BY BRIAN LIBBY
According to Architecture 2030, nearly half of all domestic carbon dioxide emissions come from buildings, largely for electricity, heating and cooling. But as architects and an increasing amount of the general public understand, we have the capacity to change that. Buildings can easily generate more energy than they consume. Yet too often, there is a dichotomy in the architecture profession between designers specializing in sustainability and those focused on aesthetics or functional needs. The idea that green buildings must be ugly persists, even though some of our most beautiful local works of architecture are tremendously energy and resource efficient.
The annual perFORM design competition won't change the system overnight, but this competition for students and as-yet-unlicensed design professionals (architectural interns) to design ultra energy-efficient beautiful buildings could be a first step. Now in its third year and produced by Hammer & Hand (a construction company with a long history of building passive house and other energy-efficient buildings), the competition is accepting student submissions through July 15.
Each year the competition assigns students to design a particular building type on a real site, with alternating Seattle and Portland locations. In the first year, 2014, the assignment was for a single-family house in Seattle that achieves Passive House-like levels of energy performance and was won by University of Oregon student Cameron Huber. The second year, 2015, focused on a mixed-use building in Portland and the winners were Jon Lund, Narek Mirzaei and Luis Sabater Musa from the University of Cincinnati.
Recently I spoke with Cory Hawbecker, a senior associate at Holst Architecture and a judge for all three perFORM design competitions, about the event and its value, and what made the winning designs stand out.
Portland Architecture: What do you get out of looking at students’ work and ideas?
It’s the most energizing thing you can do as an architect. I’s just a lot of fun to see the work and it re-energizes me. I come back to work and have that kind of student energy again. I’m always amazed by the quality and the amount of work students and unlicensed professionals put into it—people in the practice who are not registered yet. A ton of thought has been put into not only the energy side of things but the aesthetics as well. I could imagine many of these as quality additions to the cityscape. In practice you have budget and code constraints that hamper you and restrict creativity a bit. We also sort of romanticize that: there are setbacks and height limits, and we use that as a jumping off point to generate ideas. It’s a necessary constraint. Necessity is the mother of invention.
Energy performance can be viewed the same way. It’s not something that should hinder your design. It can add richness and meaning, and it can be part of the aesthetics too: not just something that gets buried in the walls. I don’t want to single out the older generation, but I do think there’s something about people who came into the profession not worrying about sustainability. That stuff can tend to be kind of bolted on. But to make meaningful progress it has to be considered from the very beginning. And a lot of it’s new technology; some of it’s just physics. But these new technologies and techniques necessitate a re-assessment of how we do our job. If you build a passive house with 15-inch walls and try to make it look like a Cape Cod or a Foursquare, it doesn’t seem comfortable in its own skin. You’re trying to make 21st century technology look like a 19th century building. We try to take that sustainable component and work it into the fabric and DNA of the project.
It's also fun to interact with other jurors. They may be architects you’re used to competing against. Here you’re all looking at the same thing and analyzing it, but it’s fun to hear everyone’s perspective. It’s really fun also to disagree. Both years there’s been times where we don’t see things the same way. To pitch your point of view has more merit than another’s; you don’t get that chance too much. And I like to support what H&H is doing. They’re trying to encourage students to think about this in a new way, and in a sense realize you can have your cake and eat it too: that is beautiful but minimizes its impact on the earth. For a construction company to do this is a unique thing.
I think it’s sort of common in the passive house and high performance building community to be a lot more giving and sharing with what they’ve learned. It’s new for me. When you work in the standard architecture profession, we can be a little bit more careful about what we share. You think, 'I spent a long time developing this detail. I don’t want to just give it away.' But in the passive house community, there’s an excitement that says, 'Look what we did here.' And it’s in service of a higher purpose: buildings that have a reduced impact on the environment. And as a community we can figure out how to do this better and cheaper and still deliver the designs people want, there will be a greater market for passive house and high performance building. The rising tide will lift all boats, people seem to believe. Someday it may be more cutthroat, but right now it’s very much a community. It’s pretty interesting to see it develop.
What do you remember liking about the 2015 mixed-use winner, Green Bars?
When you see all the entries, there’s a lot of common themes that come through. In that case the site was at the terminus of the main run of sandy where it intersects the couplet. Three quarters of the entries put a ton of weight into that diagonal. This one didn’t build the whole thing around that diagonal. It’s seductive when you have an orthogonal city grid and a diagonal you can take advantage of. They resisted the notion of giving it too much weight. The idea was the rationality of the grid winning out. But making the diagonal the thing was a bit too common a thing. This entry acknowledges the history, but what made sense for the site and the solar orientation.
The scale of this, too, seemed appropriate. They all had more or less the same number of units, but often times the scale felt very massive. Even though I work two blocks away from the site I’m not that familiar with it. You usually experience it in a car. But the buildings over there are not these huge things. There’s a new apartment building to the south, the Linden, that’s pretty big. But the scale of the neighborhood is still mostly two or three-story buildings. This one accomplished all the programmatic goals, but it felt humane and comfortable and Portland. I think a lot of entries looked like they belonged in Southern California and not this region. They didn’t look contextually specific.
And what about 2014 winner Cameron Huber’s single-family house?
That sort of typology and that form makes a lot of sense for a single-family house. It’s very efficient the ratio of wall to enclosed area. This one was a clear winner amongst all the entries. It was sort of like, 'This one’s obviously the winner and who’s the runner up?' - I think because it felt very comfortable in its own skin. It’s a very small house in an existing neighborhood filled with early 20th century small single-family, wood-framed houses. Some of the entries that were very much more architecturally ambitious didn’t seem to fit into the context very well. It’s like they were trying to hard to impress. This one did what it set out to do: a house in scale of the neighborhood that fits in but clearly has this modern aesthetic and is doing what’s sensible in terms of energy performance.
The street side was the east facing façade, and that’s always the hardest of solar exposure. He’s made the windows narrow slits. Then the view to the south, he’s providing windows that seemed appropriate as well. It made sense in every one of the categories we were considering.
How about the jury process? How were the passive-house goals evaluated or assured to be possible?
There's basically an energy model Hammer and Hand developed that the students were required to meet. It would be pretty easy just to kind of cheat the model and say, 'Yes, it’s net zero, but maybe the walls aren’t as thick as they say.' They kind of did that check to say, 'This seems believable.' But beyond that, the jury was free to pick whatever we felt had the best merit.