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Strong Green Architecture, a la mode

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November 19, 2012

Strong Green Architecture, a la mode


The most recent weather disasters that have befallen American homes, especially in the Northeast, have been sad indeed - but there is a silver lining in their dark clouds.

Ironically, they have given building designers and constructors an opportunity to think not only of following sound green building practices, but also of incorporating them into creating buildings that will better stand up in violent weather  - what can be called strong architecture - and make them safer and more comfortably livable during power outages and other amenity deprivations.

Below are a few suggestions for doing this. Some are easy to implement and some are not; but the potential benefit of each far outweighs its cost. 

Find ways to inform clients what they need to know.  In Architecture Laid Bare! and my other architectural writings for laymen, I constantly emphasize that homeowners should acquaint themselves with the various parts of a building so they’ll be more knowledgeable when it comes to working with designers and builders. But what’s to keep a contractor from helping them with this? A good way to do so is:

  1. Think of all the questions your clients have asked you or didn’t know about that you think they should have known. A few examples include descriptions of a breaker box, load bearing wall, electrical circuit, hydronic heating, etc.  
  2. Write these questions down
  3. Write the answers
  4. Print them and give a copy to each prospective client.

Because you’ll likely think of a bunch of items some laymen would never think about. Aside from being informative this little publication would cast you in a helpful light and would likely save a client a few embarrassing moments later on. 

Assess the building site for potential flooding. In most weather disasters, the biggest killer is drowning, and many buildings that experience even a few feet of flooding are often condemned and demolished. Even when a building can be saved, the amount of mud that must be removed from interiors, the areas of sheetrock and insulation that must be replaced and other construction that must be repaired can be immense. Here, a penny of prevention can equal a dollar of cure! The first thing to look for is where the water may come from. In extreme weather, you would be amazed at how a creek sixty feet behind a house can become a hundred-foot-wide torrent that can tear away the back yard and flood the basement. A helpful technique is to get a geodetic survey map (i.e. a topo map) that encompasses the waterway’s watershed, locate the watershed’s perimeter on the map, and estimate its acreage. A two-foot creek or storm drain that empties a hundred acres is potentially far more dangerous than one that drains only twenty acres. If any streets or paved parking areas exist nearby, think of what would happen if they were under two feet of water. It has happened, usually where no one thought of the possibility in advance. The possibilities and preventive measures are too varied to itemize here, but no one has ever found better tools to perform this labor than foresight and imagination. These are two resources that the more you consume, the more remains. 

Examine the trees around a building you may construct or remodel. Cut down any trees or heavy branches that could be rotted or may lean toward or over the planned construction, and prune all arbors over any driveways and turnarounds and within 100 feet of the foundation. A large long branch laden with heavy snow can possess enough leverage to make the whole tree fall. Shortening or removing the branch can save the tree and a building. Also, in existing construction, examine the shrubbery around the building. Make sure the foliage is not so close that it could trap moisture and foster rotting and decay in the building envelope. A good measure is the width of a man carrying a toolbox between foliage and foundation. Anyone looking at the building from farther way will rarely see these protective aisles. 

Design/construct part of the building’s interior as a disaster sanctuary, where occupants can be reasonably safe during and immediately after extreme weather. In many buildings this space could be maybe 12 by 18 feet in size, and in residences it should house the kitchen, a bathroom, a fire source, an eating area, and storage. This space should be un-floodable from the bottom up and un-crushable from the top down. This suggests that its construction should not be wood framing but 10-inch concrete block walls latticed with horizontal and vertical reinforcing including L-shaped #4 rebars at the corners. This is something new, but my analysis of how buildings have been destroyed and their occupants have been killed or discommoded in weather disasters in the Northeast since Hurricane Irene a year ago, indicates this is an excellent method of protecting occupants during and after Nature’s worst disasters.  Who knows, a generation from now this may be standard construction in many new buildings.  If such a space would be best located on a second floor, the floor below and of course the foundation should be similarly built to support this sanctuary. In every case this construction would be no different than today’s well-built foundation walls.    

Include a disaster storage closet in the building. In homes this would be much more than a pantry, and in any building it should be inside the earlier-described disaster sanctuary. Here, in one easily accessible place, would be located everything a family or business would need during a disaster.

Install multiple energy sources. Electric ranges are nice, but they won’t work when the utility power fails. The obvious answer here is a gas stove; but other possibilities are a working fireplace, a flat-topped woodstove, or a small propane tank outdoors that serves a two-burner hotplate (even a five-gallon jug will get most families through a week-long power outage, with an easily replaceable second jug nearby). A key to understanding these dynamics is that electricity is a public-supplied power source while natural gas and firewood often are site-supplied power sources. You want as great a variety of supplies as possible, so if one fails - one or more others will be available. These dynamics can vary greatly on certain sites, but being cued to these possibilities is the first step toward creating the optimal solution. 

Locate a fire source centrally on the floor plan, not in an exterior wall where it will be significantly less efficient. A fire source is a fireplace, fireplace insert, woodstove, or equal. The unit should be able to keep occupants warm during cold weather, be easy to cook on, and even be useful for bathing. Here a conventional fireplace is only about 20 percent efficient; a fireplace insert is 50–70 percent efficient and usually can be fitted into a conventional fireplace but most are hard to cook on; and a cast-iron woodstove with a flat top and an open firebox is efficient and useful. Woodstoves and fireplace inserts also have enclosed dampers that can keep heat from flowing up the flue during the wee hours of the morning after the fire has died. Another excellent choice, though expensive, is a Rumford fireplace. In 1974 I built in my kitchen a Rumford fireplace with a crane on the left and a large hearth in front. Several times during disasters since then I have bathed before this fireplace by pouring water from a creek on the property into a kettle hanging from the crane over the fire, standing in a sitz bath set on the hearth, and working from the top down. Once you know the code, you can do it too.   

Incorporate fire safety measures into the architecture. This is vitally important if the building has a fire source as mentioned above. A good way to think this through is to consider the firewood cycle: the path firewood takes through a building, which goes something like this:?store firewood > light fire > burn fire > remove ashes. Each of these has important safety considerations as follows:   

Store firewood: Should be raised 6 inches or so above the ground, should be roofed, and should not be against the building unless masonry. 

Light fire: Have adequate utensils located close to the hearth, a hearth strong enough to split firewood on, an easily adjustable damper, an easily cleanable chimney, and smoke detectors in adjacent rooms.

Burn fire: Large fire screen, plus a fire extinguisher and water source nearby.

Remove ashes: Always in a metal container (small trash can with cover is ideal) that can easily be carried completely outdoors (not left in a mudroom or garage). Coals concealed in ashes can be deadly: they remain hot for days and emit carbon monoxide.   

Install a cistern that collects rainwater from the roof. Even a barrel under a downspout is useful here, though larger containers are available. Each should have a debris strainer on top, a removable cap that keeps out insects and rodents while allowing bucket removal of water, and a spigot at the base for occasional draining and cleaning. The reservoir water usually isn’t drinkable (it often can be made so by boiling), but can be used for flushing toilets and often for bathing and hand-washing clothes. A cistern can also be replenished by rainfall during a power outage. 

During Hurricane Sandy, which recently ravaged the New York City Metro area, 110 people died. Almost everyone would have survived if s/he had occupied a building designed and constructed as described above. These dynamics exist everywhere that disasters may strike today. While I am not yet sure that global warming is making weather disasters more frequent and severe, they certainly have been lately —and it is only prudent that concerned building designers and constructors everywhere meet these forces head-on by combining strong architecture with green architecture in ways that will enable both humans and the environment to see better days in the future. After all, nobody can do this but us.  

Robert Brown Butler has authored six previous books on architecture. Since graduating from Cornell in 1964, Butler has had many years of on-the-job experience in both architectural design and construction, and this amalgam of abilities is behind some of the most insightful passages in his latest book, “Architecture Laid Bare.” Available on (News - Alert), this book includes a compendium of essential and entertaining ideas that will make architecture fun to know about.  E-Mail for additional info.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi


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