Austin, Texas, architect Peter Pfeifferbristles when he sees solar panels or geothermal heat pumps touted as the path to greener housing. “Using energy production strategies before energy conservation strategies is like [smoking] a vitamin-enriched cigarette,” says Pfeiffer, a principal with Barley & Pfeiffer Architects. “A house should be green by design instead of green by device.” Pfeiffer says a design-first approach that considers issues of building orientation, window sizing and placement, and passive heating and cooling is much more effective, and ultimately less expensive, than relying on active or mechanical systems to achieve green. It’s a tack supported in the LEED for Homes rating system and the NAHB-inspired National Green Building Standard, among other certification programs, where qualification checklists are front loaded with prerequisites and extra credits for design work.
Pfeiffer, who helped develop the benchmark Austin Green Building Program in the early 1990s (now called the Austin Energy Green Building Program) and is working with Centex Homes on a similar standard in Dallas, pinpoints a few key (and common sense) design solutions that make an immediate impact. “The biggest thing is making sure that windows respond to their orientation to the sun,” he says.
A deep overhang, covered porch, or awning that shades the west-facing windows, for instance, can cut cooling costs in half, reduce glare, and make the interior spaces more comfortable. The length of the windows relative to their shading is also key, as lower sections that aren’t protected tend to absorb heat and transfer it inside.
Other solutions include positioning the garage on the north- west corner of the plan to block winter winds and summer sun from living areas, using well-placed windows and skylights to provide natural daylight, adding high levels of insulation that allow smaller heating and cooling systems, and creating a sealed, semi-conditioned attic space to reduce cooling costs and thermal loss through the ceiling.
“An architect takes advantage of these passive solutions to lower energy consumption before deploying active systems,” says Jessyca Schwarzkopf, resource architect at the AIA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. “The most critical thing is to think holistically and how all systems interact to achieve results.”
It’s a message that Pfeiffer is taking to builders of all sizes, with mostly receptive results. “These are things they typically haven’t thought of,” he says. “But once we explain them, I’ve never had a client say he wasn’t interested.”
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Austin, TX.