The Swing Seasons

As Spring settles in to the Prescott area, we are once again experiencing the high, gusty winds which seem to show up during the "Swing Seasons". So named because they contain neither the hot sunny days of Summer, nor the cold short days of Winter, the Swing Seasons of Spring and Fall typically include several weeks of intense wind. Being from Buffalo, N.Y., I often say that I absolutely loathe snow. But, coming in a close second, is wind. 

It is usually about this time of year that the conversations about wind power are recycled. "Wouldn't it be great if we could just harness this stuff", I hear people saying. Or, "Let's build a wind farm!" Adding a wind turbine to your menu of energy options is probably more complicated than most people initially imagine. Some of the things that must be considered include the local zoning codes, the initial cost of the investment and (surprise!) whether your property has good wind resources. 

One of the potential obstacles to installing a wind turbine on your property would be the presence of any existing height restrictions in your zone, particularly if you are in a residential area. In addition, neighbors may object to the location of a wind device that either blocks their view or creates undesired noise pollution. A typical wind turbine produces an ambient noise level of about 52 to 55 decibels, or about the sound level of an average refrigerator. This may not seem objectionable to you, particularly if you are the one who is benefitting from the alternative source of energy. However, your neighbor may have a different opinion.

The cost of a wind system can vary widely, from $3,000 to $35,000 depending upon its size, and application. Still, a typical 10 kw wind system would most likely be in the neighborhood of ½ the cost of a photovoltaic system, depending upon the current cost of PV panels, and the dollar value of rebates that are available. Generally, the cost of a wind turbine can be roughly estimated to be $1,000 to $3,000 per kilowatt. Another thing to consider is the initial cost of installation, verses the long-term cost. Smaller turbines require a lower initial investment than larger turbines, but they cost more proportionally per kw produced. 

The correct location for a wind turbine on your property is probably one half science and one half common sense. There are charts and data that can be obtained (see below) to determine the general wind patterns for your part of the world. And there are instruments to measure wind velocity and direction that can be placed on your land. The best method of measuring wind speed is with an anemometer placed at the location and height you plan to install your device. However, when it comes to your specific piece of property, the power of observation just can't be beat. Pay attention to whether there are intermittent strong gusts of wind, or a fairly constant breeze. The latter is better. It does not have to be tremendously windy to effectively run a turbine. 

And, unlike solar energy, you can harvest wind energy day or night. And yes, you guessed it: the pairing of wind with solar makes a great combination!

Saving Green by Going Green

You've heard it all before: building 'green' is good for the environment. That's great, but what about the green in your wallet? Don't green buildings always cost more? And what about those wacky roof lines and strange window arrangements? Do green buildings always have to look so weird?

Local architects Jeff Zucker and Matt Ackerman, both LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Accredited Professionals and partners in Prescott-based Catalyst Architecture, have devoted their practice to busting green-building myths just like these. With a growing portfolio to demonstrate their success, Catalyst is proving that sustainable design does not come at the price of beauty, or even at a price. As Zucker puts it, "Green buildings do not, by definition, cost more. You don't take a conventional building and then add 'green' to it. A sustainable project is more than the sum of its parts."

James Learning Center designed by architect Matthew B. Ackerman, LEED-AP AIA of Catalyst Architecture
LEED-Gold James Learning Center
With energy and resource efficiency, reduced maintenance and operation costs, and careful site integration as the guiding goals for their work, Ackerman and Zucker have added a crucial design factor that contributes significantly to project success. "We consider our client's finances in evaluating the overall sustainability of each project," states Ackerman. "Sustaining financial resources is just as important as sustaining the material and energy resources of our buildings."

What does this mean for your construction project? Whether you are taking on a brand new house, or remodeling the one you're in, you can benefit from the Value Optimization Process (VOP) and the use of basic sustainable design principles.

VOP maximizes the integration of mechanical, electrical, and structural systems. This whole-system design approach nets significant gains for a project's sustainability - both ecologically and financially. And beyond the aesthetic integration of a building with the natural environment, the organizing principals of sustainable design are to provide energy-efficiency by designing the building to function passively where possible. This generally refers to the use of passive solar heating, natural daylighting and natural ventilation. When you put those passive systems in place first, you can ensure that you are minimizing your financial investment in the building's mechanical needs like heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.

Two local projects demonstrate these concepts best: a residence in the Hassayampa Golf Club, and the James Learning Center at the Highlands Center for Natural History.

Located within a Ponderosa Pine forest, this multistory Craftsman-style home in the heart of one of Prescott's premier residential communities uses traditional design and careful siting to compliment the surrounding environment; while its innovative structure modestly conceals high performance features such as a stairway that doubles as an integrated passive ventilation tower drawing cool air through the structure, and a remotely accessible heating and cooling system.

Built of AAC (Autoclaved Aerated Concrete) block, with the addition of cement fiber board siding and concrete roof shingles, this home is also highly fire-resistant. AAC block functions as both structure and insulation, offering a termite-proof wall system that also helps to modulate the indoor environment by regulating daily temperature fluctuations.

Designed to serve the Highlands Center for Natural History as their classroom and administrative offices, the James Learning Center was designed to model sustainable design solutions that can be easily applied at a residential scale. Built with wood-frame construction and traditional materials, the center is a great example of 'off-the-shelf' sustainability. Go for a visit and see for yourself how comfortable and beautiful a passively heated and ventilated building can be.

And don't forget opportunities for green remodeling. You can improve your home's bottom line with green solutions to water use, energy-efficient renovations and additions, renewable energy systems, and much, much more.

Going green doesn't have to take more green from your pocket. With creative design solutions and in-depth construction experience on your side, you really can have it all.

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Fire-Wise Home and Landscape Design for Healthy Forests and Your Safety

So, how are you enjoying the mild winter that we are having here in Northern Arizona? Temperatures in the 50- to 60-degree range during the day. Barely below freezing at night. And snow? Forget about it!

If this seems like an ideal scenario . . . . think again. Projecting these drought conditions into the summer, it is downright scary to think about a wildfire season on a par with last year's epic disasters, which scorched an area more than twice the size of Phoenix. In total, over 1,100 square miles burned.

We were brought face-to-face with the specter of loss just this past week when a conflagration consumed an historic ranch home in Skull Valley. The lucky resident escaped with his life, but the charred structure was a sharp reminder of the suddenness and finality of such an event. Now imagine that fire in your neighborhood. Imagine it igniting an entire forest of tinder-dry trees and underbrush. Picture it getting completely out of control.

Based on now-defunct stewardship practices, the forested lands of the Southwest have become grossly overgrown with small caliper trees and thick underbrush. This unfortunate policy of wildfire suppression is proving difficult to correct. The resulting tinderbox results in huge fires with names that haunt us still: Rodeo-Chedeski, Wallow, Schultz. One of the links at the bottom of this article describes prevention and restoration measures for California forests and yards. I've included it for its clear description of a healthy forest.

Hassayampa Custom Home designed by architect Jeffrey L. Zucker, LEED-AP AIA of Catalyst Architecture
"The ideal healthy forest is an open, park-like stand with widely spaced overstory trees (conifers and hardwoods). Most standing dead trees are removed and live trees are thinned. The understory consists of scattered shrubs, small trees, grasses and wildflowers. This breaks up the 'fuel connectivity' and reduces the risk of high-intensity fire."

I am proud of my current neighborhood's community-wide effort to minimize the danger of destructive wildfire in Manzanita Village Cohousing Community. Neighbors (mostly 55 and older) have banded together and voluntarily begun to remove brush and small trees from the valley below our houses. With at least four acres to tend, the job is huge. We've even used goats to clear away some of the underbrush! 

Lately this fire-awareness has also factored into my choice of building sites for my new house design. Like most people, I love trees, and want to snuggle the house right up next to them. However, one must keep in mind those same trees could bring flames within reach of the eaves of the house. Trees that are going to be near the house must be 'limbed-up'. The lower branches of the tree must be removed to prevent brush fires from climbing them like a ladder. The trees and other landscaping must be irrigated, so that they remain as green as possible. Ideally, landscaping would be kept a good thirty feet from the house, but this is not always possible or desirable. A number of solutions justify a bit of extra water use to support lusher plant species or even a pond within that 30-foot buffer zone.

Being fire wise is not a matter of fortune. Creating a defensible space around your house is a first step to peace of mind and safety. Check out the links below for some more information about fire-wise landscaping and house construction techniques that have found success in our great Southwest.

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Human-Nature: Some Thoughts on Comfort and Connection

nature |ˈnā ch ər|
The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.

OK, I'll admit it: I'm an armchair ecologist. You are much more likely to find me reading a book on the natural history of Arizona or watching a National Geographic documentary about Africa, than actually strapping a pack on my back and lacing up some sturdy boots so I can 'get out there'. 

Courtesy photo- Home Sweet Nest
Nature fascinates me, but my hikes don't generally take me farther than a quarter-mile radius of my front door. That being said, my Skull Valley property west of Prescott offers me something akin to wilderness. I'm not sidewalk-bound. There aren't even any trails, except to follow the lightly worn tracks made by javelina and elk. And I'm afraid of snakes, so I go slowly. I sit down and watch things up close. I put my face near the entrance to ant hills, or I spend some time collecting particularly beautiful seed pods or small stones – if just to touch the world more closely.

For someone like me, a homebody who has studied the importance of ecosystem health, who has been introduced to the idea that there is a false dichotomy in separating 'people' from 'nature'; the built environment (of houses and electric grids and waste water treatment and drinking water supplies) becomes the medium through which I affirm my place in an interconnected web of life. This physical connection of human with ecosystem is the precise nexus addressed by sustainable design and 'green' architecture. It fascinates me, and I think it is well-worth your attention, too.

Let's face it. Recycling is boring. Low toxicity paint is boring. Compact fluorescent light bulbs are not just boring, they're downright dangerous and produce really poor light quality to boot. And this whole issue of how we interact with the world around us has become politicized in terribly unproductive ways. So, how does so-called 'environmentally-friendly' architecture figure into this conversation?

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a functional model is worth a thousand pictures. To actually see one of these buildings--a beautiful building to look at, a comfortable building to live or work in--to see it integrated with the surrounding landscape, powered by the sun or wind, fitted with low-water-use fixtures, harvesting the rainwater that falls on its roof, and cleverly designed to function passively where possible without the addition of mechanical systems for heating, cooling and see this and to really understand what has been gained by both people and environment, this is truly inspiring. 

A famous energy consultant, Amory Lovins, once quipped that the environmentally-responsible design of our homes and cities is "Not about warm beer and cold showers." A teacher of mine once discussed the possibility of "sustainable hedonism" in the form of clean water, fresh air, fruit ripe for the picking, and a home warmed by the sun. Absolutely NONE of this requires a sacrifice in the form of physical or economic discomfort and it offers myriad benefits, not least of which is our continued presence on a habitable planet.

Here at the Catalyst Architecture office, we often talk about Common Sense Energy Efficiency, as a way to emphasize our goals while circumventing the sometimes emotional and often political discussion surrounding all things 'green'. Because common sense is exactly what we're after. Doesn't it just make sense to heat the air in your building only as much as necessary? Doesn't it sound a little insane when you hear that most office buildings have to run two HVAC systems simultaneously in order to keep the rooms near the exterior walls warm while cooling the offices that would otherwise overheat at the center of the building?

The Yavapai County Administration Building, a Catalyst Architecture project, models an innovative solution to this 'common' problem. I have to say I was shocked to discover that this design concept isn't common practice; and relieved to hear that our design team was responsible for developing an alternative to the status quo. Perhaps this model of practicality will serve as a 'catalyst' to make that innovation commonplace.

As we continue to work for these kinds of common sense solutions, I come back to my short but meaningful nature walks. I love the 'coming back' part of being away from home, the contrast of cold winter air to the warm interior of my living room. It thrills me to see an owl or an elk going about their daily business; and to remember that I too am going about a daily business of work and play, inside and outside, driving and walking, typing and simply watching. I'm a human animal, but my burrow is made from more than mud and sticks. I have no desire to live without electricity, without a buffer to the whims of weather and wildlife. To know that I can enjoy these civilized comforts in ways that don't damage the nature around me is both a relief and an inspiration.

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GREEN MYTHBUSTERS: Building Green Costs More $$$

Ahh yes. Still the most popular green building myth of them all. And probably one of the most common concerns we hear from our clients who are considering going green: "...isn't it going to cost more?"

To claim that a green building costs more, is no more accurate than claiming that a sports car costs more than an SUV. It all depends on what kind of a car you want. Are you wanting the super-turbo-charged-titanium-reinforced-hard-top-convertible with the ruby-studded shift knob? Well yeah, OK- that one's probably going to cost you more.

A growing body of research continues to show however, that there is no statistically significant cost difference between green-certified projects (such as the LEED Green Building Rating System), and non-green certified projects. My 20+ years of experience as a sustainable architect has tended to validate this data [1].

Most of the important energy-efficient features that any self-respecting green architect should consider first, are items that don't cost anything more up front. They're simply what I'd call basic, common-sense design. These include such considerations like how the building is oriented on its site and where the windows are located. Have the roof overhangs been properly placed and designed? Are the windows appropriately sized, with correctly specified glazing for each exposure? Are there deciduous trees nearby that can be used to both control and take advantage of the sun? While each of these considerations can greatly affect the overall performance and comfort of a building, none of these are design items that cost a penny more.

Yavapai County Admin. Building- All 16 bids came in under 5M budget
For those green building features that do cost more up front, overall cost savings can still be achieved through creative, informed design decisions regarding just how and where that added investment is made, and what other building systems can be reduced or eliminated as a result. This is known as "cost shifting."

Cost Shifting can function as an investment strategy (like putting money in the bank used to be), where greater dividends are earned over time, on top of the initial investment amount. Planned carefully, these savings can add up substantially.

For a hypothetical 18,000 square foot Community Center building for example, if we were to specify a high-performance double-glazed window system costing $10,000 more to install than a more conventional window system, savings are realized when that investment allows us to cut eight additional tons of refrigerant cooling, and 75,000 BTU's of additional heating from the construction scope that would otherwise be needed.

The reduced heating and cooling plant size would save roughly $5,000 right out of the box. With the reduced operations and maintenance cost for the mechanical equipment that we didn't need (at a savings of ~$3,000 per year) we'd achieve what's known as "payback" in about 2.5 years, saving an additional $3,000 each year after that, year in and year out, for the duration of the building's life. Over an arbitrary 30-year period, that would add up to around $90,000 net worth of savings- and that doesn't even account for the generally rising costs of energy, or the life-cycle replacement cost savings for mechanical equipment that was never installed.

As you can see, while perhaps costing a bit more up front, with the right choices it doesn't take long to achieve a net-gain ROI (return on investment), which can easily exceed the initial added expense. In the Community Center example above, shifting costs from the building's heating and cooling systems to a better quality window package, yields a more energy-efficient building, with a significant cost savings for the owner over time. This only makes good economic sense.

Though typically overlooked, sustainability in general and green design in particular must also take into account the large amounts of "human" energy that also goes into any building project. In my own business practice, we consider our client's financial resources to be a vital form of this energy- and every bit as worthy of conserving, as the material and energy resources that the building will need.

To address this notion of "our client's finances" as being a critical project resource, we've developed a unique process called "Value Optimization"[2]. With Value Optimization (in contrast to Value Engineering), we pair up our design-side engineers (representing the major building trades- architectural, mechanical, structural, civil, etc.), in an intense two-step workshop environment, with their build-side counterparts (representing the same building trades), in an effort to creatively brainstorm on how to best construct the approved design- and for the least amount of money. Our Value Optimization process has consistently trimmed 10 to 15 percent from our initial construction cost estimates, and for less than half the cost of traditional Value Engineering. It's become a proven win-win-win process for our entire project team.

Using this innovative cost control method, our company has brought in each of our last three significantly sized projects well under budget [3]- including the new County Administration building, which is currently under construction out on Commerce Drive [4]. On this particular design, ALL 16 of the qualifying construction bids came in under the County's $5M budget cap. This is an excellent example what can be achieved when the best of our industry's creative capabilities is applied to the task of conserving and sustaining our client's green-building construction dollars.

Building green doesn't have to cost more. In fact, my own experience continues to demonstrate that going green usually ends up costing less.

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