Connecting Kitchen Design Ideas and Food: An Interview with Architect Michael McDonough


Photo credit: Michael McDonough/Sub-Zero

Kitchen appliance manufacturers Sub-Zero and Wolf recently teamed up with a handful of designers and architects to create Kitchen Inspiration, a web documentary series about kitchens and sustainable design, among other things. TreeHugger caught up with architect Michael McDonough, who participated in the documentary series, and whom we've featured before, to chat about green building, kitchen design, and more.

TreeHugger: You mention the notion that we have 10 years to turn things around, and that it's important to you to leave real solutions for the next generation. How do you integrate that ethic into your work?

Michael McDonough: Well, people come to me, as an architect, increasingly for leadership in green building technology. Specifically, they're interested in my work in net zero energy and zero carbon footprint technologies. Those can be somewhat differentiated from what the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is doing with its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program -- and any number of other green building programs.

My perspective, in a nutshell, is as follows: energy is 90 percent of the problem. While all of the other things that make up green buildings -- recycled materials, fast-growing, non-tropical woods and bamboo -- are terrific. Following LEED -- and there are versions everywhere -- the Canadian Green Building Council, and there's one in England, one in France, one in Germany, even in the States, there are about half a dozen -- that's great, too. You can build greener buildings following those guidelines. But, what I learned along the pathway in my career, was that if everything is equally important, nothing is very important. I've decided that energy conservation is the most important relative to its negative impacts on the planet.

Energy consumption, particularly petroleum -- though not exclusively in the U.S., since we have a lot of coal consumption as well -- and fossil fuel technologies are really the core of the problem. If that's the core of the problem, that's what we need to address first.

In my work, what I've discovered is that the solutions are there. The solutions to offset energy consumption significantly -- 50 to 90 percent of what we consume in buildings -- can be offset, gotten rid of, saved; whatever term you want to use. That gets us toward a net-zero energy model, and there's a specific pathway to get there; that, in turn, can reduce our carbon footprint and gets us toward a zero carbon model. So, I like to combine the two and talk about zero energy and zero carbon.


Living Green with Michael McDonough Part 1 from Kitchen Inspiration

Now, how do we do that? The first thing is to realize that buildings, more than any other energy-consuming sector on the planet, are, far and away, the biggest problem. They are responsible for, and the estimates vary, so let's be conservative, about 40 percent of our carbon emissions, and anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of our fossil fuel consumption, so let's say 40 and 40.

We can easily reduce that by 50 percent. The pathway to do that is pretty easily within LEED and all the other green building programs out there. But, that's just a start; we can also reduce it by as much as 90 percent. How's that 50 to 90 range possible? A lot of it has to do with the way we build buildings, the way we ventilate buildings and the way we apply alternative energy to buildings. So it's a three-step process.

Number one: Change the way we build what we call the 'building enclosure,' which is the walls and the roof. The trick there is to properly insulate, put in high-performance windows, and seal them. That alone, in many instances, can save up to 50 percent of the energy we use.

Now, when you do that, you need a better ventilation system, because the air inside the building will get that more stale that much more quickly, if it isn't getting in or out. So, the best solution for that is what's called 'balanced ventilation energy recovery strategies.' There are machines that are called 'heat recovery ventilators' and 'energy recovery ventilators,' and there's also a 'trickle ventilation variant' that uses a much more basic technology, but the idea is simple. You're exchanging air, through a machine and through ducts, and, when the air comes in, it's tempered by the outgoing air. So, even though you're exchanging air, you're not losing the heat or cool that's inside the building. And these machines are available, they're widely used, and are easy to get; it just takes a little more planning and a little more thought.

When you start reducing your energy consumption by 50 to 90 percent, and you use these heat recovery balanced ventilation options and equipment, you get a much healthier environment, and you also get an opportunity to make use of alternative energy. The reason I say that is if you try to run your whole house off of a solar photovoltaic system, and you're in the Northeast where I live, it's going to be very expensive. You're going to be using what is now an immature technology, and you're going to have a 20-30 year payback.


Photo credit: Sub-Zero

For all the good things about solar photovoltaic, it's not a mature industry, and you're making a questionable investment, which means it's fine for early adopters, it's fine for people who feel they have a moral commitment to doing it, but if it doesn't make economic sense, it's not going to be the prevailing solution that people are going to adopt.

However, if you use the solar photovoltaic only for very specific functions, you can greatly, greatly reduce the amount of solar PV that you need. An example of that is solar hot water, which, in the Northeast, has a two to three year payback, as opposed to a 20 or 30 year payback for photovoltaic panels. Solar hot water is about 1/10th the cost of photovoltaic solar, and you need a tiny, tiny solar panel array to run the pump to make solar hot water work.

So, solar hot water, in the Northeast, can actually heat the house and your hot water, to the point where, let's say for a $10,000 to $15,000 investment on a 2,200 square foot to 2,5000 square foot home, if you reduce the energy demands of the building enough, you never have to buy fossil fuels again.

The key factor there is that you have to think about all three things simultaneously: reduce your energy demand; improve your heating, ventilating and air conditioning; and, then, using alternative energy starts making tremendous sense, and you can target the alternative energy that you're going to use, through the two other things that I mentioned. Pick a heating a cooling system that makes maximum use of the solar hot water -- and/or geothermal, depending on where you are and the nature of your site -- and integrate the building enclosure with those systems as well, and you've got a straightforward three-part approach to the net zero energy and net zero carbon footprint building model.

Read on for obstacles for designing green and much more.

Tags: Architects | Carbon Footprint | Green Building | Solar Power | Zero Waste