How small firms can go green

Bagley Outdoor Classroom

The University Classroom Building, a 2012 COTE Top Ten recipient and LEED Platinum-certified project from small firm Salmela Architect in Duluth, Minnesota.

These resources can help a small firm develop high-performance know-how

Developing in-house expertise in the area of high-performance buildings can be a challenge for small firms, especially when you’re starting from scratch. Here are some suggestions for professional development that can help your firm bulk up its in-house expertise on green design.

Building science 101

For starters, tap into the free resources from Building Science Corporation (BSC). They offer amazing articles that range from wall section basics to the potential pitfalls of insulating historic brick façades. BSC also offers in-person seminars throughout the country on various topics; Dr. Joseph Lstiburek's are particularly entertaining and insightful.

Net zero homes

If you practice in a cold climate, seek out Marc Rosenbaum’s online classes on Heat Spring. He is an engaging speaker with a deep knowledge of high-performance homes and buildings. The self-paced class provides great instruction, follow-along information resources, and access to feedback directly from the instructor. One of our project managers found these courses helpful in making the switch from commercial to residential projects. Marc also offers a class on deep energy retrofits (super insulating and air sealing existing buildings).

Passive House

This isn’t for novices. Passive House (or Passivhaus) is gaining traction in the US as an aggressive energy standard for new and existing homes and buildings, offering thermal comfort, resilience, and minimal energy bills. Unlike LEED, Passive House is a performance-based standard focused solely on energy performance, so no checklists here. Notable projects range from single-family homes to the residential high-rise on the Cornell Tech campus in New York. The Passive House Institute US and Passive House Academy both offer educational opportunities; among other things, I learned a new appreciation of detailing related to both thermal bridges and air barriers.

Energy modeling

Energy modeling benefits the individual project as well as your firm. By modeling your projects, you can compare them and begin to discern the influence of design on energy performance. To model at a firm level, join the AIA 2030 Commitment. Its AIA 2030 Design Data Exchange tool will allow you to see how your projects stack up to similar endeavors; all the information is anonymous.

Architecture 2030 suggests a basic energy model from the EPA called Target Finder. If you’re looking for an in-house energy model for a residential project, try REM/Design; they have a 90-day free trial available. Sefaira has been also popular as an in-house model for my colleagues who focus on nonresidential work. They offer a plugin for both Revit and SketchUp.

Resilience

When it comes to resilience, start a conversation. A colleague at Perkins+Will described a practice at her firm: each year, they ask the following three questions (paraphrased below) of each of their projects:

  • What is the climate projection for the region?
  • What stresses does this create for your building/community?
  • What is your project doing about it?

Start there and you’ll be on the right track.

If you have other resources that have proven beneficial, contact us at @AIA_COTE on Twitter or share them with the hashtag #GoingGreen.

This article originally appeared in the July issue of the Committee on the Environment's e-newsletter. Visit the AIA's Committee on the Environment (COTE) homepage for more.

Stephanie Horowitz, AIA, is a member of the COTE Advisory Group and managing director of ZeroEnergy Design, a green architecture and energy consulting firm.

The AIA does not sponsor or endorse any enterprise, whether public or private, operated for profit. Further, no AIA officer, director, committee member, or employee, or any of its component organizations in his or her official capacity, is permitted to approve, sponsor, endorse, or do anything that may be deemed or construed to be an approval, sponsorship, or endorsement of any material of construction or any method or manner of handling, using, distributing, or dealing in any material or product.

Image credits

Bagley Outdoor Classroom

Paul Crosby

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