Natural Life Magazine

Designing Sustainable Homes

Designing Sustainable Homes
A chat with two eco-architects

By Kat Robertson

Not too many years ago, electric cars where representative of a sci-fi future; organic foods and vitamins were an expensive luxury and sustainably constructed homes were only creative ideas for the rich and famous.

However, time has brought us face-to-face with the ugly reality of gluttonous living on this planet. We have discovered that many of the allergies and respiratory problems we suffer from are a direct result of exposure to the many toxins we live with daily in our homes and work environments. We have also learned that to continue to treat people, natural resources and organic life as non-connected entities can only result in the extinction of life as we know it. So an increasing number of us are learning that we can begin to heal ourselves, our communities and ultimately the planet.

Part of that awareness is the focus on the renovation and construction of our living and working spaces. A new breed of building contains healthy air to breathe, is free of lead paint and the off-gassing of other toxins, has minimal electromagnetic fields and has energy-efficient and/or sustainable heating and plumbing systems. Creating serene living and working environments has also become a key element in the management of stress; a need which must be integrated into our lives if optimal health is to be an obtainable goal.

As the following interview with two green architects shows, sustainable living and working environments are becoming a serious option for the not-so-rich-and-famous. Harvey Cohn, president and owner of Harvey Cohn Architecture and Jörn Schröder, president and owner of Bio-solar, offer their insights into the process of designing home and other buildings that conducive to healthy, sustainable lifestyles.

KR: What is your philosophy on “green architecture”?

HC: A lot of people use the term green architecture, but I prefer to use eco-architecture because it speaks more fully of the inter-relationship between human dwellings and the environment. It’s all-encompassing of various aspects. My approach – my philosophy – is an evolutionary one. Most of my clients come to me with projects that have to be completed with specific budgets; specific schedules. So I see eco-architecture as evolving; as a kind of process where each project improves upon the last one and I try to select from a full material palette of what’s available.

JS: I grew up in Germany, where I lived most of my life. During the 80s there was a big peace and green movement which I was a part of. It was during this time that environmental issues were a big matter in Germany. I saw the necessity that we all have to work in this field; we all have to help the environment which we are a part of and live with it. It became a normal routine and philosophy to integrate this into my architectural studies and then later into my profession. Based upon the amount of illness and sickness that people suffer from, it is very important that we understand the connection between health and creating a clean environment in our homes. My philosophy or my mission is not directly to save the world but at least to point certain things out which can be improved upon within our indoor habitats in conjunction with the outside terrain that will enhance the quality of life. Whether it’s indoors or outdoors, it needs to be combined. You can’t see things separately; it is all interconnected.

KR: How are you creating buildings that are cleaner and healthier for their occupants and the environment?

The photo at the beginning of this article is of an ecologically-sound, energy-efficient square house located in rural Nova Scotia, Canada. It was designed and built by eco-architect Jörn Schröder of Bio-Solar. Passive solar radiation from large, south-facing windows is augmented by a greenhouse that also acts as an insulating barrier in summer. The room design combines feng shui, radiant heating, and the use of natural building materials. Clay was used for several of the interior walls because it naturally regulates relative humidity, cleaning dust from the air. They are painted with a breathable self-made lime casein paint.

JS: It is very necessary to work with the environment, to use what is there, creating a wholistic approach. I try to avoid using high tech construction methods on projects that are not large scale. If it is not possible to work with the natural environment, for example in a big city, then we have to work with technology like air and water purifiers while using exterior energy like solar and feng shui for good indoor flow. An increase in sustainable resources will be available in the future and these, too, need to be integrated. I’m very fortunate to not only have theoretic, scientific experience but also the practical experience of building my own two houses, one from scratch in Canada and one reconstruction in Brooklyn. I had to learn to improvise and to do it cost efficiently. Sometimes it was a big challenge because many of the materials I used to work with in Europe were unavailable in Canada. Fortunately things are changing a lot, but the experience of designing and building my experimental house in Canada was an opportunity to learn and discover my ability to improvise. Discovery and improvisation are very necessary when you are working with the variety of locations and environments that are being developed for housing.

KR: How do you feel sustainability is progressing in the market among professionals?

HC: I’ve been in business for many years now. But when I started, I not only had to define what I meant by eco-architecture, there were also very few products available on the market commercially. A lot of the products were special order from Europe or only available from small factories here and there. Now that a lot of these greener products are more mainstream, there is a larger range of product selection and availability.

KR: And I would think that has made the cost a little bit more affordable as well?

HC: Oh yes, definitely. There really shouldn’t be any cost premium for a well designed ecological building. And to the extent that there may be one, it goes towards more durable materials...more energy saving materials so that certainly the cost, the long term cost will off set the initial expense.

KR: Do you offer eco construction alternatives to clients who do not come to you with a green agenda?

JS: Of course, this is my philosophy. Some people here in the United States have heard about green architecture but many of the people I’ve encountered in North America have not. I always try to enlighten people and show them there is a better way. Some construction aspects are already integrated automatically in my architectural planning without additional expense to make it healthier. In the process of design, strategy, and concept, I can definitely influence the clients, educate them to do things in an improved way.

HC: There are what one might consider green clients who want to do right by the natural environment, yet for some clients this is not so important to them; their own personal health is important to them. They’re more focused on how the health of the building will affect them personally in terms of the off-gassing of materials or designing with natural light, etc. Creating a good environment is the goal, which may or may not dovetail with being a good steward of the planet. Then I have clients who don’t know anything about it and maybe don’t have any interest in it; they come to me because I’m a good architect. I will always try to offer green alternatives to the extent that if material A and material B are equivalent and one material is more environmental than the other, I will always pick the more environmental material. But if there’s a material choice from the client, I will always present that choice to them. Then I make a comparison of their choice to a comparable sustainable material. I try to make the case that the more durable materials will cost them less in the long run and the more energy saving design will save them energy in the long run. I also like to make the argument that the more natural the material, the better it is for their personal health.

KR: What are the criteria for selecting construction materials for a project? With so many new green products on the market compared to 10, 15 years ago, how do you ascertain which products you want to make available to your customers?

HC: First of all, a lot of the products are products we’ve experience using; they have a track record. That’s probably the number one thing, if we are secure in the ethical soundness of the product.

I’m also educating myself too, which is an ongoing process. What I mean by that is the products we know about we use all of the time, we have a comfort level with them. But if we never try anything new nothing ever gets discovered; there’s no advancement. I read a lot of trade publications and books and I’m constantly learning about new materials. And frequently my clients will read about some material or method that they’re interested in, and ask me about it. Then I’ll do research on that product using my professional skills and knowledge to screen the product to see whether the claims that are being made are real or not.

JS: The main criteria for me would be compatibility with the client’s needs and health, then compatibility with the local environment and the environment in general. To give an example, some materials are harmless as a finished product, but during manufacturing they may use a lot of energy sources or harm the global environment, so then they are not recommended. Using local building materials which are not shipped all around the world is preferred. If clay is a local material and is available, it would be recommended for use in the construction. Another criteria would be determining the sustainability of the design with the local environment so that there would be good feng shui flowing through the home, connecting the outdoor with the indoor environment.

KR: How does the process begin between the architect and the client?

HC: Well, the first thing I try to do is sit down and speak with the client and really listen to them; I don’t start out with a pre-conceived notion of what they want. I want to know what they want, what they need; even their vision if they have one. A lot of times, clients will come with ideas so I try to understand them, that’s step one. Then step two is again more information gathering, looking at what we’re starting with, is it an existing building or a bare site. Either way there’s something there to start with: there are trees in certain locations; there’s a micro-climate to the site. These are the two halves of the research I start with. Then I take this information and I distill it. The design process is a little bit hard to describe; it’s more of letting the information percolate. The starting point is always really listening to the client.

JS: I have to listen to the client to learn about their needs, for example if they have any chemical sensitivities, or if they are allergic to certain substances, then the location where they want to build, and the environment where they're going to build. I want to hear about their concepts for the house, like the layout and room needs. I will give my input and we develop a strategy and a concept. Depending upon the budget, we may have to minimize certain criteria but during the whole process we can try to find a way for the house to be a healthy one. I see myself as an assistant helping my client accomplish their goals.

KR: How do you respond when a client says to you: “Well how much will it cost for you to re-do this apartment ecologically?”

HC: When I get questions like that, I follow up with a number of questions to the client to find out what they have in mind. Do they really want to change the layout of it; the architecture of it; (that’s not really a “green” question but one for starters) or do they just want to change the finishes, replace them with something less toxic. If it’s a building, do they want to make it more energy efficient? A lot of it has to do with what the client thinks building a “green” space is.

I see three aspects to this and to some extent they can work together, but they don’t have to unless someone makes them work together. The first one concerns the materials of the building itself – the effect the construction has on the environment, on the earth in other words. How many resources are you taking out of the ground? How much pollution are you creating in the process, how much waste? What’s the effect of the actual construction of the building itself? The second part is what’s the cost to the environment of running the building once it’s built – how energy-efficient is the building. But it could also mean how often will it need to be painted, how often do you have to replace the roof over the lifetime of the building. The third thing is the health of the occupants, in other words, how healthy is the physical environment inside of the building. Although the idea is to cover all three aspects of eco-architecture, I always start with listening to determine which of these three aspects are most important to the client.

KR: What do you feel is needed to move sustainability into the mainstream and what is your role in that?

JS: I think we are already in a good run in this direction. There’s been in the last few years a big movement into the green way of thinking and green architecture, especially in the United States. Money is pouring into marketing strategies and I think it’s moving into the popular way of thinking.

First of all, I can help by assisting people find the best way to accomplish their dream home. Also by educating, showing them what is possible. It’s very interesting to compare the three countries and cultures where I’ve lived and worked regarding the way people think and their consciousness of green living. In Germany, the green movement in the 1980s was initiated and motivated by the people; they were the base. Politicians and the government had to take this movement and the will of the people and devise new laws and regulations. This created building codes, energy codes and recycling programs that have been a reality in Germany for the past few decades. It is a given that every architect in Germany is working with bau-biologie, or green architecture; clients expect it. In Canada, when I immigrated back in 1995, few had ever heard of “green” or energy saving, or recycling systems. It was different there; then the government saw the necessity to make changes in this area so new laws and regulations were created. Within a few years, a lot of changes were made and the consciousness of the people changed as well. Within the Canadian Department of Natural Resources and the Mortgage and Housing Corporation, big strides were taken in the development of healthy living and housing. In the United States now, it appears to be all about marketing. More and more companies see the green movement as a wonderful business opportunity. The timing now seems to be right for the movement in North America.

HC: I agree that to some extent sustainability is on its way into the mainstream way of thinking. People are beginning to wake up to the fact that the environment is changing; we see it in the changing climate on the planet. I also think people are beginning to wake up to the health aspects in various ways. I don’t know that I have any grand suggestions for how to change the mainstream. I think it’s more important for us as individuals to each take responsibility for what we do and that’s what I try to do. I try to make sure that in my life and in my work I’m making those changes, or at least making as much change as I can towards that goal.

It’s not just my private life at home, but it’s what I do at my office; it’s the decisions that are made every day on a professional level that are striving towards that goal of a more ecological existence. I can help people by creating the environment they want – environment in the narrow and the broad sense of the word. The environment is the stage where they live their lives. To the extent that the environment – whether that is in their home, school, or office – helps preserve the larger natural environment and is healthy internally to its occupants, it’s about creating the stage for living.

Learn More

Harvey Cohn Architecture, PLLC
185 Madison Avenue, Suite 902
New York, NY 10016

Jörn Schröder, Bio-Solar
185 Madison Avenue, Suite 902
New York, NY 10016 


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