Monday, December 29, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

This week's newspaper column:

Cool-long nights and holiday festivities remind us that 2008 is coming to an end. The past year – at least for me – seemed to unfold with blurring speed. And now here we are, looking 2009 square in the face.

We have a well-deserved breather from the events of the day as Christmas cheer abounds and families and friends reunite, but soon it will be time to put up the bows and pull out the resolutions.

A lot of things have changed over the past year. An incoming Administration, a new Congress, high gas prices, low gas prices, and a sliding national economy that increasingly seems to have no bottom end – the new year looks much different than last year did going in. This country is at a crossroads, and the future will be shaped by our collective resolve.

So what if we, as a country, made some “green” New Year’s resolutions? If Uncle Sam penned a list, it might go something like this.

Quit smoking.

Currently, we burn fossil fuels to generate most of our energy needs. A phasing out of coal-fired plants and promotion of renewable energies like wind and solar will conserve our natural resources and foster a cleaner environment for everyone.

A nation-wide smart grid – the electrical version of the interstate highway system – can open up the entire country to Saudi Arabia-scale energy production from wind farms in the Midwest and solar energy mega-plants in the Southwest.

And conversion from gas-powered to electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles would radically reduce our burning addiction to oil.

Lose weight.

In sustainable terms, this means “having a smaller carbon footprint.” The single biggest factor influencing the recent record drop in gas prices is the reduction in demand as we drive less. That’s the power of conservation; no amount of increase in the production of oil and gas can compete.

The low-hanging fruit in a national conservation strategy, along with driving less, is the weatherizing of homes and the greening of buildings. Reduction of demand brings the markets back in line while we transform into a green-powered economy.

Spend more time with family and friends.

A national emphasis on promoting the design of walkable neighborhoods with services and work options nearby will increasingly reduce the time it takes us to get from here to there. Sprawl, on the other hand, is a big time hog.

And the culture of rampant consumerism demands that we spend more hours making money to pay for the things we buy. In the 1950’s it took one person working to support a family. Now, on average, it takes about two and a half incomes per household to make ends meet - with not much time to spend around the family dinner table.

We could resolve to spend more time and energy in the pursuit of intrinsic pleasures, rather than chasing the material ones. Did father really know best?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Winter Foliage

Nandina berries and Camellia blossoms.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

BeauSoleil: The Bottom Line

Solar Decathlon Update: Every two years 20 university teams are chosen, based on proposals, to design an all-solar home and assemble it on the National Mall in Washington DC for public viewing and judging. Check back each Wednesday as the NAV Blog reports on the process of the design and construction of BeauSoleil, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's entry. For more info about the project, visit their website at ttp:// And check out short film about the project here:

Over the next few weeks, the NAV blog will post Q & A from a recent interview with TEAM BeauSoleil.

NAV blog -
Do you have any idea what a production model of the BeauSoleil home would cost? Does this prototype address “green on a budget”?

Geoff Gjertsen, TEAM BeauSoleil -

Certainly this has been one of our biggest goals and challenges for the project- to design an affordable, green home. The perceived and actual up-front costs of sustainable design have been a hindrance to full adoption by the public.

Fortunately, in our economic climate and with the cost of oil projected to sky-rocket again soon, the market for alternative energy will continue to increase, thus reducing costs. In particular, the costs of photovoltaics are predicted to decline dramatically in 2009. However, many of the systems and strategies in the BeauSoleil Home do not have a significant up-front cost.

It all starts with siting: orienting the home on an east-west axis, shading the home in the summer with deciduous trees, and installing operable windows to capture prevailing winds. Then the initial investment in PV's, rainwater harvesting, high-efficiency HVAC units, low-flow plumbing fixtures, energy-star appliances, low-E windows and high R-value SIPS construction will pay for itself in about seven years.

Prefabrication and mass-customization allow for the cost of the home to also be significantly reduced. So although the initial 800 square foot prototype is projected to cost $220,000, the production model with some modifications for permanent sites and without all the bells and whistles required for the competition, will cost approximately $100,000. (This cost is predicated on at least 100 units being produced by our modular home manufacturer, Louisiana System Built Homes.)

This price tag puts the home within reach of the median income family earning $40,000 per year in Louisiana. And although the cost per square foot may be higher than typical inefficient construction, the high energy-efficiency of the home will pay for itself in the short term, as stated earlier. And, and this is a big AND, the home owner gains a level of self-sufficiency unheard of in a conventional home, which is really one of the most important aspects of sustainable design.

The time is NOW for the BeauSoleil Home along the Gulf Coast.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Shaun Donovan at HUD

After eight years of atrophy and neglect, things are looking up for the future of housing in the US.

Shaun Donovan, currently the Commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development in New York City, has just been nominated for the post of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Donovan is an architect by education with both bachelor and masters degrees from Harvard. Expect some innovative ideas and some aggressive action from HUD in the next few years.

In stark contrast to the previous Administration's world view that "government is the problem," Donovan brings a decidedly proactive attitude along with intellectual vigor to the post.

Santa came early this year.

A link to Obama's weekly YouTube message about housing and the Donovan nomination:

Friday, December 12, 2008

BeauSoleil: In a Winter Wonderland

Snow in Lafayette Louisiana on mock-ups of the BeauSoleil Home's solar roof panels.

Rare sight?

Or Climate Change?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Christmas Wish List

This week's newspaper column:

Lately, one economic indicator after another suggests that our nation is in the doldrums. Corporations on Wall Street - newcomers to the financial strain - are being bailed out right and left. American car companies are next in line. But Main Street has been feeling the pinch for quite a while with no relief in sight.

Amidst all the gloom and doom, talk has swirled about the need for some kind of stimulus package to right the economic ship. The last stimulus package passed by congress and signed by the president involved sending out tax rebate checks in hopes that people would run out and purchase big screen TVs, thus giving a shot in the arm to our consumer-based economy. Some people did just that. Some socked it away in savings. Many just paid down bills.

But that strategy proved to be unsustainable. Like a New Years’ sparkler that blazes and then dies out, the economic benefits were short-lived and now we’re back in the same fix – only worse. Credit markets have seized up, companies once considered invincible have gone under, and the country has lost almost two million jobs since the beginning of the year.

Recently elected federal officials of all stripes are “feeling your pain,” and chances are there will be some form of economic stimulus package passed into law soon after the new Administration is sworn in. But what form will that stimulus package take?

What would happen if, in lieu of dropping hundred dollar bills out of a helicopter at a football game, we as a society took that money and invested it in building a sustainable future?

Sustainability, by definition, is the act of fostering a built environment that is self-sufficient and self-perpetuating, is healthy and inclusive, and is more responsive to the human condition than it is to market conditions.

We have the technology and know-how right now live sustainably. What we do not have is the infrastructure.

Targeted support for sustainable projects such as solar and wind farms, the development of electric and hydrogen powered cars, and streets with sidewalks and bike lanes would start the process of weaning us from our current fossil-fuel based energy system. And tax credits for energy-efficient building retrofits and the installation of alternative energy systems on homes and commercial buildings would result in a decreased demand for large-scale energy production.

This conversion to a green economy will not be cheap. To paraphrase Everett Dirksen, ‘a hundred billion here, a hundred b billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.’ But look what we’re spending now to prop up the current system.

Investment in sustainable infrastructure will result in the creation of millions of new green-collar American jobs and, in the process, bring about a cleaner, healthier living environment for us all. So the question is not ‘can we afford to go green’ but ‘can we afford not to?’

Friday, December 5, 2008

Proposal Ties Economic Stimulus to Energy Plan

The United States lost a net 533,000 jobs last month insuring that an economic stimulus package is eminent. Right now, that package is being formulated among members of Congress and the new Administration and it looks like the stimulus plan will be holistic in nature - that is, it will be tied to developing a cleaner and more sustainable national energy system.

From the New York times: Proposal Ties Economic Stimulus to Energy Plan

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

BeauSoleil Home: A Day in the Life...

Solar Decathlon Update: Every two years 20 university teams are chosen, based on proposals, to design an all-solar home and assemble it on the National Mall in Washington DC for public viewing and judging. Check back each Wednesday as the NAV Blog reports on the process of the design and construction of BeauSoleil, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's entry. For more info about the project, visit their website at ttp:// And check out short film about the project here:

A day in the life of the BeauSoleil Home would go something like this: One awakens in a bed which is arranged according to feng shui, facing the door to the east. Light can be modulated to enter the space with rolling blinds or exterior louvered shutters. After getting-up, your bed can be folded into the wall immediately enlarging and transforming the bedroom to a studio. Cabinetry and a desk allow for easy and efficient storage of clothing and office supplies.

The bathroom provides a buffer between the public living area and private bedroom area and allows one to access the bathroom without venturing into the living area. When entering the bathroom one is struck by the luminosity of the polycarbonate walls bathing the space in light. The warm and bright colors and tile convey a feeling of spaciousness and cleanliness. The plumbing fixtures and accessories are designed to accommodate the disabled and everyone else as they age through universal design strategies. The open shower is spacious and bright and has high windows for ventilation.

Both the natural light and ventilation limit the growth of mold which is a major problem in Louisiana. An efficient yet generous medicine cabinet places one's toiletries and make-up close at hand and a lavatory counter tray increases this valuable real estate. After bathing, one walks through the living room and outside through the Transitional Porch (unless the weather requires this space to open to the interior.) By moving through the Transitional Porch one is immediately put in close contact and appreciation of nature and simply the climate of the day. The Transitional porch allows the kitchen to be separated from the main body of the house thus prohibiting the heat of cooking to migrate.

Additionally, the kitchen can be shut down at night or at other times it is not needed, conserving energy. The kitchen is very large for an 800 square foot house and this is no accident. Cajuns take great pride in their cooking and entertaining in their kitchens. Our kitchen embraces this culture of entertaining and cooking. The vertical volume of the kitchen is also the largest which again glorifies and celebrates the important space. A second set of high north clerestory windows allows for passive ventilation. Convenient placement of appliances and cabinets in the kitchen make this space highly functional. A vertical herb garden on the Kitchen porch allows one to get spices and herbs immediately during cooking. After making breakfast, one can sit at the kitchen counter or dine AL Fresco on the Transitional Porch. If you have a guest staying with you, they can sleep in the Transitional porch which can be separated with the sliding glass doors.

When you go to work, your house is working for you generating electricity and selling it back to the grid. When you get home at night the BeauSoleil home is waiting to greet you with programmed lighting levels. As the sun sets, BeauSoleil prepares for the next day.

Geoff Gjertson, AIA

TEAM BeauSoleil Faculty Coordinator