If you take a look at Dubbeldam Design Architects’ website, you’ll see that they describe their practice as having “a focus on contemporary modern design.” In fact, browse through their featured projects, whether it’s for the award winning “Beach House” or recently featured “Cabbagetown House” in several publications, and you’ll see stunning photos of beautiful contemporary design. But little mention is made about the sustainable component of their designs. Here’s a little secret about true environmentalists: anyone who is so dedicated to environmental improvement or minimizing their environmental footprint rarely talks about it because it is 100% incorporated into their daily practices. There is no need to hammer it home because it’s just a matter of course.
In the case of Dubbeldam Architects, their designs focus on reusing materials, maximizing energy efficiency and taking advantage of free energy from the sun whenever possible. They’re also concerned with choosing materials that are better for your health, and have a lower impact on the natural enviroment. But most importantly, design excellence is a priority as it promotes environmental sustainability simply by the fact that well-designed buildings stay around longer because they are functional and beautiful and people want to preserve them.
Heather is a busy woman; not only does she have a full-time architecture practice, but she is also the Vice Chair of the Toronto Society of Architects, sits on the board Design Industry Advisory Committee, and has two children. I really appreciated her taking time out of her schedule to discuss the importance of green design and building.
BEC Green: What is the major hesitation most people have when it comes to building a new “green” home, or even renovating using green features?
Heather: The additional costs of building ‘green’ are often a stumbling block for people who are considering building/renovating a green home. What people often don’t realize is that the initial extra costs of green features will actually result in significant savings in the long run, which should be a factor in everyone’s renovation and long term budgets. Green homes usually include more efficient energy systems such as heating and cooling systems, electricity generation or hot water generation through solar systems, and more efficient systems for energy use such as appliances, light fixtures, etc. Often these systems cost more to buy, but use less energy, so pay for themselves over a short to medium period of time, after which time the cost savings can be immense. With energy costs anticipated to continue on an upward trend in years to come, the return on the original investment is virtually guaranteed to improve over time.
Some green building materials or finishes can cost more than regular finishes, based on supply and demand. Like anything else, the more people who use green materials, the more the costs will decrease. We cannot put a value on our own health and there has been so much research done lately on the adverse effects of some widely used materials and finishes. As an example, asbestos was widely used for over 100 years before we became aware of the negative health issues associated with it! It’s important to do research before committing to finishes, or if the information is overwhelming, to hire a design professional to help out with the many choices.
BEC Green: How important is it that design be a part of a green renovation or green build (as opposed to directly hiring a contractor who uses green materials)?
Heather: Design provides an overall unified approach to the planning of a renovation or building project for the long term. It is the creative basis of a project, incorporating both the aesthetic and functional aspects of all the elements. Design professionals (architects and interior designers) are trained in design and spend considerable time on research, development, and testing of ideas and materials. Therefore, it is very useful to hire a design professional to help with a green renovation, as design professionals do a significant amount of research on systems, materials and finishes before specifying them. They will guide a client through a project from start to finish, and assist with the many complicated aspects of a building project, including advising a client on the value and relative costs of various systems, approaches and materials. Hiring a contractor who uses green materials is a good idea, since that means that he/she understands the value of greening a building and does not have to be convinced along the way. It is still a good idea to hire a design professional from the onset to guide you through the process as there are so many options available, for every aspect of a project.
BEC Green: In Toronto we seem to have had a residential building boom going on for the last 12 years. As old houses are torn down and new ones are thrown up, do you have any desire for how the new “infills” should be built? Are they missing any obvious “green” feature that could be easily incorporated?
Heather: An obvious green feature would be the reuse of buildings that are being torn down, as there is a growing problem of waste creation as well as the energy required to build new buildings and produce the materials needed to make them. In our practice whenever possible, we reuse buildings or parts of buildings instead of ‘throwing them away’.
Another obvious green feature comes from the incorporation of passive sustainable systems into a project that don’t add much additional cost, but reduce energy use and make more comfortable living and working environments. Passive sustainable systems are ones that use simple techniques to utilize natural elements – such as natural ventilation through operable windows that are located so that the air moves through a building when a few windows are open, daylighting to reduce the use of artificial lighting, passive solar design which uses shading to prevent summer sun from entering a building but allows winter sun to penetrate and warm the interior, rainwater harvesting for irrigation – there are many more…. Most buildings/houses being torn down are being replaced with builder homes and the builders are concerned with their own bottom line, which usually doesn’t include incorporation green or sustainable elements into the home.
BEC Green: How did you get into designing “green” homes?
Heather: We started designing green homes early on in the practice out of interest and concern for the environmental problems created by buildings and the building industry. Buildings represent over 50% of energy use and the construction industry consumes a lot of resources and creates a lot of waste. We wanted to create buildings that are more environmentally friendly and the more research we did, the more the whole thing made sense, for everyone. We have designed a few projects that were almost completely off-the-grid, and one that even fed electricity back into the grid. Now it is second nature for us to think along these lines, and talk to clients from the onset about green features. We find that most clients now are quite well educated on the options available and approach us to incorporate green features from the onset of the project.
BEC Green: What do you say to your clients when they ask you to design them a “green” or eco-friendly home? Do you have specific contractors you recommend? For example, do you know that they will balk at the price tag? Is it more expensive is it to build an eco-friendly home?
Heather: Yes, it is more expensive to build an eco-friendly home, but most clients are aware of that fact and are willing to invest in the short term costs for the long term savings. Most clients are looking to build or renovate and stay in their house for 15 years plus, so they can see the payback and realize the subsequent savings of building using green energy systems.
We have specific contractors that we worth with based on our comfort level of their quality, cost and understanding of what we consider good design, the appropriateness of contemporary design for today, and green design.
BEC Green: What is the most important feature of a truly “green” home? Size? Orientation? Energy Efficiency? Location? etc.
Heather: There is no one ‘most’ important feature of a green home – it is a combination of features that make it green including the ones you mention. All these features work together to save energy, and provide a more comfortable living environment. The most important thing is to have an open mind and be willing to invest in some green features. Of course, the larger a home is, the harder it is to reduce energy use, but there are many things that can be done to achieve a greener outcome.
BEC Green: If people are on a limited budget and they are doing a renovation, where is the most effective place for them to spend their money to make their renovation green? HVAC, EnergyStar appliances? IAQ? (should they choose an area that is most important to them ie, personal health, vs. planet health vs. payback — higher upfront vs. lower maintenance bills).
Heather: The most effective place to spend money on a limited budget is through design, by utilizing the passive sustainable systems as mentioned above – natural ventilation to limit air conditioning, daylighting to reduce artificial lighting, passive solar design to help heat the building in the winter.
Green HVAC (heating ventilation air conditioning) systems cost more to buy and install as mentioned earlier, but the reduction of energy use and therefore cost can be huge over the life of the building. Long term maintenance and energy costs are greater than the initial costs of the systems and are a factor that should be considered.
EnergyStar appliances do not necessarily use less energy than other appliances, it is a rating system that is not mandatory to apply for.
IAQ (indoor air quality) is a very important factor, especially if you have children. There are many low VOC (volatile organic compounds) available now, as there has been much research done on the ill-effects of high VOC’s. For example, there is a component in most oil-based urethanes that will be banned in Canada by the end of this year, as they have found adverse health effects from the use of this compound. This is a personal health issue that some people are concerned about.
In the end, the costs of all these elements have to be weighed against long term energy costs and health effects and people will decide where their priorities lie. It is certainly a complicated process but there is a lot of information available now to inform the public.
Dubbeldam Design Architects are located at:
401 Richmond Street West, Toronto, ON, M5V 3A8.