Design matters

I really expected to wake up to a peppy soundtrack marking each step like a real-life iPod commercial the moment I stepped out of bed on Wednesday, Nov. 5. Instead, the Dow was just over 9000, home starts and values continued to fall, and I’d forgotten to line-dry my "Vote Obama-Biden Nov. 4" T-shirt, inadvertently shrinking it to fit.

A week later, generally elated, but still wishing Cathy Wurzer would wake me up with better news, I walked a few blocks to the Convention Center for the annual American Institute of Architects state convention, where everyone seemed to have woken up to economic woes. In a session on measuring buildings’ energy performance, an architect seated next to me introduced himself and complimented a project of mine he had recently toured. I thanked him and asked which firm he worked for, which I regretted as soon as his hesitated response began with "Well, I was with…" After my apologies and encouragement, I returned my focus to the screen, only to be reminded that buildings in the United States are responsible for 48 percent of all green house gas emissions annually and consume 76 percent of all electricity generated by U.S. power plants. It seemed there should be plenty of work for all of us.

Unfortunately, the financial climate is doing nothing to promote what needs to be done. In the same week, I heard a nameless talking head proclaim that sustainable growth would have to take a back seat to the economy because, (and the simile is mine) like hope, sustainability is nothing more than a fascination of the "liberal elite."

Thankfully, in the Nov. 9 Sunday New York Times, a more notable talking head, Al Gore, wrote an editorial titled "The Climate for Change." In it, he proposed a five-part plan to jumpstart the economy with an immediate investment in sustainable energy. One of these was a strategic effort to improve efficiency in buildings, specifically to retrofit existing buildings with "better insulation and energy-efficient windows and lighting."

Last year, I completed a second story addition in the Fulton neighborhood that conceptually added a "wool cap" to a drafty early-20th-century bungalow. Though the scope changed to include the addition of sprayed insulation to both new and existing walls, doubling the square footage still resulted in a 40 percent reduction to winter heating bills! And that was without, as the Nobel Prize-winning former vice president suggests, replacing the windows.

Another South Minneapolis project getting my attention lately is the addition to the Blaisdell YMCA. Though it is not attempting to achieve any sort of "green rating," its simple design is an exemplar of passive solar heating and cooling. The long south façade cants outward to form a large overhang, shading a full wall of glass from the high summer sun and inviting it in to heat the floors in the winter. East and west sides have limited glazing, slightly recessed, where the sun is harder to control. This kind of simple site design means little more than the energy generated by people on treadmills will be required to heat the addition in the winter.

So whether or not our new president elect dons a cardigan and asks us to step up — or cut back — there is much we can do. And if there is anything we’ve learned in the last month, it’s that yes, we can, too.

Bryan Anderson lives in Stevens Square. He works for SALA Architects on East Hennepin.