Ask the Green Architect: Getting Started in Green Building

Ask the Green Architect: Getting Started in Green Building

Eric Corey Freed is principal of organicARCHITECT and teaches Sustainable Design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and University of California Berkeley. He is on the boards of Architects, Designers & Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), Green Home Guide and West Coast Green. This article has been excerpted from his upcoming book, "Green Building for Dummies" to be released in August 2007.

Q: If I want to get involved in Green Building, where is a good place to start? What business opportunities are there? Where can I do the most good?

A: I cannot tell you how many versions of this question I receive. The popularity of the question indicates a growing desire by people to get involved in something larger than themselves. It is also a sign of real changes being made.

The best approach might be to see the world full of problems waiting to be solved. We have so many, choose one and just get to work. Pick something you like and make a plan of how to solve it.
"The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problems."
- Mohandas Gandhi
In many ways, the Sustainability Movement combines a perfect storm of opportunities: namely, doing well by doing good at the same time.

This surge in interest in green building has brought with it some new and exciting trends. From Green Pre-Fab homes to biocomposite materials made from plants, there is no shortage of innovation or imagination.

Several areas hold particular interest for me, since they hold the greatest potential impact.

Solar Innovations

The photovoltaic effect is the physical principle that makes solar power possible, and was first discovered by French scientist Edmond Becquerel back in 1839. While hundreds of companies are seeking ways to make solar panels more efficient or less expensive to produce, there is little innovation. All are essentially using the same type of solar cells we have used since Bell Labs produced the first silicon solar panels in 1954. This is a 53-year-old product based on a 168-year-old scientific discovery.

Several companies are looking beyond merely improving solar cells and into reinventing the concepts of solar. Energy Innovations, a Pasadena based company, has developed the Sunflower, a solar concentrator.


Courtesy: Energy Innovations


Since solar panels are still expensive and produce average an efficiency of only about 12 percent, the Sunflower uses an ingenious array of mirrors to focus the light onto a single solar panel. These twenty-five mirrors improve the efficiency of the solar panel well beyond anything available today. Inexpensive mirrors replace solar panels to lower the cost of the unit. The company hopes just one Sunflower unit would produce enough energy to power your entire home.

While the Sunflower utilizes solar cells, another company, Sterling Energy Systems has a different kind of concentrator. Also using mirrors, the Sterling System focuses light onto a Sterling Engine. No photovoltaics are used at all.

A closed loop engine eponymously named for its inventor, Dr. Robert Sterling, a Sterling Engine is an ultra-efficient method of heating sealed gas to generate power. Invented in 1816, a Sterling Engine is still one of the most efficient engines ever created.


Courtesy: Sterling Energy


Green Financing Innovations

Quietly and with little fanfare, a movement of green financing options has been slowly growing. The idea is simple: a green building has lower operating costs, enabling the homeowner to afford a larger mortgage.

The Energy Efficient Mortgage Program (or EEM) was developed for Fannie Mae by Housing and Urban Development to encourage people to buy greener homes. The maximum mortgage available is only $160,950, making this Federal EEM obsolete for most homebuyers.

Sustainable Capital seeks to fill this void by providing a full line of green mortgage products. But Sustainable Capital has gone well beyond mere energy efficiency in their thinking. By factoring in other green benefits such as improved health and higher worker productivity, they hope to offer even greater incentives to homebuyers.

Rather than waiting for these mortgage products to become available, individual mortgage brokers have taken the initiative to focus their company on green customers. Ryan Hamilton, director of San Francisco based Valencia Green Financial, wanted to work with like-minded clients. According to Hamilton, he launched the company "in response to the expressed goals of our clients to combine financial success and ethical, environmental responsibility." They donate up to 5 percent of each commission to non-profits.

Even real estate agents can get into the act. The Certified EcoBroker program offers a means for agents to distinguish themselves and attract green-minded buyers. To date, nearly one hundred agents have been certified in California alone.

Chris Bartle, founder of San Francisco based Green Key Real Estate, wanted to combine his personal values into his business. "By working with green minded clients and connecting them with green service providers and products," says Bartle, "we hope to help make San Francisco the most sustainable city one sale at a time." Naturally, Bartle is a certified Ecobroker.

When New Resource Bank opened their branch in 2006 in San Francisco, they became the first bank in the nation to focus on green entrepreneurs and sustainable businesses. New Resource Bank is targeting small to medium sized green businesses and provides financing for adding solar panels to your home or office. Hopefully this new model of banking will serve as catalyst for other financial institutions to follow suit.

Existing Buildings

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the amount of energy lost due to un-insulated homes is equal to the amount of fuel delivered through the Alaskan pipeline. That is the equivalent of 2 million barrels of oil per day wasted.

We import about 13.15 million barrels of oil per day, almost twice as much as we produce. While it might surprise you to learn our biggest supplier is Canada, 1.54 million barrels of that oil comes from Saudi Arabia.

In other words, our un-insulated buildings WASTE more oil than we import from a politically unstable region of the world. But that is not the disturbing part.

There are approximately 111,162,000 households in the U.S. That means the biggest opportunity is in adding energy efficiency to our existing buildings, not just focusing on new construction.

According to the National Priorities Project, we spend $11 million per hour, or $275 million per day, on the Iraq War.

If the average energy efficiency upgrade for a home is $10,000, then we could insulate EVERY HOME in the U.S. in just 10 hours, with the money we spend each day on the war.

We need to change our priorities to focus on the longer view.

One company is doing just that.San Francisco-based Sustainable Spaces provides these types of upgrades to homes, reducing utilities bills by up to 50 percent. A two hour analysis is all the time they need to evaluate your home.

If the thought of tackling such large problems seems daunting, fear not. You are not alone. Architecture for Humanity recently launched their Open Architecture Network. Think of it as an open-source platform where anyone can view, post or share ideas and solutions. The idea is to help you work on these large problems in a community.

Opportunities in innovative solar technologies, creative green financing and upgrading existing homes are just some of the ways to get involved in Green Building.

While the issues mentioned here are important, so many other problems exist, waiting for you to solve them. Recently have I felt this strange sensation I hadn't felt in a long time: a feeling of optimism. As Gandhi reminded us, we only have to rise up to what we are already capable of to solve these problems.