Building the urban environment often means advancing new concepts for more earth friendly projects

Wizardry, meticulous planning, and far-reaching vision all help in creating an earth friendly urban environment.(Copyright: hasloo / 123RF Stock Photo)

This podcast about building the urban environment examines where design meets the environmental challenges of cities. The perspectives come from a design professional working in the D.C. area. He tells about the challenges of meeting environmental requirements, the type of green trends he’s seeing, and what works when mitigating environmental issues that crop up once construction is underway.

Building the urban environment offers unique challenges and opportunities, and clients are more savvy than ever when it comes to green.

Here’s the media player, so listen now.

To listen to the other podcasts in this series about Building in the Urban Environment, select from the links below.

Part 1: Building in the Urban Environment: The Chance & Challenge of Design
Part 2: Building in the Urban Environment: The Challenge of Construction Waste
Part 3: Building in the Urban Environment: Managing the Details

Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the Construction Informer and this podcast in our series about Building in the Urban Environment.  Today we’re going to connect the aspect of design, to the environmental challenges of building the urban environment. And of course this story is much bigger than just the construction aspect. We’re only just beginning to get a handle on the long term aspects of how we build, particularly from a environmental perspective.

The amount of energy that’s captured in the materials of a building is phenomenal. Some say that if you could release it all, it would be enough to operate the building for a decade. And we’ve all heard the reports on how much energy buildings use – up to forty percent of all the energy used in the country; almost seventy percent of the nation’s electricity; and about forty percent of its natural gas.

But long before a building has thermostats and lights, it’s using energy and it’s this energy that’s invested during construction that becomes the building’s embodied energy.

Beyond the energy aspect there are also other environmental issues faced during construction: runoff; noise; dust; are all things playing into the total environmental picture of a building. And here to provide some perspectives for us on design for the urban environment is David Shove Brown with Studio 3877, a D.C.- based design firm that specializes in hospitality, residential, and commercial projects, just to name a few. Welcome to the show David!

Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

You know, in a previous episode we talked about the opportunities and challenges of designing for the urban environment with your partner at Studio 3877, David Tracz. So I was wondering if we might talk a bit about the environmental considerations you have as a designer, when designing for these compact and challenging environments, and how much demand you’re getting for green building and, what seems to be the major trends with that. So what are the the types of challenges that you see with these?

Well I think the biggest challenges we’re seeing in the district really comes down to working within an existing building or historic building or a historic framework, and trying to take newer technologies and get them to work.

In some cases if you take whether it be a tankless hot water heater and trying to get venting through a historic building, or trying to work with a different type of roofing, a green roof or something like that, you have a framework that may have been a house for a hundred years before you came in, and you try to do some of the modifications, so you know we see that as a challenge. 

Building the urban environment means dealing with clients who are savvy about all things green.

We see our clients and you know normally I guess you’d think that people would need to go through an education process if you know like what’s the bang for their buck on doing some of these things. But in fact, our clients are becoming more and more educated, and have a better idea of what they’re going into before they even come to us.

So whether it be a commercial space, or a residential, they’re coming to us saying, “Well we want this type of technology, and we want the dual flush toilets, and the white roofing.  And they’ve got that already set, so that there’s very little that we have to do in terms of educating our client or trying to sell the client on some of these technologies. So that’s actually one of the easier sides.[ctrl,option,q]

Now, and, how much demand are you seeing for that?

A fair amount. It’s pretty pretty regular that clients come in, you know, certainly within the residential world, clients see it as: One)  useful for their own lives, but; Two) for resale. So there’s the mentality of, “OK.  Well yes I can earn the money back in a certain amount of time, but when I resell this I’m able to say that, you know, look, these are features now.”

You know, you can imagine looking at the old M.L.S. and saying, “Oh  look, it’s got three toilets,” but now people are saying look it’s got three dual flush toilets, a tankless hot water heater, it’s got bamboo cabinets, or something of that sort, so people are using it as a selling point.

Commercial clients embrace green features to also make a statement about their environmental awareness.

In terms of the commercial aspect people are wanting to have a statement within their space or their building, whether that be just the technology of lighting and dimmers and LEDs, and are certainly understanding the long term cost benefit. In the fact that you know they say, “If I put this light fixture in, I’m not going to change a light bulb for twelve years? OK, I’m in, sign me up.” And being able to say to clients, “You know, we’re choosing to spend the money that you’re giving us for a service or a good in these types of ways because we think it’s important.

We think there’s a long term benefit to doing these things, and a long term benefit to the community, and the environment as a whole. 

So we have a lot of folks that are looking to these things and you know we  don’t have a lot of people that come to us and say, “OK, we want our building to be LEED certified. We just want to do everything we can. And you know if there’s a better way to do something, or a long term benefit to something, then tell us and we want to do that.”

And what kind of trends are you seeing? I mean you mentioned a number of things, are those kind of the common trends?

I think so. I think because we do so much work with existing buildings and people are wanting to keep as much of an existing framework in place. You know, trying to work within an existing structure and we certainly are big cheerleaders for that, you know, if we can go into a building and say, you know, “We can just do some minor modification to get you everything you want,” rather than say, “We’re going to gut this place and throw it all in a landfill.”

We want to educate our clients in that regard, but a lot of times clients, like I said, are coming to us educated, and saying, ” OK.  These are some of the technologies we want in our house?”  Whether it be you know the nest-type thermostat or, lighting that is controlled by your smartphone, some of it’s you know, just fun, and you know I can show off to all my friends that I can change the channel and all my TVs at once. Or, wait, did I lock my house, I can check it right here. Or, I can turn down the thermostat when I’m not there.  You know that’s the stuff that people are wanting to do.

And you know I’ve often wondered you know in those old buildings.  Insulation has gotta be quite a challenge, isn’t it?

Absolutely.  Sometimes you get an interesting dichotomy of people wanting to like you know rip off the ceiling on the top floor and expose the roof rafters, and you’re saying, “Well, yes but we also want to avoid the room getting really hot, or you can’t just expose the structure within a building because of fire ratings maybe, or because of insulation.” Ways we can get them the look that they’re going for, but also maximizing the performance of the building.

Now, I wondered about during actual construction. You know there’s a lot of problems that, when the construction begins, that crop up. Do you have to do a lot of mitigation on those things like noise, and dust, and congestion? Do you do you work any that into the design stage?

So I mean we think about how a project’s going to be phased because think D.C. as a whole. So you know, buildings are right next to each other, so even if your building is under construction but the one next door can have an effect on you. So we want to think about that. We want to think about, if we’re doing an office space within the larger building, you know, how are other tenants going to work with this.

So there’s a lot of work that we put into the phasing of a project and how, and when construction pieces are going to happen. 

So that you know whether it be a family that may have to move on for a couple of months while the project’s under construction, or an office that’s paying rent, you know, what’s their effect on the larger building? So there’s a lot of work that we put into that right from the get go.

We think it’s super important to have an architect and a contractor, and the clients sitting around the table going, “OK.  We know what we want it to look like. How do we get it there?  And how do we do it in a way that’s not disrupting a business, or a home, or adjacent businesses, and so on, and so forth. So that there are no surprises. We want to try to eliminate any and all of those.  The sooner the better.

But of course surprises do come up. Every project, as it moves forward, and that’s probably certainly the case in the urban environment. Would you say changes are more frequent, or that there are generally fewer of these on urban types of projects.

Tricky question. You know I think one of the things that we go in to every marketing meeting with a client, every sales pitch we do, one of our lines is that they need to interview multiple architects because they’re getting into a marriage. And right now we’re in the honeymoon stage, and everything is lovely, and we’re so much in love, and it’s great, but you know, several months into it something is going to happen. It’s not a matter of if, it is going to happen. And how you react to that, and how you deal with that, is going to define the relationship and the project.

Since we are very cognisant with them with the client saying, “Look, we’ve got situations that could arise,  so we need to be communicative. We need to talk through them. We need to look at what are the possibilities, you know, what are the options. What are the costs and implications of these things.”

So I think because we’re getting at the higher technology we’re getting into far more detail oriented systems. Especially using some of the technologies that we do, that, yeah, there are a lot of changes, but with the right planning, and the right reaction to those changes  we can eliminate a lot of pain.

Right, and I think that’s key, once you accept changes then it’s just a matter of handling the reactions to it. And that makes all the difference in the end.

Absolutely. I think you’ve got to have the right mentality when you go to define the thing, “Hey look this is what we found. Here’s the situation but here’s three possible solutions and this solution has no cost implication but it effects your program and cost implication B does this and  C does that.”

The more you can talk your client through it  and educate them, the better the reaction’s going to be. Especially you know, you cannot wait until the very end and go, “Oh yeah, by the way, I forgot to tell you six weeks ago, we had to move this and it’s gonna cost…” You know. That’s just bad. Somebody’s got to pick up the phone and bite the bullet and have the conversation you don’t necessarily want to have. But it’s all for the better.

No time like the present.

Absolutely.

Well thank you David, for giving us some perspectives particularly on the environmental considerations when designing for the urban environment. And the ins and outs of dealing with those things during design. And thanks too, to you listeners for tuning in, and until the next time, build it well.

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