A Better, Built World

With buildings a major source of energy consumption, local architects offer ideas to save cash and energy

The News & Observer, Home & Garden, December 27, 2008

By Georgia Bizios and Katie Wakeford, Correspondents

Rapidly changing gasoline prices, climate change and increasing utility bills are much in the news and in our minds. We are aware that the way we live is detrimental to the long-term health of the planet. Industrial processes and cars are considered responsible for many environmental problems. Buildings are also big consumers of energy and users and producers of unhealthy products.

According to the U.S. Green Building Council, buildings account for 39 percent of our nation’s energy use, 72 percent of the electricity consumption and 38 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, they use 40 percent of raw materials and 14 percent of potable water. Buildings produce 136 million tons of waste annually, 30 percent of the total waste.

Because housing constitutes a significant part of the built environment, how we design, build and maintain our homes has the potential to profoundly impact the environment and our pocketbooks. We need to make decisions and purchases that enhance energy efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of our homes.

Information about green strategies appears complex. The options can be dizzying and the claims of sustainability difficult to verify. Despite good intentions, homeowners are inclined to throw their hands up in frustration. Don’t give up yet.

Five Triangle architects agreed to share some strategies for sustainable home design. It’s a starting point for those of us who want to know more about how we can make our homes green. Whether you are building from scratch, considering an addition or simply looking to improve your existing house, we’ve got a tip for you.

Passive Solar Design

Passive solar design uses architectural strategies to harness the sun’s energy to warm buildings while guarding against excessive heat gain. Appropriately sized south-facing windows, in partnership with shading devices and roof overhangs, are especially important. In addition, high thermal mass materials such as concrete, stone or brick can be incorporated inside the house, usually on the floor. These materials absorb the sun’s energy and then slowly release the heat to the home’s interior into the evening. The free heat from the sun reduces demand on your heating system, saving energy and money.

Landscaping may also support your passive solar design. Deciduous trees and shrubs can shield a home from the summer sun. In winter, when the plants have lost their leaves, the sun will be able to reach the home and warm the interior. Passive solar techniques are most easily implemented when designing a new home. However, existing buildings can be adapted to passively collect, store and distribute solar heat. Passive solar homes range from those heated almost entirely by the sun to homes that only use some of the techniques.

Alicia Ravetto, AIA, LEED AP, Carrboro, www.aliciaravettoarchitect.com

This Raleigh house has a continuous gutter that directs rainwater to underground storage.
Photo courtesy of Tina Govan

Rainwater Collection

Not merely a technical issue, the thoughtful design of rainwater collection can add both beauty and sustainability to your home. Collecting rainwater reduces consumption of precious potable water as well as the load on stormwater systems. Architectural elements designed for the collection and transport of rainwater add character and meaning to a house, reminding us of the significance of water and its natural cycle.

Tina Govan, Registered Architect, Raleigh www.tinagovan.com

Advanced In-Line Framing and Open-Cell-Spray Foam Insulation

In-line framing is a construction method that aligns structural loads of ceilings and roofs with structural members in the walls to reduce the amount of lumber needed for framing. This method also affords more space for insulation. Open-cell-spray foam insulation yields superior thermal performance than batt insulation and bonds tightly to framing members for extremely low air infiltration. This combination creates a tight thermal envelope for an extremely energy-efficient house. Homeowners can expect a two- to five-year return on this investment through energy savings.

Erik V. Mehlman, AIA, Studio B Architecture / BuildSense, Durham www.buildsense.com

Ventilation through windows can provide fresh air without the need for electricity.
Image provided by Jay Fulkerson

Cross/Stack Ventilation

Adequate ventilation is critical to maintaining fresh air in a home. Cross ventilation through operable windows on opposite sides of a space can provide fresh air without the need for electricity to power fans. Stack ventilation allows hot, stale air to naturally rise and escape through high windows while drawing cool, fresh air in through low windows. Using window ventilation to cool your house helps you save energy by using the air conditioning less.

Jay Fulkerson, AIA, LEED AP, Chapel Hill www.jfarch.com

Spaces for Outdoor Living

Porches, decks, balconies, patios, courtyards and screened porches connect our homes to the environment. They create places to socialize or be alone, work, play, read, sleep, cook and eat while enjoying the outdoors and forging a stronger connection with the natural world. Outdoor rooms are more economical to build than conditioned spaces. They allow us to build smaller homes and encourage us to spend time outside. We save energy by reducing building costs and utility bills. Because of the temperate climate in North Carolina, outdoor rooms continue to be popular, favorite places. They enrich our lives, contribute to the character of our neighborhoods and improve our health and well-being.

Brian Grant, AIA, Grant Group Architecture, Durham www.grantgrouparch.com

Installing a radiant floor heating system and using solar power can save money.
Photo courtesy of Erik V. Mehlman

Solar Panels for Domestic Hot Water and/or Radiant Slab System

Solar hot water panels are typically mounted on a south-facing roof and collect solar energy to heat water for household use or radiant floor heating. The hot water supplements electric or gas water heaters and space heating needs and can reduce heating bills up to 80 percent. Federal and state tax credits significantly offset the upfront costs of solar heating systems. Energy savings can offset the initial investment in two to five years.

Erik V. Mehlman, AIA, Studio B Architecture / BuildSense, Durham www.buildsense.com

Large windows allow the light to reflect off the ceiling and travel deep into a home. This can help keep a house warm and also help keep light switches turned off.
Photo courtesy of Jay Fulkerson


Daylighting, or the use of abundant, properly shaded sunlight to illuminate an interior space, provides warm light to the interior of a home. Windows placed high on exterior walls allow the light to reflect off the ceiling and travel deep into a home to give balanced light levels throughout. Windows used for daylighting can provide views to the trees and sky, while helping you save energy by leaving the electric lights off.

Jay Fulkerson, AIA, LEED AP, Chapel Hill www.jfarch.com

Efficient Floor Plan and Building Envelope

“Simplify, simplify, simplify.” An architect can help you design a home that follows Henry David Thoreau’s advice. A simple, compact floor plan reduces impact on the land, increases energy efficiency by minimizing exterior surface areas that are exposed to the environment and saves money. An efficient home design can also take advantage of standard- sized building materials to minimize waste.

Brian Grant, AIA, Grant Group Architecture, Durham www.grantgrouparch.com


Making sustainable housing choices begins with where you choose to live. Building within an existing neighborhood or town benefits you and the planet because you spend less time in the car. Adults and children can bike or walk to work, school, shops and downtowns. Creative renovations of existing homes, as opposed to building from scratch, use fewer raw materials and more of the existing infrastructure such as roads, utilities and public transportation.

Tina Govan, Registered Architect, Raleigh www.tinagovan.com


The benefits of green home design strategies are both environmental and economic. Sustainable design conserves natural resources and protects the health of our planet’s ecosystems. It can also save money during construction and reduce long-term operating costs.

Cost estimation is not always simple for implementation of green strategies. Variables such as existing site conditions, resulting energy benefits and personal values must be considered. An architect can help you weigh the pros and cons to make the best decisions for your home.

“Homeowners must realize that the long-term energy and maintenance costs are of equal, if not greater importance to initial costs. It is critical to find a balance between upfront costs and the long-term savings,” says architect Erik Mehlman.

But the most important benefits of using sustainable design strategies might be the paybacks for your health and community. Green homes contribute to livable neighborhoods and happy families. They enhance the quality of our lives by creating better places to live.

So, go for it! If you are building or renovating your home, talk with your architect early about green strategies that are appropriate for your site, climate and needs.

Georgia Bizios, FAIA, is professor of architecture in the College of Design at N.C. State University and practices residential architecture. Katie Wakeford is an intern architect with the N.C. State Home Environments Design Initiative and co-editor of Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism (Metropolis Books, 2008).