Posted: November 02, 2012

Snapshots in sustainable design

Area architects inspire urban migration with aim of ‘elegant density’

Eric Peterson

A virtuous cycle keeps residential construction on the front end of sustainability. Best practices emerge and get embedded in industry-standard checklists before they quickly migrate into the building code. A home built in 2012 is considerably more green than one built in 2002, and light-years beyond the homes of decades before the turn of the millennium.

Architects and designers are on the front lines of the push for more sustainable lifestyles, balancing cost and carbon and a whole host of other data points in their quest for a future of net-zero energy homes. The question is not merely "How green do you want to be?" The question isn’t one home builders or home buyers can answer on their own. Rather, it’s a complex query based on economies of scale, adoption rates and production efficiencies.

Looking beyond environmental sustainability and carbon neutrality, today’s architectural and design communities are taking the next step into socially sustainable place-making, aiming to integrate and optimize health, collaboration, recreation, and other aspects of a sustainable lifestyle.

Planned Community

David Barrett of Barrett Studio Architects in Boulder says Colorado communities are learning that huge tracts of open space can only remain huge and open if we plan denser communities. "We’ve been calling it elegant density," Barrett says.

"People are really starting to realize the draw of these wide-open spaces can be continued through denser urban areas rather than spreading out haphazardly," adds Maggie Flickinger, Barrett Studio’s director of business development.

Barrett says the trend toward sustainable design and architecture has been fueled by industry initiatives like the 2030 Challenge, which aims to make all new homes and renovations carbon-neutral by 2030. Currently, the industry is at about 60 percent. "Let’s do something and not fiddle away while Rome is burning," says Barrett of what he sees as the prevailing industry attitude in the face of climate change. Sustainable features "are in the minds of most clients today," he adds. "Developers are slowest to respond, because they are more focused on cost, but the market is demanding it."

Barrett’s portfolio includes everything from greenhouses to barns to planned mixed-use communities, namely the Holiday development in north Boulder.

Barrett is working on a net-zero energy New Belgium "workhouse" in Fort Collins with six temporary quarters for visiting sales reps. "Instead of Days Inn, they’re staying in straw-baled casitas," says Barrett, touting New Belgium’s status as a national pace-setter for the sustainable movement. "It’s exciting for us to work with these people," Flickinger adds.

Spotlight on Twin Buttes Ecovillage, Durango

As master planner and architect, Barrett Studio worked with Durango city leaders on green building standards that were subsequently adopted by the city. The 600-acre site 2.5 miles west of downtown Durango will feature 480 acres of open space and a dense urban center on 120 acres. "We like to think of it as a Tuscan hill town," says Barrett, citing solar-friendly south-facing slopes that connect to Durango via mass transit and bike path. "The developer [Eric Flora] really changed his path early on and realized now is the time to change."

The first residents should move into Twin Buttes Ecovillage by the end of summer 2013. Ultimately Twin Buttes will have 600 homes including single-family and multi-family units as well as "AgriLofts on a community garden, plus mixed-use development.

On the Web: www.barrettstudio.com

Urban Infill and Redevelopment

Bernie Costello of B. Costello Design & Consulting LLC in Denver focuses on residential redevelopments in Denver and first-ring suburbs. "New urbanism is neither new nor urban," he says.

"The only way we can truly let our cities become sustainable is to truly become urban. And that comes down to the ‘D’ word: density," Costello says. "People have seen the irony of an Energy Star or LEED-certified home, yet it’s 6,000 square feet and 45 minutes from civilization."

Costello points to a project he worked on in the south Denver neighborhood of Harvard Park, where two adjacent lots, once home to "two little neglected houses" are now home to four residences. Another in the north Denver neighborhood Sunnyside took an 18,000 square-foot parcel that was home to only one household and built five separate units, each with partially attached two-car garages. (See "Spotlight on Solis 43.")

Costello still sees some "holes in the urban fabric" in Denver. The 2010 zoning changes "added a lot of wonderful things to the menu, but they’re limited in where they’re allowed. The current mapping that went along with the zoning could hurt our ability to be sustainable." The end result is "$1.2 million homes that are popping up in Wash Park," he says. "It has slowed down the reinvestment in other areas.

"The market relied for years on the buying power of the Baby Boomer generation," Costello says. "Then Generation Y came into the mix and supplemented what Generation X was doing," reinvigorating "first-ring suburbs" and the city. Generation Y "has embraced the city, but home ownership is still valuable to them."

Spotlight on Solis 43, Denver

There was one home on an existing 18,000-square-foot parcel in Denver’s Sunnyside neighborhood. There is actually room for five.

Dubbed a "micro community," Solis 43 consists of a detached home and four partially attached ones featuring an artful use of common and private space with a common courtyard, private roof decks, and a cantilevered layout that maximizes privacy and solar potential. Koelbel Urban Homes recently broke ground on the project.

Costello’s design makes meticulous use of private and common space and shows how Denver can develop its way out of its low-density legacy and take the next step toward sustainability.

On the Web: www.bc-dc.com

Social Sustainability

"Do we ever say we wrote the book on sustainability?" jokes Brad Buchanan, principal at RNL, a Denver architecture firm. "We wrote a book on sustainability." RNL has 130 employees, with about 100 of them in Denver, and has earned a reputation as one of the country’s greenest architecture and design firms.

Tom Hootman, RNL’s director of sustainability, wrote the book in question, "Design for One Earth," and now he’s got another one coming out called "Net Zero Energy Design" (Wiley Books). "Zero energy is sort of the endgame," he says. On the way to zero energy, "There is a need in the industry for something LEED is not doing well: measurable performance," Hootman says. "The trend is going past the design model and making sure the building is being operated correctly. There’s a gap in the metrics. You get LEED plaques but you don’t know how the building is performing."

New York and Seattle are among the cities that have started tracking energy use and other performance metrics of larger buildings, and Denver could follow suit if these and other pilot programs prove successful. "That changes the motivation of the building owner," Hootman says. "That’s going to be a metric people would be interested in."

Social sustainability is just as important as environmental sustainability, Hootman says. "It was about high-performance buildings," he says. "Now it’s about high-performance people."

Spotlight on Tapiz at Mariposa
(1099 Osage Street, Denver)

The first phase of the South Lincoln redevelopment, Tapiz is an eight-story, 100-unit affordable-housing building emblazoned with a colorful mural of butterflies and a tree, located just north of the 10th and Osage light-rail stop in Denver. "This project is truly different than any project in the city’s history," Buchanan says. "We truly want to end the cycle of poverty. How can we design places that are truly life-changing?"

On the environmental side, there’s an innovative water-reuse system that uses gray water from the showers in the toilets and ground-sourced heat pumps that loop through the foundation and not just the parking lot. The latter are a pilot program for Colorado State University researchers.

Socially speaking, the building has a community resource center offering job-skills training, health-oriented features, and an arts center and a culinary academy, complete with a commercial kitchen.

On the Web: www.rnldesign.com

Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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