Lloyd Alter, Managing Editor of TreeHugger, explains how worldwide trends in green building have developed. He also shares his tips for self build success as well as some pitfalls to avoid.
Interview with Lloyd Alter
Having worked as an architect and a real estate developer Lloyd Alter became fascinated in prefabricated houses. Keen to educate people about the benefits of modern building methods he became an early blogger and gradually got more and more involved with the website TreeHugger. Lloyd also teaches sustainable design at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.
TreeHugger Aimed to Drive Sustainability Mainstream
TreeHugger was founded by Graham Hill in 2004 with the intent to drive sustainability mainstream. At the time green living was on the fringe and was considered to be for hippies so the idea was to present it in a modern and slick way, showcasing the best of green design. This not only included architectural design but product design and fashion design, etc. Today it has branched out even further.
We Now Understand the Importance of Moderation
Lloyd believes that in the past we have been preoccupied with the little things because we didn’t really understand what the big things were. He gives an example of how five years ago there were a lot of column inches dedicated to stopping vampire power (the electricity many gadgets waste just by being plugged in). Nowadays it is less about green gismos for your roof and more about moderation.
Drive less, get a smaller car, move closer to work, walk and build a house to meet your needs.
The Infrastructure to Support Cars Dwarfs Everything
Buying a Prius or putting solar panels on the roof of your house have a relatively small impact if you live in the suburbs or the countryside. This is because you are still having to rely on a car to get anywhere. Lloyd says that the carbon footprint from gasoline and oil use is the major problem, so it would be far better to move somewhere that allows you to walk or cycle to most amenities.
Where Lloyd lives in Toronto, people are beginning to realise this and are coming back downtown.
Passivhaus is the Way of the Future
Lloyd describes the Passivhaus movement as ‘so incredibly logical‘. Reducing heat loss to the extreme that a building needs very little energy to either heat it or cool it in the first place is common sense!
Net Zero Buildings Don’t Necessarily Consume Less Energy
Net zero buildings are not so logical. A tent can be net zero with enough solar panels on the roof!
As it doesn’t necessarily lead to a building that consumes less energy, it just leads to a building that relies on gadgets. It also doesn’t take into account the energy needed to make these renewables and their lifespan, etc.
Many Houses Have Too Much Glazing
Amongst some of the common mistakes that Lloyd sees repeated in houses is that they have too much glass. In terms of thermal performance, even the best windows are not as effective as walls can be. Lloyd also suggests that a smaller window can be a great way to frame a view rather than opting for a wall of glass!
House Plans are Often Inefficient
If house plans have not been well thought through there is a danger that a house can end up being bigger than necessary. For example, space can be lost to corridors, there can be duplication of spaces, oversized rooms, miss-proportioned rooms and so on. Hiring a design professional can help to overcome this, although as architects often charge a lot of money this can deter people and make them seek alternatives.
Websites that sell architects’ plans are becoming a more popular route in the United States.
LEED Programme Doesn’t Test As-Built Performance
It’s one thing to say that a building is going to be green but if it’s never actually tested once built, then there is no way of knowing. This is another reason Lloyd likes Passivhaus because buildings have to achieve an airtightness of 0.6 air changes per hour. If it does not meet this level of performance (along with the other criteria) then it cannot be certified.
Lloyd highlights this as one of the problems with the LEED programme in North America – there is no verifiable system to see if things had been installed properly and whether complex systems are maintained or just eventually get switched off by the user!
Rapid Development in China Makes Our Efforts Seem Insignificant
Lloyd talks about his recent trip to China where he saw the scale of development first hand. Their energy consumption per capita is going through the roof owing to gigantic scale projects such as the 60-storey buildings in the provincial capital of Henan (pictured above).
Lloyd describes how the enormity of these world problems hits you: “The last few days I had in Beijing I could barely see and I could barely breathe the pollution was so bad. You see that and you just think, well, what’s the point? What difference does what I do make? And the fact of the matter is probably in the long run not much at all, but we don’t have a choice.”
However, he also senses that China is on the brink of understanding this cannot go on. Plus there are companies that are doing amazing work in driving forward very high standards of energy efficiency.
Copenhagen Has Chosen to Give Priority to Bicycles
In marked contrast Lloyd spent some time in Copenhagen, where they have almost set out to make cars socially unacceptable. Over 30 years the number of people cycling has increased from around 10% to 50%. Lloyd describes the atmosphere as ‘wonderful’ and he believes other cities will eventually follow suit.
In America, Quality Comes Second to Cost Per Square Foot
While talking about factory building, Lloyd said that it’s hard to see it working in North America. This is because anybody with a pickup truck and a nail-gun can call themselves a builder! It makes it very difficult for the factories to compete as the main driver in the American market is cost per square foot. The bigger the house, the lower the cost per square foot because it’s just air. The kitchens and the bathrooms – which are the expensive things – are paid for.
Self Build is Difficult in America
A lot of the desirable plots of land in North America are in the control of developers, so it is quite difficult to self build unless it’s a second home in the country. The irony is in those situations there might be 15 pick-up trucks driving 50 miles to get to the site each day and then they if they run out of something they have to travel 50 miles to get to the nearest hardware store!
That’s another reason Lloyd really likes prefabrication because it really reduces the resources needed on site.
Interest in Sustainable Design has Declined Since the Recession
Lloyd believes that since the world recession of 2008 there has been declining interest in sustainable design. People are far more concerned about the cost of things than they are about the quality and energy efficiency. They also easily distracted with things such as setback thermostats that are connected to the Internet!
Moving away from the technology and more towards simplicity is what we need to do.
Passivhaus Open Days
If you’ve never visited a Passivhaus before then why not change that! Each November a number of people throw open their doors (homes, offices, etc.) and invite in those curious to find out more about what a Passivhaus can offer. So if you’ve got some burning questions, then this could be the perfect opportunity to ask them. Find out who is participating near where you live.
Our Question for the Comments Section
How have you noticed people’s attitudes changing where you live?