I would like to claim that I became an architect to save the planet from wasteful, polluting buildings — the built world accounts for some 40 percent of the greenhouse gases we produce — but the truth is my fondest desire was to become a thespian. But the theater is an iffy business and with my best stage feature, a lively head of hair, rapidly waning, I turned to a more sensible alternative: architecture school.
Graduating into the teeth of the 1973 oil embargo, I tempered my nascent design instincts with a heavy dose of passive-solar practicality: large windows on the south sides of houses for capturing solar warmth and insulated shades to keep heat in at night.
Nearly 40 years ago, not long after the first Earth Day, my partners in architecture and I encountered the concept of clean energy head-on when we set up shop in a 19th-century mill building on the Falls River in Essex. In the tradition of Yankee self-sufficiency, the old factory had been churning out auger bits using water power to turn gigantic pulleys and gears.
Despite its considerable age and grime, the building had a story to tell, and we listened. It was a survivor and had been energy-independent in a way that modern buildings were not. It was made of stern stuff — local timber and red brick. Its energy source was organic and decidedly local: a dam site that had been producing power since 1689.
We kept that tradition going in 1982 by installing a turbine to turn the river current into electricity. A devastating flood that year knocked out our fledgling hydropower plant, so we rebuilt. Today we derive 10 percent of our kilowatts from this renewable source. We share the dam and environs with an array of wildlife, from herons to snapping turtles.
The idea of clean energy and self-sufficiency continued to appeal, as did the notion of taking an old building with character and making it useful in yet another century. Architects now bandy about a fancy term for this: "sustainability." Our main building has exuded it from Day One, back in 1893. It was built to last, and the most sustainable thing we could do was to use it.
Our next step was to install some modern stuff, including low-flow plumbing fixtures and programmable thermostats. What worked for us also would make sense for our clients. Solar panels went up on two of our roofs, boosting the percentage of our on-site power generation to about 30 percent. Next, we installed a pond-source geothermal pump that assists with heating and cooling, improving on-site energy generation to 40 percent or so. Recently, we replaced an old oil boiler with a highly efficient propane unit that is cheaper to run, lowers emissions and uses a fuel more readily available domestically. The payback for that investment is seven years.
Such bells and whistles are sexy, but here's a little-known secret: The cheapest, most effective way to make a new building an energy miser is to orient it properly toward the sun and to sink it into the ground. Buildings that take advantage of both solar heat and light and the moderating temperature of the earth require fewer kilowatts and BTUs. In most cases the initial cost is negligible, and the annual savings never stop. The cleanest power of all is the kilowatt not consumed.
There is no single or prescriptive way to a brighter, independent energy future, but there are, happily, lots of ways to make the journey. The American Institute of Architects has proposed that by 2030, all renovated and new structures should be "carbon neutral," so efficient that no fossil fuels need apply. The National Association of Governors of the 50 states has endorsed that goal.
We keep several enormous cast iron pulleys around the office to remind us of where we came from.
Chad Floyd is a partner in Centerbrook Architects in Essex.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun