The TH Interview: David Arkin of Arkin Tilt Architects

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David Arkin, AIA and his wife Anni Tilt are partners of Arkin Tilt Architects, an award-winning firm focused on ecological planning & design, located by Codornices Creek in Berkeley, CA. Not only do they design beautiful, sustainable buildings, but they practice what they preach, both at home and at the office (check out their Treehugger lifestyle!). Treehugger intern Dave Chiu interviewed David Arkin about Arkin Tilt's sustainable building practices, their thoughts on branding green design, and tips on making your home a greener building.

Treehugger: For some, "sustainable" and "green" connote fundamentally different ways of living. For others, these words are trendy and fashionable. What do you find worrying about this perception? What do you find exciting?

David Arkin: The most widely agreed upon definition of 'sustainable' is that we meet the needs of current generations without jeopardizing those of future generations. There are a lot of different ways that such a goal can be accomplished - just in the realm of energy use, for example, one can live entirely without electricity as was done for thousands of years, or one can supplement a high usage with renewable sources. The importance of "trend" is in raising awareness across huge spectrums of people - who was it that said that no publicity is bad publicity? Of course, the danger is that fashion moves on, let's just hope the consciousness stays.TH: How do you show people (clients, contractors, etc.) that sustainable architecture is better architecture rather than simply different architecture?

DA: Sustainable architecture, in order to be that, needs to pay attention to climate and site and function on a really fundamental level—that is why vernacular architecture is so site specific (i.e. varied): for basic thermal comfort. Beyond that, I think most people get that what we build has a direct effect on the environment (both locally and globally), and want to be a part of it, as long as doesn't push them too far out of their comfort zone.

We're at a point where the most of the excitingly experimental but arguably ugly solar projects of the late 70's and early 80's are largely forgotten. Today's designs are the second generation of ecological design, integrating water, energy and construction systems in artful ways. It needn't be of a particular style, and really could be any. But when designs evolve in response to their climate and circumstances, a 'style' which is indigenous to place ultimately emerges.

TH: How has public awareness and acceptance of sustainable building designs and technologies changed since you began practicing architecture?

DA: When we both began practicing architecture, sustainable design (particularly energy-efficient design) was in hiding. The first wave of passive solar design, brought on by the oil crisis in the 70's, was deemed fringe and ugly, and shunted to the sidelines. Most firms that practiced "sustainable design" did so just as a matter of good design principles, without talking about it much.

When we started Arkin Tilt Architects in 1997 we were among a very few firms actively promoting their ability to do ecological design. Now nearly everyone is, because the public is demanding it, and our planet needs it. Suppliers, consultants, and the whole industry is headed this direction. Back then we had to scrounge for information and products, but today there are conferences and new technologies emerging constantly.


TH: What's the key to marketing green building so that it reaches a more mainstream audience? How would you suggest that the movement be branded so that it can be mentioned in the same breath with other mainstream architecture techniques?

DA: People need to see examples that work for them, that allay their fears about the aesthetic of green building, or the cost, or the challenges. We need to show that green design is flexible and inventive and fun and functional and even beautiful. We have had projects published in Sunset, and Country Home Journal, and the Financial Times of London. While we are embarrassed that it is "news" it is absolutely critical that people see that ecology is independent of style

That said, I think the real mainstream grabber is value—isn't that the ultimate capitalist goal? Major homebuilders are in the business of selling homes, presumably for the highest price they can get. I have to believe—in the context of rising energy prices—that homes with lower energy bills (and neighborhoods with lower energy "lifestyles" would both have a market advantage and sell at a higher price; one folks could qualify to pay with the same level of income as they could a less efficient house. One of my favorite stories is of a couple that was building a home of straw-bale construction, who were able to qualify for a higher mortgage because they could demonstrate that their summer energy bills would be lower because their home's design eliminated the need for air conditioning.

TH: A successful sustainable building must be desirable as well as sustainable. What other aspects do you focus on when designing a building besides technology?

DA: We firmly believe that in order for a building to be sustainable, it must be loved; it must touch the soul. People—not just the current owners, but future generations—must find enough value in a building to continue to occupy and maintain it. Some of this is aesthetic, some performance, some economics. The Roman architect Vitruvius told us that buildings must have "Firmness, Commodity and Delight". True today more than ever.

TH: Which technologies are you most excited about in sustainable building? Which ones are most accepted? Which are a harder sell?

DA: There are many technologies to be excited about these days.

We see the future as a marriage of high-tech energy systems and low-tech, renewable building materials. Our favorite solar heating system is the high mass combined solar hot water and space heating system that our friend Bob Ramlow of Artha Renewables in Wisconsin introduced to us. Radiant tubing tied directly to the solar panels flows through a bed of sand beneath the floor slab floor. The sand stores heat and slowly released into the space, and because of its high mass, the system can bridge cool, cloudy periods. In summer the solar heat is shunted (sometimes to a hot tub), and the mass helps to keep the home cool, similarly bridging hot periods.

In terms of wall systems, we've long been fans of straw-bale construction, especially when married to a spray-applied version of rammed earth, which adds more thermal mass than hand-applied stucco finishes.

We're finding that our clients are coming to us predisposed toward sustainable building, so as long as we are proposing appropriate solutions there really isn't a 'hard sell' involved (and if there is, it could be a sign that it may not be the right solution). Frequently we are trading first costs for long-term benefit, and most people see the value in that, especially with the fluctuating cost of energy.

TH: How do you live a TreeHugger lifestyle?

DA: Our goal is to create a sustainable community within the existing urban environment: our home was built in 1910, has solar hot water and is PV and wind powered, with battery back-up on critical circuits if the power grid fails. With a rental cottage in the backyard, our aggregate density is 24 units/acre, enough to support public transit. We can (and do) walk or bike to work, school, the grocery store, farmer's market, etc. We have no television, and our children spend most of their summers birdwatching (a precursor to treehugging?). We get a weekly box of fresh organic vegetables from a local CSA..

The office is five blocks from our house, and also has photovoltaic panels, installed as custom awnings that shade the south-facing windows and entry doors. Many of our employees bike to work regularly, and we often hold our weekly office meetings outdoors. When we moved in, we changed all of the lighting (aided by the Berkeley Smart Lights program) and added a pellet stove for heating, which seems to have been previously provided by all of the highly inefficient lights!


Our vehicles include many bicycles and other non-motorized wheeled devices, including an Xtracycle (check it out!); an electric 1970 VW Bug convertible (±40 mile range), a bio-diesel Beetle, and a reasonably efficient all-wheel drive vehicle for towing salvaged materials and driving in snow.

I'm on our Planning and Zoning Commission, which just enacted some of the most progressive green building guidelines anywhere. I'm also on our Chamber of Commerce board, which sponsored the 'Green Albany Project', promoting recycling, composting and other green practices among our local businesses. We're members of Sustainable Albany, and I'm co-chair of a project aiming to integrate an organic farm with our local K-12 schools curriculum and lunch program.

TH: If you could tell people to do one thing to their home/office to make it a greener building, what would it be?

DA: Proper shading on high quality, operable windows. Windows are usually the 'weakest link' in a building envelope, yet they provide great joy in connecting us with the outdoors, and an opportunity for passive solar heat gain or passive cooling through proper shading and cool night flushing.

Short of that, one's best investment is always in conservation, so any changes that improve efficiency and reduce energy use are worth pursuing. In our home we fitted the ten most used light fixtures (which the previous owner had installed 100 Watt incandescent bulbs in) with 18 Watt compact fluorescent bulbs, and cut our electricity bill in half. We bought a very high efficiency refrigerator, and cut our bill in half again. Motion sensor switches are probably the best energy savers in an office environment.

David Arkin, AIA and his wife Anni Tilt are partners of Arkin Tilt Architects.