In praise of Invisible Sustainability
Architect Carly Coulson coins a new term that describes a philosophy of green building.
In 1977, in response to the energy crisis of the time, a team of clever architects and engineers built the Saskatchewan Conservation House, which had a compact design, continuous super-insulation, high-efficiency mechanical ventilation and summer shading. They had been asked to design a solar-powered house but Harold Orr wrote that they "came to the conclusion that solar heating of a home in Saskatchewan was not appropriate" -- so instead, they came up with the simpler, passive approach.
© Carly Coulson
Today we face a different carbon crisis, and some architects and engineers are responding with the American Institute of Architects' 2030 commitment that calls for "all new buildings, developments, and major renovations to be carbon-neutral by 2030." One architect in very cold Duluth, Minnesota, is on target for 2030 right now. Carly Coulson describes her approach as "Invisible Sustainability", and it sounds very much like the Saskatchewan Conservation House:
With a conservation-first, keep-it-simple approach, we focus on the building envelope and elimination of heating and cooling loads. This alone can achieve a 70 -to-80 percent primary energy reduction without renewable energy systems....Integrated into our creative design process, energy modeling is used to analyze the methods and details that achieve deep energy reductions. We focus on solutions that are permanent and passive:
- Compact building form
- Continuous super-insulation
- Winter passive solar heating
- Summer shading
- Elimination of thermal-bridges
- High-efficiency mechanical ventilation
And my favorite line, in keeping with my In praise of the dumb home philosophy:
Avoiding the trap of technology-creep, this passive approach simplifies and liberates. There is no dependence on complex systems that demand constant monitoring, maintenance, and eventual replacement.... Energy reductions are built-in and will last the lifetime of the building.
© Carly Coulson
Now, I have to admit, when I first read Carly's article for the AIA I was upset with her question, “What would happen if we tried this?” She obviously knew what would happen when she tried it; people have been doing it for 40 years. Those are the basic principles of the entire Passivhaus/ Passive House movement. It sounded to me like she was co-opting it all and putting her own label on it. But in fact, Carly Coulson's projects do meet Passive House standards "without sacrificing budget, aesthetic creativity, or transparency, even in the most challenging climates." This is different; after some discussion and consideration, I came to realize that Invisible Sustainability is a target that can have a bigger audience and market:
We want sustainability to be invisible: to merge with mainstream architecture as a standard element of design excellence, with the primary focus on the emotional atmosphere and experience that architecture creates. Is it a green building? No one can tell, and we won’t need points or plaques.
Invisible sustainability is a wonderful term, something that every architect and designer can strive for, basic principles that can be followed without doing the deep dive into Passive House. It emphasizes the low-tech approach that I am partial to. I love the "a conservation-first, keep-it-simple approach". I hope that we hear a lot more about Invisible Sustainability.