreciate our food and our experience of food more. We can enthusiastically report that it has been a very pleasant adventure in better foraging, tastier food and a more relaxing dining experience. The fact that we have also significantly reduced our carbon footprint is a huge bonus.

It was no surprise that we had trouble finding a seat at Butler’s Atherton Hall to hear Michael Pollan and it is no surprise that In Defense of Food is #2 on the New York Times Bestseller List.