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Posted: November 25, 2009

Colorado Sustainable Design Awards: Beyond the call of green

Inaugural competition recognizes outstanding design in residential and commercial properties and master-planned developments

Mike Cote

 It's a fine achievement if you build a structure that meets a set of established guidelines for saving energy and reducing your carbon footprint. The goal of the Colorado Sustainable Design Awards, however, is to shine some solar light on the architects, builders and their clients who strive to exceed what once sounded like lofty expectations. (Read about the winners and their designs)

Case in point: The winning entry in the residential category - which required lobbying the city of Boulder to allow recycling of gray water - was commissioned by a homeowner who scoffed at the city's new "green build" guidelines. The sustainable features he had in mind for his home, he told his architect, would trump anything the city required. And he was willing to spend a lot of money to include them.

As our judges reviewed the finalists, what attracted them was not just buildings with smart designs and imaginative ways to save energy but those that could serve as models for future projects: prototypes for civic and commercial buildings, homes and master-planned developments that could be replicated - and truly represent the spirit of sustainability. In the case of the Douglas County middle school project, the winning civic entry, that is already happening, with those plans used for six similar buildings.

ColoradoBiz partnered with the Colorado chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Urban Land Institute Colorado and the U.S. Green Building Council Colorado to organize the statewide awards program. Although we were impressed with the quality of this year's nominations, we hope the best is yet to come as architects and builders embrace the triple bottom line 
of economic, social and environmental sustainability - beyond the 
call of green.

- Mike Cote, ColoradoBiz editor

[judges] COMMENTS

The entries in the inaugural Colorado Sustainable Design Awards represent a cross section of sustainable development activities in Colorado, highlighting both the progress that's been made in the last several years as well as the realities of the market in the last year.

In each category - Residential, Commercial, Civic and Communities - we were able to reach unanimous consensus on nearly all of the awards. In the process of comparing the relative merits of one entry versus another, we made the following observations:

Residential: Clearly, there is a segment of the single-family residential market that is pushing the edges of sustainability. The aspirations for this category included net-zero-energy houses (over the course of a year, the house produces more energy than it uses) and the thirst within Colorado to do away with the antiquated water laws and begin capturing and reusing gray water, as demonstrated in the top two winners.

While these pioneering efforts are undeniably groundbreaking, we hope these goals and achievements can start to manifest themselves in projects that also include affordability, transit access, small size (such as through attached housing), and nestled in more pedestrian neighborhoods.

We also saw the beginnings of a movement toward modular sustainable housing - again embracing the goals of sustainability and affordability - and we will be eager to see this trend continue. Also, we realized there is a need for a distinct category for higher density multifamily housing as these tend to be more sustainable from the get-go, and we hope to either add this category or see more of these entries in the residential section in the future.

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Commercial and Civic: These broad categories cover a variety of building types. In deciding the winners, we gravitated toward those that used the vocabulary of performance and metrics in describing their projects.

We found it difficult to credit a project with an award if it didn't reference its percent reduction in energy use relative to the baseline established by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers ; or quote its projected or actual energy performance in kBtu/SF (a thousand British thermal units per square foot); or report its water reductions in gallons or percent reduction from a baseline.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards have made the use of performance metrics a basic expectation in green building projects, and whether or not projects pursued actual LEED certification, we expected to see the self-same performance metrics that LEED would require - percent recycled content, construction waste diverted, open space created, stormwater treated, etc. - rather than a whimsical listing of cool toys and technology.

Further, we were impressed when a project described how it was translating the design intents into ongoing performance (e.g. generating Energy Star scores, conducting ongoing commissioning, etc.).

We also found ourselves gravitating toward what we considered "intelligent architecture" - buildings that are designed in the context of their natural settings to capture or reject the sun, wind and water. The winners typically described building orientation as a primary consideration and articulated a massing and shading and scheme that varied based on aspect. Thoughtful buildings should look different from the south, the west, the north, the east, and the winners successfully reflect this thinking.

Lastly, we looked for buildings that spoke substantively to the different aspects of a green building rather than focusing simply on energy. An academic building or a hospital, for example, that embraces daylight, ventilation, durability and the creation of learning spaces or patient care while addressing energy and water efficiency is an impressive feat. We were also attracted to projects that would serve as models for future building in their particular industry.

Communities: The economy and the market for new master plan developments in the past year made this an especially challenging category. The winners included two projects that are either built or appear to be moving forward.

The winners were either mountain town extensions (non-greenfield) or an example of suburban net-zero-living (that has garnered international attention). One aspect that was missing from the entries in this group was the dense, urban, mixed-use, infill projects that in our minds define the Communities category. Many of the master-planned projects that might achieve this have either been scuttled or indefinitely put on hold.

But it seems that in the future, this sort of development - in places like Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs - that combines walkable spaces, green open space and the softening of the urban landscape, while revitalizing an urban setting with density and commerce, is one of the necessary elements of sustainability for the state going forward.


-By Joshua Radoff on behalf of the judges:


- Richard Farley, principal, Civitas, Denver
- Mark Gelernter, dean of the College of Architecture and Planning, University of Colorado, Denver
- Conor Merrigan, principal, C2 Green Development Services, Denver
- Susan Powers, president, Urban Ventures LLC, Denver
- Joshua Radoff, principal, YRG Sustainability, Boulder

See all the winners and their designs

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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at

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