The Future of Buildings

by Alan Kuniholm, PDT Architects and Gunnar Hubbard, Thornton Tomasetti

We are all involved in the world of real estate.  For some of us, it’s our profession. The rest of us live and work in homes and buildings of all scales, sizes, and quality. All buildings use energy and impact our health and wellness. The decisions we make on a daily basis have an impact on our pocketbooks, our health, and climate change. The small choices we make in our homes and workplaces can contribute to a healthier built environment. In a world of ever-diminishing resources, thinking globally, acting locallyresonates more now than ever. What better legacy to leave for future generations? Buildings that are healthy, attractive, have low embodied energy, and have low maintenance and utility costs.

Is this the future of architecture? Being green and sustainable doesn’t sound like anything new. So, what’s the buzz?

At a recent MEREDA breakfast event, Alan Kuniholm from PDT Architects and Gunnar Hubbard and Mike Pulaski from Thornton Tomasetti offered forward-thinking ideas and case studies on where the real estate and architecture profession is going in terms of innovation and high-performance, low-energy buildings. Rating systems and initiatives that determine performance standards have quickly evolved from Energy Star, Green Globes, and LEED, to Passive House and Net Zero, and soon may very well be a Net Positive standard.

Mike Pulaski shared the success of a new performance standard called Passive House. Maine is one of the states leading the applied thinking of this rating. The Passive House Standard has been gaining a lot of momentum in the industry and has only recently been applied in the U.S. to large-scale commercial projects. This standard is the most rigorous energy standard in use now and typically results in buildings that can save over 50% of the energy used in conventional buildings. But often teams start out with intentions to achieve this standard, falling short due to the inability to realize first cost savings in the mechanical design. Now there are solid case studies and tools for identifying cost-effective design approaches to achieve PH on large-scale projects. Thornton Tomasetti has completed over 500,000 sf of PH projects, and are seeing projects achieve these ambitious energy goals with less than a 2.5% cost premium and a typical payback of 4-8 years.

Gunnar Hubbard reported that Maine is very active when it comes to high performance and has some great case studies to build on. The development and affordability of building information modeling (BIM) and other new software makes it possible for design teams to be more accountable and intentional about outcomes. The “master architect” of days gone by that was responsible for an “aesthetic” is now being redefined as the “master collaborator” with greater access to expertise and tools. Larger teams with more expertise brought in earlier in the formative stages of project development can reap greater rewards.

Being in the moment, experiencing a sense of place, delight, community, and feeling protected evokes an emotional tie to our environment. Alan Kuniholm shared his story of making forts in the woods as a child in a deep pine forest, using fallen pine boughs to shape natural igloos, layering pine needles inside and out with leaves to shed rain and for insulation, and freezing water in flying saucers to make windows in the winter. Experiencing the quiet, the smell of pine, the laws of thermodynamics, the wind whistling through the tree canopy, and the sight of multiple igloos in a cathedral of white pines, its young creators called it cool country.

Many of us feel that making high-performance buildings is a moral imperative and see the future built environment through that lens. As professionals involved in the development of buildings, we know we can do better and we are anxious to apply new technologies and research. While the buildings we are designing today may have lifespans over a hundred years, and we will be using technical expertise unimaginable just decades ago, cool country evokes the emotional tie we develop to the world around us, a sense of participation and authenticity, that we need to cultivate in ourselves and encourage in our owners and colleagues.

When it comes to the future of buildings, that is the way forward to preserve our world for our children.

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