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Sustainable Architecture 101

Green design has never been so impressive

Jon Sharpe
By Jon Sharpe, Chief Creative Officer

The world of design is ever-changing. Design trends come and go, industry practices change and styles see good days and bad; nothing’s ever quite certain (and that’s what we love about it). But if there’s one thing we do know about the design industry, it’s that the future is sustainability.

Sustainable home design, whether in decor, fabrics, furniture, appliances or architecture, is so widely encouraged and executed these days that it seems impossible that the design world will ever be the same again. New technologies, which seek to make sustainable design easier and more effective than ever before, arrive on the design scene regularly and sustainability is getting more and more luxe (for those whose style doesn’t quite read reclaimed, recycled or reused).

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As the demand for eco architecture and green design grows (look no further than our Conscious Collection), I spoke to one of the industry’s top green architects Paul McClean, Founder of LA-based architectural firm McClean Design, to find out what is sustainable design, who’s it for and what is its future.

The most important thing to know about sustainable architecture is... that it is for everyone and does not have to be expensive or require fancy technology. In fact, if you need to rely on technology, you are going to have a hard time creating a sustainable building. Most of the heavy lifting is done by trying to place the building in the right way and take advantage of the site. Recently, we had a good example in our own home; the trees in the garden filled out to such a degree that we no longer need blinds to control glare and heat in the mornings in our living room.

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A great sustainable building... would not necessarily stand out, apart from appearing handsome. I think one of the biggest misnomers with sustainability is that it needs to look a certain way or contain certain materials. For example, the notion that a sustainable building should incorporate a lot of bamboo. People can build sustainably in every imaginable style; for me, and within our work, that means a connection to nature, sky, water and landscape, as well as an abundance of daylight. I believe being connected to these elements is important for serenity and healing. In our busy lives, we have become disconnected from the environment around us. With my work, I strive to rebuild that connection.

People also have an innate sense of what feels right in terms of beauty. A well-designed building, from a green perspective, will need to incorporate passive energy design to achieve that goal. Walk into a medieval church on a hot summer’s day and that immediate relief from the heat is passive design in action. The thick stone walls absorb the sun’s heat, keeping the space cool during the day, and then releasing that heat back into the building at night, creating a comfortable environment 24/7.

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When approaching design… we always start by looking at the environment it will be placed within. I never see a house as an object; it has to become an integral part of the landscape around it. The walls and openings frame views and make spaces that we hope will seamlessly connect the surrounding landscape. Breaking down barriers to the outdoors is a critical part of our design approach. We use a lot of moving glass panels to increase the connection to the outdoor spaces and the available views. We also try to build with natural materials as much as possible, as I think they will better stand the test of time. An example is slatted or ribbed walls in stone or wood.

We are fortunate to be able to design most of our projects in the very mild climate of Southern California. We can allow natural breezes and sunlight to cool and heat our homes here. We are also busy building in Canada, Asia and the Middle East, where we have to take a different approach to climate and sustainability. The most important part to start thinking about is how the building is oriented and how it responds to the sunlight and heat. We use a lot of glass within our buildings, but we also make use of deep overhangs to shelter the interior from the hot summer sun, while allowing the warm winter light deep into the building. Placemaking, use of light and proportions are also what make timeless buildings attractive to us and thus are important to think about from that standpoint as well.

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In the future... sustainability will be even more important than it is today and the steps we take now will have far reaching consequences. It takes tremendous resources to build today and we should be thinking that these structures may last for centuries.

In older cities, we see the importance of adaptive reuse, but it is also critical to think of the energy consumption over the lifecycle of the building. It is hard when you start planning a home and everyone’s budget gets tight during construction, but we are too quick to consider the purchase price of something without considering the long-term running costs. If an air conditioning system costs twice as much to install today, but is 20% more efficient in a few years, it will have paid for itself. We need to start thinking more about this; we also need to give thought to the replacement costs and inherent energy use in creating a replacement.

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We have made good strides in California these last couple of decades, but there is a long way to go. More specifically, we have made tremendous strides in renewable energy and as the cost of solar power decreases, it will make more and more of a difference. Years ago, a friend told me that the problem with solar was, at the time, it was taking ten years to recoup the initial costs of installation; in his opinion, when that came closer to three years, there would be a massive uptick in usage that would be truly transformative. We are not there yet, but we have seen an explosion in usage as that number has come closer to five years.

The next big issue is storage. In California, we make so much power at certain times of the day through solar, that we have to give some of it away; we do not have the storage capacity.

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My dream project... is probably the next one that comes through the door. I am so lucky to be able to design homes in the most beautiful locations—at the beach, high on hills above the city, with beautiful views of nature. Right now, we have new projects coming down the pipeline, such as a home by a lake in Florida and a beach house in the Caribbean. I like something complicated and challenging; I guess I would like to do more projects with natural challenges in remote locations, rather than with political challenges in tighter urban locations.