Architect’s Corner: Inherently Sustainable

When Building Sustainably is Simply Building

by Abeer Sweis, design partner, SweisKloss

(Editor’s Notes:  Abeer Sweis has an intimate knowledge of construction and structural engineering, as well as an innate ability to look at a potential project and see myriad design possibilities.  She earned a Bachelor of Architecture Degree from Woodbury University and worked as a designer before starting SweisKloss with her husband, Jeff Kloss, in 1998.)

Long ago, one would see for-lease signs on the sides of buildings advertising available space as fully wired or wifi-enabled, which were technologies that were new and unique amenities at the time.  Prior to this by almost 150 years, I am sure lease advertisements listed the new lift equipment called the elevator to win tenants over the competition.  We do not see these building amenities advertised as modern, new, or featured anymore because these technological advances are ubiquitous, standard, and are just part of building.  Let us hope that in the near future the sustainability movement, like other advancements in building technology, will have progressed so that we no longer need to build sustainably.  Instead, all building materials will be inherently sustainable, and we will just simply build.

         In the meantime, sourcing sustainable materials is getting easier and less expensive thanks in large part to states like California, and to supply and demand.  Here in California, on the jobsite we are required by law to recycle our demolition and construction debris; we can only purchase high efficiency lamps; all water fixtures must be low flow; and all future new homes must have solar panels.  

         Building sustainably is the responsible thing to do, but it is also inspiring.  There are so many exciting and beautiful materials becoming available all the time.  For example, solar panels printed into wallpaper, cement made out of carbon dioxide industrial emissions, phase-changing materials that absorb and release energy to maintain an ideal temperature, ground cover aggregate made from solidified acrylic paint waste, and drywall made with recycled newspaper.

         What is most exciting is the movement from sustainability to being Net Positive.  Defined many ways, sustainability is fundamentally causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time, whereas Net Positive is a way of operating that puts more into the environment than is taken out.  Organizations such as the International Living Future Institute foster the idea that our built environment should give back to the natural environment and to our communities through responsible and transparent practices.  Net positive buildings generate more energy and clean water than they consume, they are built with materials that are safe and resilient, and they promote universal design and designs that elevate our spirits and inspire us. 

         Being environmentally responsible is being attentive to the well-being of the whole building, grounds, and occupants as one environment.  This means implementing quality materials, abundant light and fresh air, and technology that enhances the lives of the end user.  Use recycled material in recyclable packaging, reuse existing materials, and donate those not used.  Present to clients material options that are sustainably and locally sourced and specify energy-efficient appliances and HVAC systems that are right sized.  Every project includes doors, windows, and skylights that allow for both daylighting natural ventilation, as well as adequate insulation.  Exterior shading and pergolas have the effect of light shelves while permeable pavers reduce water run-off.  Install home-automation systems with lighting, HVAC, and spa controls that are programmed to enable the client to use and enjoy their space as fits their lifestyle.  Integrating sustainability into design and construction is simply how to build efficiently.

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