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Sustainable Design

Thoughtful planning benefits owners and community


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Photo by Tamás Deák

KPB Architects designed the Nursery Greenhouse, which has several sustainable features, for the Alaska Botanical Garden.

I’ve had the distinct pleasure of interviewing many professionals that build and design Alaska’s infrastructure, and in those meetings I’ve learned two interesting facts: engineers always bring notes to an interview and when building a thing—bridge, runway, port, colosseum—whether or not it can be done in strictly practical terms is generally a non-issue. Modern construction is a marvel, with new innovation and technologies pushing forward what “can” be done almost daily. No, what limits every project in the real world is how much money is available. Even massive projects, such as the proposed Alaska LNG line, currently estimated to cost $40 billion to construct, will work within the constraints of a budget, or possibly may not be constructed at all for that exact issue.

This changes the question from what can be done to what should be done: which aspects of the project are most important, where do compromises need to be made, and what choices best suit the owner, the community, the infrastructure itself, and the environment. This fundamental question of design, what should be done, is the essential jumping off point when looking at sustainable design. What can be done? Almost anything. So what are we choosing to do?

Tamás Deák, a principal at KPB Architects, describes sustainability as “the acknowledgement of the responsibility of being good stewards of the land and communities,” and sustainable design then includes “doing everything you can in any project to try to use your best means, methods, technology, and design, and in my case ecological systems, to make that project as sustainable as possible within its context. Context is everything; every building context is different and therefore the expression of sustainability is different.”

Significant to Deák is the idea that every project can have elements of sustainability, whether or not it includes sustainable check-box items such as alternative energy sources or sustainable materials. Deák says, “The funny thing about sustainability that somehow we only perceive something as sustainable when we see it. When we have our buildings with the solar photovoltaic panels on top, then everyone says, ‘By golly, we have sustained ourselves to the hilt!’ But that’s just one aspect of many.”

He resists the notion that there is non-sustainable and sustainable work. “Sustainability is not necessarily a separate thing—good designers practice sustainability innately and not as a feature that is added to the design services requested from a client.”

Photo by Tamás Deák

The south entrance of the Z.J. Loussac Community Building at Loussac Place, a development by Cook Inlet Housing Authority. One of the building’s sustainable features is a LED lighting package, which was uncommon when it was designed.

Deák has worked with Cook Inlet Housing Authority (CIHA) on several projects that have a range of sustainable sensibilities. CIHA’s mission is to promote independence through housing, and that goal informs every decision the organization makes about how its infrastructure should be designed, built, and maintained. CIHA Vice President of Project Management & Construction Mark Fineman says part of what he enjoys about his job “is that we get to push the envelope in a lot of different areas, including alternative energy and sustainability. Our mission drives us to be responsible developers in the sense that we create and make sure [our projects] match the environment.”

Fineman uses 3600 Spenard, one of CIHA’s recently completed projects, as an example. It’s a mixed use property on the corner of Spenard and 36th Avenue, with retail spaces for lease on the first floor and residential apartments on the second and third floors. Deák worked on the building, which sits on a lot Fineman describes as “a really difficult site shaped like a slice of pie.” Instead of fighting the odd shape, “they [KPB Architects] designed it following the curve of Spenard, included a lot of windows, and were very thoughtful on how they placed the building on the site and designed the units.”

Deák says that one aspect of sustainable design is simply making sure a project fits its surroundings, which can often be done at little or no cost. “With my skill set, I’ll sit down and I can work up a better plan, in terms of sustainability, within probably the same parameters… If you have a mountain on one side of the building, it’s fairly silly to have solid walls put against it, because you just diminished one aspect of being happy in the unit, which is looking at a beautiful mountain. How hard can it be to move the window [while designing]?”

Beyond alternative energy, using a resource, which can be the building itself, to its full potential is a way of thinking sustainably. Adam Wilson is a senior mechanical engineer with RSA Engineering. He divides common ideas of sustainability into a narrow view—what it takes to operate a facility long-term—and a broad view of how the building has a full life, it’s impact on the community, what resources are being used, and how they’re being sourced. “Is the building pulling in so many resources that it’s causing stress to the community around it? Are there other entities in need of those same resources? What’s the general feel of the building, what are people’s interactions within it, do they want to be there, and are they proud to have a building like this in the community,” he asks. Moving a window just to take advantage of a scenic view rests firmly within the broader picture, but for those using the building, that simple change has vastly improved the facility’s value.

Photo by Tamás Deák

A recently constructed pedestrian bridge that completed the restoration of Chester Creek at Muldoon Road; made of wood and steel, the bridge helps provide recreational opportunities to residents, contributing to local health and well-being. 

As a mechanical engineer, Wilson is generally involved in what he would call the more narrow view, the long-term operations of a building, which means he is often looking at what one may traditionally consider sustainable aspects such as alternative energy sources or high efficiency building systems. He says, “Some owners are becoming more savvy about sustainability, understanding that it may cost a little more right now, but for the next twenty or thirty years the cost of operations will be less, freeing up money that can be put toward another project.”

Wilson says he primarily works on commercial projects. One large project he’s working on with significant sustainable elements is the Paul John Calricaraq project, which includes construction of a new clinic building as well as renovation of the current hospital, and both buildings must be certified LEED silver. Funding for the project comes in part from Indian Health Services, which requires the certification. This is the largest project requiring LEED certification that RSA Engineering has worked on, providing design and documentation services for HVAC, plumbing, light and power systems, data, and telecom.

“Building a sustainable building is not difficult,” Wilson says. “You just need to know ahead of time that’s what you’re doing and what your goal is and have some clear criteria.” As a mechanical engineer he works primarily with energy sources and systems, but, he says, “I’ve been in this industry long enough and have been involved with sustainable designs to enough of an extent to understand that the building envelope is really the first line of defense. If you can start strong there, a lot of other pieces fall into place.” With a strong building envelope, Wilson can then source smaller, more efficient, or alternative systems to keep the building comfortable and functional. “So it’s not difficult. There are a lot of details to pay attention to, but they pay off.”

CIHA’s Fineman says the housing organization looks at many levels of sustainability, but one that is critical to their mission is at that focused, narrow level of what can be done to minimize operational costs. “From an operational perspective we’ll put on siding that requires low maintenance [metal siding instead of T1-11, for example] or we’ll use carpet tile and vinyl tile instead of a sheet product, so if something happens we don’t have to remove the whole floor,” and CIHA regularly integrates alternative energy into their buildings.

3600 Spenard features photovoltaic panels that power the building’s common area lighting as well as other common systems. That property also uses ground source heat pumps to heat the building and cool the units in the summer. “It means not only less cost for us, from an operational perspective, but also more electricity available to others and less power that needs to be generated,” Fineman explains. Sezy Gerow-Hanson, CIHA’s director of public and resident relations, says, “Minimizing all those operational costs is great as an owner/landlord, but it also allows us to help keep those rent costs down. If we don’t have to pay so much to light common hallways and light the parking lot, we don’t have to pass through that cost or increase.” She explains that supplementing with alternative energy also helps keep utility bills more stable from month to month, which is important for the clients CIHA serves.

In the broad community and environmental view, CIHA has a strong history of revitalizing properties. “We like to say sometimes that we buy the properties and develop properties that no one else will,” Fineman says. CIHA will buy residential or commercial properties that require building demolition or even remediate contaminated sites, sourcing funds that will specifically allow them to turn damaged, unwanted lots into beautiful residential or community spaces. “We don’t just look at the site,” Fineman continues. “We and our designers look at what’s around the site and then we try to design to that, to use the land and to design something that goes with the surrounding property and the property itself.” Gerow-Hanson agrees, calling it “an evolved holistic view,” as CIHA carefully considers how development will impact the site, their neighbors, and the community at large. “We [also] think about how our properties and parking relate to one another… and as we try to build more densely that becomes more important.” Buildings that are busy during different times of the day or week may be able to use the same parking lot instead of building two, for example.

Photo by Ken Graham 

3600 Spenard, located at the corner of Spenard Road and 36th Avenue, is a mixed use retail and residential building. The large windows face the mountains, providing resident stunning natural views. 

CIHA’s attention to the big picture fits well with Deák’s personal passion for broad-view sustainable development. “With the environmental impacts of building, sustainability is extremely important for the practitioners of the design professions that shape our environment. I tend to think that sustainability has to be approached from an ecological point of view.”

To him one of the most important environmental aspects to consider is water. “What do you do with water coming from above, going off the property (or not), and how that affects anything downstream? Does it pollute creeks, does it flood the neighbor, does it dry out a wetland, [or] did I just ruin a cultural landscape by putting some atrocious thing in the middle of it?” At 3600 Spenard, for example, surface runoff is directed to rain garden areas that absorb and filtrate the water instead of being discharged into the storm water system.

Wilson says, “The creativity and the experience of architects in Alaska lends itself well to [sustainable] systems and designs—having to work in Arctic environments were the wind is blowing six months out of the year in zero degrees or less and really knowing how to build a structure so it’s going to retain its heat… There have been major gains that have been made in great building techniques.”

Wilson, in addition to his mechanical engineering work, finds the broad implications of sustainable design intriguing. “We spend a lot of money on building and maintaining facilities that I don’t fully believe we need to be spending all this money on.” He has seen examples of infrastructure that are built beautifully, work well, and meet their purpose, but have design aspects that turn into a long-term costs for the community or utilize resources that could have been put to another project. “It’s really nice to have a beautiful building, and we want to create buildings that are inviting and comfortable, but we need to make sure that we’re doing it in a way that’s also being responsible with the resource that same community is going to have to apply to maintaining the structure. There’s a responsibility on us as designers to make sure we’re thinking of those things for our clients.”

Wilson says, “I’m really encouraged at the direction that Alaska is heading when it comes to sustainable design. We’ve hit this tipping point where people are seeing the benefits of using, specifically, alternative energy sources. It’s really not as crazy expensive as we thought it would be to put those in, or it's not as difficult to maintain and operate these things as we thought that it would be. There are a lot of people that are just intrinsically motivated as well as those that are financially motivated and there are opportunities now to consider other ways of sourcing energy. I’m encouraged, I think it's cool and there are a lot of opportunities for innovation.”

Deák says that sustainable design can absolutely benefit the owner financially, but he says the savings aren’t in design fees, but “sustainable design can save tremendous amounts of money if measured on a life-cycle cost basis… The question consistently is initial development cost versus life cycle cost when evaluating sustainably designed projects over conventional ones.”

For CIHA, the investment in focusing on several levels of sustainability has proven valuable. Fineman says, “We continue to evolve… When we put in a ground source heat pump system down in Seldovia, we were realizing tens of thousands of dollars in savings from not having to use the fuel oil, and the payback for installing that system was just a couple of years. It was really an easy decision and it was nice that it was validated—what we had seen on paper ended up being true in real life. And I think we see that across the board in the measures that we're taking. Some of them are really easy, some of them do take some capital funds to do, but some of them don't. And it just helps us long-term to continue on with our mission.”

 

Tasha Anderson is the Associate Editor for Alaska Business.

 

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