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Constructing 290 Oak Hill Road by Allan Shope: Journal Entry 10: Architectural Sustainability: The Challenge of Change

September 7, 2013
Sometimes the ideas we grew up with turn out to be just plain wrong, and we need to adapt.Many of us grew up sun worshippers, sunbathing at every opportunity, always wanting to look tan, believing that basking in the sun’s rays was healthy.  Once we learned how risky those rays actually were, a sensible response would involve adjusting our behavior and our thinking: wearing sunblock, avoiding exposure, developing more of a liking for the look of uncooked skin, and modifying our perception of the sun’s benignity.Our whole society has made similar misjudgments.  We considered the passenger pigeon population so infinitely vast that we could persist in slaughtering them with reckless abandon.  We perceived the Hudson River as a suitable dumping ground for sewage and toxic waste.  We placed our confidence in such seemingly miraculous panaceas as DDT, asbestos, and lead-based paint.  Sooner or later, we recognized the need to change gears.What did we grow up thinking about houses?  Most of us believed the bigger the better, but it turns out that swelling the dwelling doesn’t bring about a corresponding enlargement in the occupants’ happiness; it just inflates the fuel bills, along with the time and money spent cleaning and repairing.  Our aesthetic tastes favored architectural styles harkening back to such bygone eras as colonial America, Victorian England, and classical Greece, but it turns out that those traditional forms don’t always jibe with the energy efficient mission.  In the past, we didn’t think that mattered; we regarded fuel as a cheap and abundant commodity, but it turns out that fossil fuels are actually finite, politically troublesome, and harmful to our environment.  Given that homes and buildings consume over forty percent of the energy used in the United States today, we should obviously conclude that it’s high time we started designing more sustainable buildings if we care about our planet.

Are we ready to come to grips with today’s architectural realities?

Sustainability has been the overarching guideline for design decisions in the prototype house on Sinpatch Road and in the new house on Oak Hill Road.  This is not a battle that will be won by dabbling; you need to seize every opportunity available to you if you are going to try to achieve a performance that approaches carbon neutrality.  Both houses use earth berming, building the structure into a hillside.  Berming allows me to take advantage of the ground’s consistently moderate temperature of approximately 55º, which is far warmer than the cold air in winter and cooler than the hot air in summer.  If the electricity goes out in the dead of winter, the house never freezes, and at the height of summer, a power outage is no sweat.  Tight construction enhances efficiency for heating and cooling.  Highly insulated curtains operate to mitigate heat transfer from windows during the night.  Passive and active solar technologies provide renewable sources for heat and power.  Construction materials, such as reused copper cladding on the exterior and concrete floors on the interior, are extremely durable, never requiring repairs or replacements.  A grass roof provides insulation and sequesters carbon.  The fresh air system – essential for a tight building – incorporates high-efficiency geothermal technology.

I find tackling sustainable architecture challenging but not painful.  I have needed to embrace a new aesthetic, to abandon architectural history as my guide, and seek inspiration from my humanity and the local environment.  The endeavor makes me feel alive professionally.  Cutting-edge materials, technologies, and construction methodologies crop up daily.  Tracking down the latest applicable inventions and separating the wheat from the chaff is a demanding but often exciting and rewarding pursuit. Ascertaining energy requirements realistically is also a difficult but necessary undertaking.  The price tag for building sustainably frequently discourages people; the initial investment for a sustainable house can amount to 20 or 30 percent higher due to the superior quality of the materials and technologies.  Fortunately, the building’s reduced energy demands, elimination of maintenance bills and increased longevity not only allow the owner to recoup those expenses, but can even make a sustainable house cost less than a traditional one over time (if you live long enough).

Architecture always entails a delicate balancing act among competing demands, and homeowners must determine their own personal priorities.  In an ideal world, decisions regarding cost, aesthetics, and sustainability would all harmonize, but in fact they sometimes clash unavoidably.  I designed a wall of large windows on Oak Hill Road for two purposes: to maximize exposure to the southern sun for passive heat gain in winter, and to make the most of the view of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains.  The ideal angle for each purpose differed slightly, so I chose to split the difference, which represents a compromise between sustainability and aesthetics.  The windows also created another conflict: their size and location endanger birds because glass is invisible to them, and many of our feathered friends would be liable to collide with the giant panes.  Consequently, I am using a special new glass that is coated with an ultraviolet reflective pattern visible to birds but not to the human eye.  It costs more, but protects aesthetics and sustainability of local wildlife.

The fireplace is another design issue I am juggling.  Anyone who knows me knows I have a weakness: I love fires.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a pyromaniac, but I am captivated by the power of a huge bonfire; the beauty and tranquility of a fireplace blaze on a snowy winter day; and the aroma, taste, and unpredictability of baking fresh bread in an outdoor stone oven.  Sadly, I have come to realize that the traditional indoor fireplace compromises the house’s tight construction and air quality.  As a guy who grew up in a 1720s farmhouse and always considered the hearth the heart of a home, the decision to eliminate an indoor fireplace is a wrench.  I haven’t given up.  I am exploring new fireplace technologies that might save me yet.  If I don’t find an environmentally friendly hearth, I am ready to leave the 18th century behind, and take the plunge into the 21st.  As Dylan says:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

In my next journal entry, I will discuss the Hudson River.

Until next week,



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