[Tree in a rural area] (LOC)

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

A recent screening of an in-progress film, The Architecture of Life by Stephen Kellert and Bill Finnegan at the Yestermorrow School in Waitsfield, Vermont, started me thinking about the connection — or more possibly the disconnection — between biophilic design and environmental design. The former focuses its efforts on the user, attempting to provide a better environment for living, in both seeking shelter and experiencing the natural world. The latter requires only that design address the external: the building’s impact on the environment. I would argue that when done right, environmental design should address both the external impacts and the user’s internal needs, as encompassed by the tenets of biophilic design.

Defining the Terms

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the idea of biophilia, it is a term that has been popularized in some fields while remaining virtually unknown in others. The concept, first introduced by Erich Fromm in 1964 and popularized by Edward O. Wilson in 1984, can be described as the biological need to connect with the natural world, or the attraction towards that which is alive. The idea of biophilic design is the natural extension of this concept, and posits that since humans inherently seek connections with the living world, architecture and design should nurture this contact in order to create a favorable environment for humans.

As someone working in the architectural field, understanding this concept is unquestionably important, but it is also important to the entire population. All of us are affected by the environment in which we live and work, even more so than we might realize. For most of us, the majority of our time is spent indoors, within these built environments. Though the statistics might be slightly different for Vermonters, the average American spends an almost inconceivable 90% of her/his time indoors. With this in mind, and understanding on a deeper level why some buildings are a joy in which to live and work, while others contribute to a negative experience, the importance of (and path to) seeding an architectural revolution becomes clear.

Telling the Story

Kellert and Finnegan’s movie is doing the important early work of collecting the anecdotes and the statistical knowledge base that starts to frame this new understanding of the built environment. A compelling storyline in the movie discusses the long-term benefits of building better schools, as taken from a 2006 report “Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits” by Gregory Kats.

The upfront cost of greening schools, while at least roughly following the tenets of biophilic design, is on average 2% more than not doing so, or an extra $3 per square foot. These well-designed schools provide better learning environments and ultimately higher test scores for their students, alongside the better recognized energy and water costs savings. What is more amazing in this study is the quantification of this small investment in green building, in terms of the potential future earnings of the students. The better learning environment and test scores on average result in a $49 per square foot increase in future earnings. As these long-term benefits of good design continue to be recognized, a transformative change could take place in the market, advancing our built environment into its next evolutionary stage.

Envisioning the Future

It is my hope that the stories of good design begin to reach a larger audience and spur more of us to request the best from our built environment. Offices no longer need to be windowless rooms filled with endless rows of cubicles, lit by flickering fluorescent lights. Hospital rooms need not be painted in sterile tones, filled only with bright blinking lights and beeping machinery with no thought of the outdoors or even a leaf moving on the plastic greenery decking the halls and waiting rooms. We have an ability to build better buildings, following the tenets of both biophilic and environmental design. The places we live and work can nurture the environment through the use of sustainable materials, by producing more energy than they consume, and by being places we truly want to spend time — as relaxing as a mountain spa, as vibrant as a bustling marketplace, and as productive as well-managed farmland.


On a sunny day in July, I was happy to find myself in Boothbay, Maine for the grand opening of our most recent net-zero project, The Bosarge Family Education Center at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Heralded by the press as “The Greenest Building in Maine”, this educational center is the first net-zero commercial/institutional project to be completed in the state of Maine.

Image copyright of Robert Benson Photography

The grand opening ceremony provided an opportunity for those in Maine to collect over the idea of net-zero and high-performance building. With representative attending from all of Maine’s governmental branches, ample discussion moved towards the challenges of high-performance building and the goals achievable in building and energy policy in the future. It is my hope that these relatively small building can have a wide reaching audience and begin to change minds in Maine and New England about green building practices and the ability to build net-zero.

This unique project didn’t become a net-zero building by accident. From the very beginning the board at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens set out strict environmental goals for this project. Compared to many other projects, where Maclay Architects has spent time bringing the client and team on board with high-performance design practices, this project hit the ground running with goals of both net-zero energy and LEED Platinum. I believe it is because these goals were understood clearly from the beginning by the entire project team that the design was able to morph quickly into the construction of the building, even allowing for a shortened construction schedule, which was required by the Gardens to preserve their visitor’s experience during the busy summer season.

With thousands of visitors each year to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, in addition to the programs to be housed in the new Bosarge Family Education Center, there is a great opportunity for this building to teach many about the process and advantages of building net-zero. Solar panels cover the south-facing roof, which can be seen from the parking lot, prominently displaying the building’s green energy features. High-performance characteristics of the building that are not as readily visible to the visitor’s eye are highlighted throughout the Education Center by signage and an interactive building dashboard. These educational tools provide opportunities for visitors to learn about the design process and green features installed in the building, as well as interact with the building to understand energy production, energy consumption, water consumption and daily use patterns.

Image copyright of Robert Benson Photography

The Garden’s ultimate vision of creating a building that both meet the goals of being net-zero energy and achieving LEED Platinum has been met, but the further vision, and I believe more important vision,  of communicating to visitors the importance of resource and energy conservation still continues to be developed. A teachable mantra brought forth at the building’s grand opening, one that describes the finished product, “If a plant designed a building…” continues to grow this learning experience. Visitors to the Gardens can now complete that sentence with firsthand experience, “It would be powered by the sun,” “It would use natural materials as its building blocks,” and “It would harness the daylight.”

If you find yourself in the Boothbay region, I invite you to come visit and explore the building, the larger site and the gardens.


The Bosarge Family Education Center at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens was designed by Maclay Architects of Waitsfield, VT and Scott Simons Architects of Portland, ME.

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I recently had the chance to travel to Montreal and present one of our Vermont projects, the net-zero Putney School Field House, at the international ASHRAE conference. This was an exciting chance for us to share with others how it really is possible to achieve net-zero in the cold climate of Vermont. This was also a great opportunity to learn about other projects, as the session we were presenting in also highlighted two other groups of net-zero building professionals, one from Italy and one from Canada.




Lessons from Across the Border

The Canadian group, which presented a study on high-performance Canadian buildings, i.e., those consuming less than 60% of Energy Code baseline, identified the fact that though there are a significant number of high-performance projects there are only a few of these that are close to net-zero and there are no existing net-zero commercial projects in the country. The presentation highlighted three of these close to net-zero buildings: the Creek Side Community Center in Vancouver, a material testing lab in Hamilton, Ontario and the Earth Ranger Center in Woodridge, which is north of Toronto. What was apparent through the description of these projects is though they were utilizing many of the strategies that we  also utilize in our building projects — such as daylighting, low energy equipment and heat recovery technologies — they were definitely missing pieces too. These projects focused quite a bit on the visible technologies of energy efficiency, but through this focus missed some of the places where we see the largest reduction in loads, such as envelope design, including high insulation levels and low air infiltration readings.

Lessons from Across the Ocean

The Italian group focused on a single project, the Leaf House located in Anacona, Italy. This project focused on the goal of its team to analyze the net-zero building process in an effort to better define the term “net-zero energy buildings,” and to inform the process of the International Energy Agency (IEA). An IEA work group has been established to study Net-Zero Energy Buildings to inform international actions related to energy and greenhouse gas requirements in the building industry. To optimize energy use, the Leaf House project uses the most advanced available technologies for the processes of distributing heat and producing electricity from renewable sources. Built as somewhat of a test facility for high performance design, where the major focus of the design was the reduction of CO2 emissions, this house has over 1000 sensors to monitor performance. Even after the installation of this advanced monitoring, this group determined that a more effective strategy of monitoring and a better building automation system could make significant improvements to the energy performance of the building. All in all, the project highlighted a very expensive way to achieve high-performance building design.

Lessons to Bring Back to Vermont

It has always been my point of view that the best high-performance and net-zero building projects are the simplest; They are the ones that take into account beauty in the living condition and contribute to a better way of life for the users. From the experience at the ASHRAE conference, this point was hammered home. What we are doing in Vermont, in a colder climate than any of these other projects were located, is making net-zero work.

Projects such as the Putney School Field House work because they take into account the high-performance building technologies and strategies that are readily available in the marketplace, but in addition, they are designed for a specific place, to integrate into the human experience and to make a better place for the users. Using technologies that are already commonly available in the marketplace means these buildings can work, and they can work cost effectively.

In order to make the best high-performance buildings a reality, the focus of our profession needs to be on design, on building the best teams possible, and on determining when simple out of the box strategies are more cost effective than their advanced technology counterparts.




Ice cubes in glass
Image via Wikipedia

There are many measures used for building energy efficiency: total kBtu, kBtu/sf/yr, kWh/yr, therms/yr, kWh/sq.m/yr, $/yr or kBtu/person, and more. But determining when to use which metric, and even more important, how to make sense of a comparison of the energy efficiency of two different buildings, is no easy task.

An Example

Let’s use two glasses of water as an example. Some comparisons seem black and white – such as the question of which of the two cups of water sitting in front of us is hotter. Obviously the one that burns your finger is hotter than the one with the ice cubes floating around the rim. But the comparison becomes much more difficult when we start looking at which building performs better. Not only is there much more information required in making this decision, there is also the question of how you look at the numbers.


Let’s return to the example of the two cups of water. Our first question was pretty easy, but now let us look at the question of which cup of water requires less energy to maintain a temperature of 90 degrees. At this point quite a few more variables come into play. First, how much water is in the cup? If one cup has more water, it will require much more energy to maintain its temperature. Second, what type of cup is the water held in: glass, plastic, ceramic, or maybe an covered, insulated coffee mug? Third, how are the cups being heated — maybe one is being heated efficiently in the microwave, while another is being held over an open campfire. The cup over the open campfire will require much more energy to be used to keep it at temperature because the heating source is extremely inefficient. Another consideration might be where are the cups sitting while not being actively heated? If one cup is sitting on a sunny window ledge while another sits in a dark closet, it would make a dramatic difference. These are simple examples of the types of questions that have to be dealt with when measuring buildings and their energy performance, though building variables are even more varied and complex.

Making Sense of the Numbers

Now let us look at the second challenge – how to make sense of the numbers. The best way to look at energy utilization is to have an actual measured number for the amount of energy used during a defined period of time. For a building, this would be the total btus or kWhs used by all energy sources for a year, though in our example of the two cups of water this would likely be in btus per hour. For the sake of example, let’s say that cup 1 required 100 btus per hour to maintain temperature, while cup 2 used 150 btus per hour to maintain the same temperature. At first glance, you would say that cup 1 was more energy efficient. But here is where it gets complicated. What if cup 1 contained only 10 ounces of water while cup 2 contained 30 ounces of water. Therefore cup 1 requires 10 btus/hr/ounce while cup 2 requires 5 btus/hr/ounce. Looking at the numbers this way, it seems as if cup 2 is more energy efficient. So what really is the standard that we should be using? When looking at buildings what really makes sense?

A Solution?

I don’t have a definitive answer. The purpose of this discussion is not to decide on an unit of energy measurement that should always be used, but to outline the inherent challenges in comparing these metrics. Trying to understand how one building compares to anther in terms of energy usage is an enormous task, and different answers emerge based on how the numbers are manipulated and reported. Making it easier to make sense of building energy statistics is a challenge that needs to be addressed if we want to change the status quo and move toward increasing the stock of net-zero energy buildings. Do you have a suggestion? Please comment below.

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