What Is the Architect’s Role When It Comes to Energy Reform?

Architects need to reconsider the types of buildings they are designing as well as the materials used during the construction process.

Solar Retrofit (in product development phase), image via itac.utah.edu

Last week we explored different energy efficient, cost-efficient, and resource-conscientious approaches to architecture and construction. This week, we continue the conversation with ITAC director, professor Ryan E. Smith.

Let’s begin by examining the architect’s role in society. Too often they are seen as people who produce individual structures. And so architects and their structures seem disconnected from their physical environs as well as from larger social discourses. But professor Smith argues that architects who teach and practice must reframe their understanding of how they and their buildings function in society: “It is well documented by the Department of Energy that buildings account for 39% of the overall energy consumption and contribute 39% of carbon dioxide emissions in the US; they consume 70% of the US electricity [produced from coal fire power. We can’t reduce ‘sustainable,’ ‘green,’ ‘eco,’ and ‘environmental’ to materials and offered amenities in buildings only. We have to apply holistic methods and perspectives that take into account the network of systemic factors.”

Architects, therefore, need to reconsider the types of buildings they are designing as well as the materials used during the construction process. For example, how are these produced and transported? What is the building’s energy profile during construction? “Many architects take at face value what the market has given them, being relegated to an assembler of information and products from catalogs,” says Smith.

A different approach involves researching and developing concepts, often over several months and perhaps even years and in collaboration with different industry partners. This produces better strategies and products that can be further tested and, eventually, launched. Some of the projects at ITAC have included “a solid wood wall system that stores the carbon sequestered and embodied in trees within a building for 200+ years of durable construction. This wood is manufactured from beetle kill standing dead pine. The wood must be harvested for forest health purposes and by doing so we create a value- added product to the market that has long lasting benefits,” adds the professor. Another project is an operable rain screen that provides solar shading.

Researchers at ITAC have also addressed the cost of integrating energy efficiency with architecture: “The US-approach to high performance is heavy in the application of renewable energy technologies such as PV, solar hot water and geothermal [which can be expensive]. Instead, passive design strategies have to be applied that minimize energy consumption upfront, to then cover the remaining energy demand with renewables. This can be achieved through good design and a strong team that employs a truly integrated design process from the project outset,” says Smith. In fact, a well-researched, well-designed, high-performance passive building will require only an additional 5%-10% above standard costs while rendering significant energy savings. This is far less than buildings that primarily use expensive technologies such as PVs and geothermal.

Smith concludes: “Summarizing Joe Turkel, ‘the future of design and construction is an increasingly non-architectural problem. Given our most pressing systemic challenges, success for architecture of the future will likely come from the students of today who learn the skills to complete front-to-back business models, understanding the limits of manufacturing, and [are] versed in new technology. They will be entrepreneurial, understand how capital works, and how to align themselves in strategic partnerships’.”

What will help advance the architecture industry is likely to be partnerships across disciplines, industries, and even physical boundaries.

Sherin Wing writes on social issues as well as topics in architecture, urbanism, and design. She is a frequent contributor to Archinect, Architect Magazine and other publications. She is also co-author of The Real Architect’s Handbook. She received her PhD from UCLA. Follow Sherin on Twitter at@xiaying

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