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In Search of Sustainable Certification Processes

15 Jun, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

Architect reflects on certification and construction inspections and the need for more education in residential sustainability


Lawrence Scarpa is probably one of the few people in California who looks forward to opening his electricity bill. He uses about 330 kW (kilowatts) a year -- less than the 548 kW that the average California household reportedly uses each month (according to the Energy Information Administration's statistics for 1999). Like most of us, Scarpa chills his meat and milk in a refrigerator, washes his clothes in a washer and does his dishes in a dishwasher. So, what’s his secret? It’s his house, outfitted with a solar canopy that generates about 5,500 kW of renewable energy a year.

Under the Umbrella

Completed in April 2005, Scarpa’s two-story building in Venice, California, has become something of an attraction. Scarpa calls his dwelling The Solar Umbrella House, a tribute to Paul Rudolph’s Umbrella House of 1953 that served as inspiration. The AIA/COTE (American Institute of Architects/Committee on the Environment) named it one of 2006’s Top Ten Green projects. In the online project-profile page, AIA observes, “Rather than deflecting sunlight, this contemporary solar canopy uses 89 amorphous photovoltaic panels to transform the sunlight into usable energy, providing 95% of the residence’s electricity. At the same time, it screens large portions of the structure from direct exposure to the intense southern California sun, protecting the body of the building from thermal heat gain.”

Equipped with a canopy made of a series of photovoltaic panels, Lawrence Scarpa’s Solar Umbrella House in Venice, California, generates about 5,500 kW of renewable energy a year.

Lawrence Scarpa and his architect wife Angela Brooks, co-owners of the Solar Umbrella House, are partner-principals of Pugh+Scarpa Architecture, a firm with offices in Santa Monica and San Francisco, California, and in Charlotte, North Carolina. In consulting work, Scarpa often encounters clients who approach him after they have already completed a design.

“They’ll say, ‘Make that building green,’ but they’ve already done the schematics.” He’s compelled to tell them that, at that point, it might be too late, or too costly, to incorporate sustainability. “We always tell people that if you orient your building properly, you look at the microclimate, macroclimate, then position your house accordingly. Then you may have accomplished 90% of energy efficiency at no additional cost,” he says.

Scarpa says his firm uses form.Z and 3ds Max for most projects. “These programs let you plot the sun’s path, so you can see how natural light falls, how it casts shades,” he reflects. He uses these CAD tools to do what he calls broad stroke verifications of certain concepts, not necessarily for detailed computation of building performance.

The Sun Animation feature was added to form.Z beginning with v5.0, released in November 2004. The tool allows users to define the location of a site in latitude and longitude, then simulate the sun’s effect on an object -- in this case, a building -- at the site.

Hiccups

The Solar Umbrella was not wrinkle-free. Recording the house’s construction process, AIA notes, “Although anticipated to take nine months, construction actually lasted 13 months due to many innovative and experimental applications and programs. Inspectors unfamiliar with the photovoltaic system and many of the materials caused delays. The service planner for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power [DWP] had problems locating the service due to the photovoltaic system, causing further delays.”

Scarpa’s recollection is more laconic: “The building inspector came out and said, ‘Well, if the DWP approves it, I’ll approve it.’ Then the DWP said, ‘If the building inspector approves it, I’ll approve it.’ Eventually we found someone knowledgeable from the DWP to work with.”

Jeff Levine, an AIA resource architect, observes, “Current building inspection and certification processes will need to include commissioning agencies to check on operation and maintenance; third-party certification of LEED requirements; code interpretations for LEED; and checking energy education.”

AIA reports, “The Solar Umbrella was constructed with 50% flyash-content concrete, recycled mild steel that was rusted and then sealed, and composite engineered-wood members.” Common sense suggests the house is a good example of green architecture and should be officially recognized as such, perhaps in the form of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. But Scarpa runs into roadblocks here as well. “My house is not LEED-certified,” he says, “because, at the time we built it, the U.S. Green Building Council had no residential certification program.”

Education

The Solar Umbrella House is a sustainability success story and a cautionary tale at the same time. Scarpa hopes influential industry leaders, such as the AIA, will work with regulatory officials so there’s consensus on how sustainable architecture is treated throughout the certification processes.

It seems the AIA has read his mind. Last week at its annual National Convention and Design Expo in Los Angeles, AIA announced that the U.S. Conference of Mayors voted unanimously to approve the resolution “Adopting the 2030 Challenge for All Buildings.” AIA’s Levine says, “The AIA will be working with mayors to use green design features in city buildings. We are also researching the efficiency of various energy modeling tools, some of which are currently accepted by building inspectors in approving sustainability in buildings.”

Sustainability -- Not Just a Tagline

Levine adds, “30-40% of energy reduction can be achieved by traditional architectural design, supplemented by green features, such as insulation and orientation. For 50% energy reduction, BIM (building information modeling) software needs to be utilized in conjunction with mechanical and electrical engineers, landscapers, interior architects, etc. This integrated approach can maximize energy reduction.”

Scarpa is glad to see green architecture getting more attention, but he’s also weary of it being used often as a promotional tagline. He’s of the opinion that designing sensible living spaces should come before sustainability pursuits. If he has to choose between “an energy-hog building that people love" and "a building that uses zero energy but nobody likes to live in,” he’ll choose the former.   


About the Author: Kenneth Wong





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