LEED Platinum in Western MA, and the Elegance of Cohousing

I recently attended a talk at Mount Holyoke College: a double lecture given by two architects working at firms dedicated to different styles of sustainability. The first speaker was Ann Marshall, of Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst. Ann’s talk focused on the Leed Platinum building she had helped to design for New England Environmental, Inc. (a local environmental consulting firm). Ann started off by giving a little background about herself, explaining that she had always known she would be an architect–ever since she was a little girl drawing sketches. At the time she got her undergraduate degree, it was less common for women to focus on architecture, and more common for them to focus on interior design. She studied at Auburn University (home of the Rural Studio program), and spent her first two years focusing mostly on interior design. She later got her Master of Architecture from Harvard University. She feels her grounding in interior design is important and helps her to be a more holistic thinker in her job as an architect. This comment resonated with the philosophies of DesignBrilliance, drawing as it does on the concept of interdisciplinary approaches to design solutions.

Image courtesy of kuhnriddle.com

Ms. Marshall went on to discuss the process of designing the Leed Platinum building for the firm New England Environmental. She described the process as very rewarding, because the clients were invested in doing the process correctly, and were willing to spend the money it took to complete the project. Because N.E.E is an environmental consulting firm, they were able to fill out and file all of the paperwork required for a LEED certified building themselves, which saved a lot of money, and they were also able to be involved in the design and planning process, being used to collaborating with architects and engineers on a daily basis. Planning to build a LEED Platinum building is not a small undertaking. As of October 2011, there were only three LEED Platinum buildings listed in Massachusetts. Unlike a general LEED certification, which allows the builder to pick and choose which sustainable elements are easiest or most affordable for his or her project (and which often results in a non-integrated collection of sustainability add-ons), LEED Platinum buildings have such stringent requirements for sustainability at all levels and in all categories, that it is hard to create such a building without a very good chance it will incorporate many elements of true sustainability.

Ann explained the importance of revisiting the LEED template repeatedly throughout the design process. The sustainable elements of the building were varied and numerous, but Ann mentioned a few in particular: Rain gardens, native plantings, catchbasins, pervious pavers and “grass-crete” helped treat water slowly on site. There were also no curbs on the driveway or parking lot, so that water could freely flow over the edge of the surface if it did not filter through. Foot-thick walls filled with cellulose insulation were good for retaining warmth in the winter and cool air in the summer. The flooring and wainscoting were made of bamboo, which is a more easily renewable resource than wood. A 40 kw photovoltaic array allowed the firm to sell electricity to the grid when they produced excess, and buy it back when they were in need. The grass outside was only mowed 3 or 4 times per year, and was allowed mostly to grow into meadow. A footbridge into the building was raised over a wildlife area filled with native species and plants. Interior windows allowed natural light to move through 90% of the building. Some open spaces connecting multiple floors of the building also allowed more natural light to flow through the space. The firm also created incentives for employees to bike or carpool to work, and there was ample bike-rack space. Ann mentioned two things in closing: Besides the cost of the LEED certification, she felt that creating a building that would qualify as LEED platinum is NOT more expensive than a conventional building. She also said that the collaborative process of designing the building was one of the most rewarding parts of the entire project.

Several questions were asked of Ann; one was about whether LEED is overrated, and whether she saw it as a static rating system. Ann responded that she felt it was not static and has been amended and updated several times , and she also felt it has been a valuable tool for educating the public, making people aware of green building ideas, and giving people who would otherwise not take the time to research and undertake ANY environmentally friendly changes to their building practices, some guidelines. The second question was about what makes a good client. Her answer was a client who is informed, but also willing to take suggestion, so that there is a give and take of information and ideas between the architect and the client.

The second speaker of the evening was Laura Fitch of Kraus Fitch Architects. Laura talked about her philosophy as an architect, which is that she is “a mother first, then an environmentalist, then a social justice advocate, and then an architect.” Laura also explained that the office policies at Kraus Fitch support their mission and beliefs: They practice continuing education (which fits right in with the philosophy of DesignBrilliance, since the more educated you are and continue to be, the more you can look at problems and situations from a background of diverse knowledge). Their office also focuses on care for family and encouragement of bicycle commuting and purchasing locally. They try to apply sustainability on all levels: home, community, and planet. They also believe that every project should produce more energy than it consumes (one of the main tenets of regenerative design).

Image courtesy of cohousing.com

The better part of Ms. Kraus’s lecture centered around cohousing, a practice and philosophy born in Denmark. Some of the major benefits of cohousing are that it creates a smaller environmental footprint than standard housing and it is more socially and economically sustainable. Laura helped design, and resides in, the Pioneer Valley Cohousing in Amherst, MA. The PV Cohousing community comprises thirty-two households and one common house — the expenses for which the entire community pays equally. The community is at the doorstep of the residents, and this is particularly valuable for the health of cross-generational relationships within the community. Laura explained why cohousing is especially beneficial for kids and seniors. For kids, the cohousing is a safe environment to play and learn, they have more of an opportunity to take care of each other, they are more able to be useful by helping out with community activities, they have many adult mentors, and they are connected to the land/their food/and their work. For seniors, cohousing also provides a safe environment, they aren’t institutionalized or isolated, neighbors are more accessible and willing to help in their care and or exchange child care for elder care, the elders provide wisdom and guidance for the rest of the community, and they also are more connected to the land/their food/their work. In PV cohousing, they have built a culture of celebrating food and music.

Laura mentioned the additional idea of building a cohousing community around a theme, or a group of people with a commonality, sometimes known as “supportive housing”. One example she and her firm are involved in creating in North Adams, MA, is a neighborhood retrofit on its way to becoming a cohousing community of families with adult children with autism. It is meant to create a culture of support and mutual benefit, as well as the opportunity for those adults with autism to live semi-independently within the safety of the community. Similar concepts for war veterans with PTSD are being put into practice. Laura also touched on the subject of pocket neighborhoods as being related to the idea of cohousing. Her closing thoughts? “First, do no harm” isn’t just for doctors… it also applies to architecture! And, “If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.”

The two architects’ talks complemented each other and and touched on very different approaches to sustainable architecture. For more information on pocket neighborhoods, check out Ross Chapin’s 2011 book Pocket Neighborhoods: Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World. To learn a bit more about the basics of cohousing, visit cohousing.org