Ben Kasdan – The Top 5 Underrated Sustainable Design Strategies

Builder & Developer

December 1, 2014

By now everyone installs energy efficient appliances, cool roofs, and low-VOC paint; but what is the next level of sustainable strategies that can be implemented into your next project? The following strategies are largely underrated and may not directly apply to any of the current green certification systems, but they all make a positive impact on the sustainability of a building and especially in the wellness of the users.

Walkability as The Priority. Shockingly, most of the green certification systems basically ignore this aspect of sustainability.

Sustainability for a particular project is typically calculated in a vacuum without much consideration of the building’s true context. But the effectiveness of a building’s sustainable strategies is tied closely to its site and a big component of how a building relates to a site is whether or not it is located within walking distance to schools, restaurants, retail, services, and/or places of employment.

Being able to walk safely, conveniently, and efficiently should become an integral aspect of any good design. Too often, site planning efforts become dominated by the automobile when instead they should primarily focus on the pedestrian. Study after study show the health benefits of walking and therefore if the communities made a concerted effort to encourage walking via design, then imagine the health benefits that could be achieved within those communities.

Bicycle-Friendly Communities. Site plans should find a way to institute safe, convenient, and efficient bicycle paths – not just the edge of the street by the gutters separated from automobiles by a painted line. The healthy choice to ride a bicycle should not require putting one’s life at risk, as is often the case. “Smart streets” that separate the travel lanes for automobiles and bicycles by parallel parking and/or medians have been used in Denmark for years, but have started to find their way into the U.S. as seen by the proposed changes to Figueroa in Downtown Los Angeles.

Also, a communal space for repairs that is stocked with tools, we call it a “Bike Kitchen,” can be a very popular and pragmatic amenity, especially in multifamily developments without private garages.

Effective Shading Devices. Awnings, canopies, and “eye-brow” elements should be more than just aesthetic. It goes back to proper solar orientation in the site planning stage, but effective solar shading can significantly reduce mechanical and electrical loads on a building, in addition to merely improving the quality of interior spaces. Architects can use simple rules of thumb to provide devices that correctly block solar intrusion into interior spaces whenever possible. Plus, they have the added bonus of improving the visual quality of a building, as well.

Urban Farming. An emphasis on eating locally has emerged as a cultural trend in farmers markets, grocery stores, cooking shows, and restaurants. Incorporating community gardens so residents can grow their own fruits and vegetables is the logical next step in the trend. We have found that relying on residents to maintain community gardens on their own can become burdensome and problematic, but by including them as part of the landscape maintenance plan, they can preserve their aesthetic and productive qualities more successfully.

Creative Water Conservation. It has always been the responsibility of the built environment to be good stewards of the water that it uses, but the drought in California has brought water conservation to the forefront of public consciousness. Therefore, it is more important than ever for new development to use water wisely. High-efficiency plumbing fixtures – such as waterless urinals, dual-flush toilets, and water-efficient faucets – need to become standard across all segments of the construction industry.

In addition, the fact that it takes water to heat and cool buildings is usually overlooked; so improving the overall energy efficiency of a building will also decrease its water usage. This is how proper solar orientation, effective shading devices, cool roofs, and efficient mechanical and electrical systems can play a role in conserving water.