To understand how far green building has come, its important to first take a look back at a few of the pivotal events in its history. It is no great surprise that many of the early advances in green building were directly linked to energy crises; however it would appear that the real grassroots momentum was a result of academic focus, product differentiation, and profit motive. Todays green building is a story of lessons learned and an honest commitment to building better, less impactive buildings. It is a combination of doing more with less and paying special attention to connecting with consumers.
The origins of green building in North America go back to the 1200's where there is evidence of the Anasazi people of the Southwest designing whole villages to take advantage of solar warming in winter months. Their homes were designed with awnings that would shade the home during summer, but would let the sun shine in when the sun was lower in the sky. This approach to passive solar design remains intact today.
For the modern origins we look to the environmental movement of the 1960's and 70's that led to some of the first experiments in contemporary green building. Ultimately it was the oil crisis beginning in 1973 that spurred research into improved energy efficiency in homes.
In 1977, a group of Canadian researchers built a demonstration home known as the Saskatchewan Conservation House (pictured at the head of this article). This was a nearly airtight building that was super-insulated, featured triple paned windows, passive solar design, and one of the world's first heat recovery ventilators. Not long after a similarly designed home, the Leger House was built in Pepperell, Massachusetts. When progressive builders and energy researchers saw the dramatically reduced energy demands of these homes, they sat up and took notice.
It wasn't till the 1990's that the government and builders' associations began to formally organize themselves to develop a framework around what would come to be commonly known today as Green Building. In 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency launched its first Energy Star program, becoming one of the most recognized symbols of exemplary energy performance. The Energy Star program now places their label on qualifying buildings, homes, and thousands of consumer products that save or require at least a 30% reduction in energy demand. It was also in 1992 that the nation's first local green building program was launched in Austin, Texas, followed three years later by Built Green of Colorado. Since then, the number of local and national programs has steadily increased to today where there are over 90 local green building programs operating across the country.
After California, Washington State boasts the greatest number these in the country with at least 8 active programs, the most prominent of which is the Built Green Program of King and Snohomish Counties. Since the program's inception in 1999, it has certified over 14,660 homes, qualifying them on a scale from 1-5 stars. It is important to note that the majority of these homes were certified at or below the 3-Star level. Not to be discounted, 3-Star certification represents a decided improvement over a non-green building approach and is an opportunity for developers to participate with a relatively low cost of entry.
By 2006 the stage had been set for greater Seattle area green building to move toward the mainstream. Sustainable design had been emphasized as part of architectural curriculum for the prior 10-15 years, financing for new construction was still relatively easy to come by, and "going green" was rapidly gaining in popularity. That year the Built Green program certified 2,713 homes, a jump of over 400% from the prior year's 582.
The housing crisis and the economic slowdown have brought the number of certified homes back down to earth since 2008; there are now about 1,000 homes a year gaining certification. The great news is that a larger percentage of them are being certified at the 4- and 5-Star levels. Let's take a little closer look at one local Seattle company who's first homes sold during the boom times of 2006 and has evolved to where they now build all of their projects to a 5-Star level of certification.
Seattle based design + build firm Dwell Development has found success by charting a course, sticking to their values, and designing very cool houses. They set out with simple goals: adding density within walkable, livable neighborhoods that are strongly connected to public transportation, and raising the bar on new home construction. They build a small number of projects each year and make sure the homes they build are good neighbors, that they're a positive addition to the community. Last but not least, they build them as green as they can, and try to dive a little deeper into efficiency, materials, and impact with each new project.
Dwell Development builds primarily in Seattle's southeast urban neighborhoods. Not so coincidentally this is where the principal members of the team themselves reside. Dwell consists of Developer and Founder Anthony Maschmedt, Architect Julian Weber, and Construction Manager Roland Williams. The three work very closely with one another, and have built 24 homes since 2005. Their collaboration is ongoing and intricate. Anthony's focus is primarily on development issues, materials and technology decisions, budget, and design. Julian covers design, materials, and technology, and his work extends onto the jobsite to make sure the vision for each project is realized. Roland manages every phase of the construction process, dabbles in design, and gets the job done on time and on budget. They have a well-established understanding of their goals and how to achieve them.
As a developer, Dwell is careful not to claim that they are the greenest of the green. They are doing what they can and are constantly examining what will work with each project. It is important for them to be known first and foremost for their striking designs, quality craftsmanship, and "bigger picture" approach. They look to education and active participation in local green building groups to promote their message.
In order to really work, a green building approach must be elevated to a normal expectation and not seen as merely a costly luxury. This requires educating the general public and not just homebuyers, and promoting an understanding of what green building is, how it works, and why it's better. Dwell works closely with GreenDwellingSeattle, a greater green community resource organization whose primary focus is helping people to see the value of green building by creating connections between it and what is important to them in their daily lives. They have worked together through community events, informal case studies, and co-hosting educational green home tours at Dwell projects.
The future of green building depends on blending efficient and successful business models with a commitment to continually build better, greener homes, to provide homes that can give back to the homeowner just as much as went into them.
Despite the fact that people have been taking advantage of what we now refer to as "green" building principles for almost a thousand years, green building as we know it today is still a very young concept. There are many lessons to learn and share among the general public and the industry as a whole.
We are starting to see the next steps that will take us on to greater efficiency, less waste, healthier homes, and a more sustainable natural environment. It is the connections that are made with the consumer that will keep this momentum going strong. It will take the dedicated commitment of the architects, developers, builders, and strong public support to make that happen.
Anasazi Cliff Palace image by cloudsoup, courtesy of Creative Commons license.