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Green. Design.

An example of green design.
Image Credit: Michael Maines

What Is “Green”? What Is “Design”?

I’ll admit it, I have issues with the term “green.” While it encompasses the values I think are important in building, like any label, it can turn some people away. That’s unfortunate because the factors that go into green design should have universal appeal. So what is green design?

In the building world, “green” means:

  • Efficient use of space. Less space means less building materials used, less space to heat or cool, and less area to maintain. It can also mean “cramped,” which is where “efficient” differs from “small.”
  • Reduced use of resources. Managing domestic and stormwater, smart approaches to energy use, careful siting and use of site, consideration of embodied energy of building components.
  • Healthy spaces. Avoiding poisonous gases, controlling temperature and humidity levels, direct and indirect connections to fresh air and sunlight. Consider not just indoor air quality, but the effect that manufacturing and transportation have on global and regional environmental health.
  • Longevity. Not only does a house need to be properly constructed to withstand the elements, it must have aesthetic appeal to be loved and respected if it is to last. The better the house performs, the happier it makes its owners; the more flexible the layout, the longer the house will survive.

OK, so that’s the basis of green. What exactly is “design”?

  • Planning. I started my career in construction while in high school, painting during school breaks. Later I tackled site work, then finish carpentry. After graduating from college, I moved into framing and demolition. By starting my education at the “back end,” the final stages of building, I could see where a lack of forethought could compromise the final product. Design is “front-end” work, and when done well, it allows the rest of the project to progress smoothly.
  • Problem solving. The more problems that are solved on paper, the fewer that have to be solved on-site, and the fewer the clients have to live with. To solve problems you need to understand what the issues and their possible solutions. Experience will tell you what has worked in the past, and research will suggest ideas to try in the future.
  • Presentation. Call it communication or information transfer — somehow, the planning and problem-solving have to get from your head to the client, the builder, and subcontractors. If you are doing it all yourself, presentation may not be as important — but you still have to get information to somebody, be it banker, excavator, or building official. This may be the most difficult part of design. Your ideas may be great, but if you can’t convince your client or you can’t convey the information to the builder, you are not an effective designer.

A green designer needs to understand what goes into green building, to apply that information to the project at hand, and to get the information to the proper parties. A good green designer will draw from a more extensive knowledge base, solve problems quickly and effectively, and convince others that the design is the right one. A great designer will . . . I’ll let you know, I don’t think I’m there yet. I’m here to share not only what I know, but also what I learn.

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