It's All About the Envelope...

The theme for this year’s East Coast Green (June 13 and 14) was Re:Thinking Green, a conscious effort to take a step back from the sometimes overwhelming rhetoric that has consumed sustainable design and look at what it really means. As speaker chair for the Re:View track of seminars, I was fortunate enough to sit in on a series of seminars and tours that took a critical look at real case studies.

A tour of the Collins Arena at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, NJ and the Summerfield Elementary School in Neptune, NJ highlighted what is best described as under-the-radar sustainable design. Without the “bells and whistles” that would be photovoltaics or green roofs, these projects were able to achieve significant points in the LEED rating system through materials selection, reuse and careful HVAC design.

The first seminar was a joint presentation by Hugh Trumbull of KPF and Emily Kildow of Viridian Energy & Environmental. Right away, a common theme for the day emerged as the focus of their presentation: the building envelope. The project was the recent renovation and expansion of the Centra building in Metro Park, which was presented as an icon of progressive architecture in the office park/commercial fit-out world. The building’s sustainability achievements were again somewhat under-the-radar, however recognizably significant. The building’s existing envelope was the epitome of 1980s energy-is-plentiful-and-cheap design, featuring a leaky single-glazed curtain wall with little to no insulation. By overhauling the envelope and focusing on glazing instead of green roofs, the building now exceeds any of the modeled energy savings and is expected to achieve LEED

The seminar titled Introduction to Passive House put forth the general idea of “Passive House” design, which might again be about envelope performance as much as it is about orientation and geometry. The focus of the presentation was continuous insulation and air barriers, reinforcing the idea that green design truly exists within the wall cavity, rather than bolted to the roof.

Perhaps the most captivating presentation was the closing lecture by Mitchell Joachim. Founder of Terreform ONE, Dr. Joachim gave a brief description of his career and research thus far, which included the popular “Fab Tree Hab” project. Amongst discussion about jet packs and fingernail chairs, this particular project presented houses built entirely from living nutrients. The structure and envelope are created by grafting living native trees to form space frames. Certainly innovative, this concept is truly an ecologically symbiotic solution; though as Mitchell pointed out himself, a growing building may have a few more cracks than we are used to.