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Sustainable housing an evolving term for architects

ArchitectureArts and CultureIndustrial ProductionLe CorbusierEnergy SavingEnvironmental Issues

It's been more than 40 years since architects started embracing green design principles. Spurred by the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, architects began to think about building homes that were more environmentally friendly.

Today, green has become standard even as the term itself reaches saturation. Green features such as solar panels, low-flow shower heads and tankless water heaters, once considered cutting-edge, are now commonplace in Southern California.

Nearly a quarter of all newly built homes in the U.S. last year were green, according to industry research firm McGraw Hill Construction. Green homes could account for up to a third of the new-home market by 2016, the firm estimates.

Some say the term "green" is a feel-good marketing catchphrase that is too vague to be meaningful.

"Green is overused and abused. We never use it," says architect Steve Glenn, principal of modular home developer Living Homes. In 2010, Santa Monica-based Living Homes built the first home in the nation to be certified platinum, the highest level, in the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. LEED has been extremely successful in creating industry guidelines for sustainability even as many bypass certification because of the costs and documentation involved.

Green may have reached its tipping point, but younger architects today are redefining it — going beyond the advertising argot and energy-efficient appliance add-ons to embrace sustainability in innovative ways.

Architects pushing the envelope on sustainability are integrating environmentally responsible features into a building's life cycle, from conception to construction. In one sense, these designers are espousing much older ideas, harking back to Modernist architect Le Corbusier's vision of the home as a "machine for living," stressing mass production, technological advancements and the use of new materials.

For architects such as Simon Storey of Anonymous Architects, this means designing homes with compact floor plans and multiuse spaces. More efficient use of space and less overall square footage typically translates into lower utility bills.

"It's all pretty sensible stuff, because sensible stuff works," says Storey, who also recommends over-insulating walls and roofs, placing windows to avoid direct sunlight and using materials like concrete to regulate temperature and humidity.

Increasingly, architects are also incorporating sustainability through passive tactics, such as maximizing opportunities for natural ventilation.

For instance, Michael Maltzan built a house in Napa Valley that breaks larger spaces into a series of linked pavilions along a ridgeline, cooling the house without an air conditioner. Closer to home, Rachel Allen designed a house in Echo Park with a bank of steel-framed windows cut into the center of the ceiling to bring in natural light. A laser-cut wood shade mimicking the shadows cast by oak trees overhead reduces heat gain.

As millennials, those born in the 1980s and 1990s, come of age, the demands on architects and builders for sustainability may become more intense. With a focus on social responsibility, green design is critical to this generation. And as research shows that the majority of millennials prefer to live in cities, the definition of sustainability continues to evolve.

Architect Daveed Kapoor thinks constructing new single-family residences will never be as sustainable as converting existing buildings in dense cities to housing, no matter how small the carbon footprint. "The most sustainable projects are adaptive reuse lofts in downtown Los Angeles. They may not be LEED-certified, but they promote a car-free lifestyle and upcycle old buildings," Kapoor says.

Living Homes' Glenn calls this the next level of sustainability. "Once you have the buildings right, it's also critical to think about where you're building," Glenn says. For his firm, that means building in walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods that have easy access to jobs, stores and services. Living Homes just got approval to build such a project: a mixed-use development in Atwater Village.

As Glenn sees it, "perhaps the most important thing we need to do is to create more responsible housing for the increasing number of people who are moving into cities worldwide."

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