Taking Green Architecture to New Levels

Johanna McCloy wrote several articles as a freelance journalist for Truth Atlas, a magazine “featuring stories about people and ideas making the world a better place”. Truth Atlas provided permission to reprint her articles here. 

JOHANNA MCCLOY • MAR. 14, 2014 • INNOVATORS, SPECIAL FEATURE • ¦ 3949

Alex Vondeling

Alex Vondeling, Associate and West Coast director of Re:Vision Architecture. Photo courtesy of Alex Vondeling

PHILADELPHIA, PA–Start with a childhood of playing outside in the woods and mix that with a year of taking art classes in Venice, a desire to serve the community, a passion for sustainability, and an ever-present desire to try new things, and you’ve got the seeds for growing up to become a deep-green architect and sustainability consultant. At least, that’s what happened to Alex Vondeling, 47, who has become an expert in her field.

“People think of green architecture as kind of like hippie architecture, but it’s always been around,” Alex explains. “It’s not new.” During and after the Industrial Revolution, buildings began to be constructed with new mechanical forms of heating, ventilation, and lighting; over time, this led to a decrease in passive design–factoring in the local climate and the site’s orientation to the sun as a way to maximize the structure’s environmental efficiency–and a sharp increase in global consumption of fossil fuels and greenhouse emissions. Environmentalists took note and began making a concerted effort to return to a sustainable way of building. This became known as “green architecture.”

The green approach to building is three-fold: reduce, reuse, and recycle. “We think of it in that order of priority, too,” says Alex, who is now the West Coast operations director for Re-Vision Architecture, a green architecture firm based in Philadelphia. “Reducing is the most important thing. Whether it’s living in a smaller footprint, using fewer resources, or having a passive design.”

The Camden Meeting House and zero energy social hall project by Re:Vision Architecture. Photo courtesy of Re:Vision Architecture

The Camden Meeting House and zero energy social hall project by Re:Vision Architecture. Photo courtesy of Re:Vision Architecture

Alex’s exclusive focus on green architecture began when she got the opportunity to work with Sim Van der Rym, who had been the state architect under California Governor Jerry Brown in the late 1970s and is regarded as the forefather of green architecture. “He’d been doing it since the 1960s,” she says. “When I first started working with his firm, there were no codes for something like rammed earth (a technique for building walls with natural raw materials), so you had to work closely with coding officials to get some of those non-standard materials approved. By doing that, we started getting things in motion, so that they could then become more of the standard.”

She also explains that, for her work, designing is only 10 percent of it. “Professors told us this and it’s true,” she says. “The rest is working with clients, with consultants, with all kinds of people involved in the construction of a building. It very much incorporates a community, and I like that.”

Alex currently follows projects through construction and operations, helping them earn LEED credits and certification. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a rating system created in 1998 by the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council. “It’s like a score card,” she explains, “that rates the efficiency and resourcefulness of a building’s construction, along with its operations and maintenance.” People like to get LEED certification because it demonstrates leadership, setting an example and a precedent for others to follow. “You’re showing that it’s doable,” she adds. “When I first went to a LEED conference about ten years ago, there were only two thousand people there. Now, there are like thirty thousand, so it shows how the industry has grown.”

She also consults on projects that strive to meet the Living Building Challenge, the built environment’s most rigorous performance standard and a level of certification sought by projects all over the world. “A living building is a building that doesn’t take more from the earth than it takes to make it or generate it. It’s more performance-based than it is prescriptive, so you don’t get certified until a year after construction. It’s not like LEED where you get points as you go along. With this, you have to show how your building actually operates. You have to be net-zero for a year; you have to collect and process all the water on site; and there can’t be certain chemicals on site such as PCB or formaldehyde and many others. It’s tricky sometimes because manufacturers don’t want to disclose what chemicals are in their products; there’s resistance there and they think it’s proprietary, so this is pushing them for transparency, which has been quite a challenge and a feat.”

The roof of the Potomac Watershed Study Center Grass Day-Use Building will spread out like wings to capture the sun’s energy to provide power to itself and the overnight Lodge. Rendering courtesy of The Alice Fergususon Foundation

The roof of the Potomac Watershed Study Center Grass Day-Use Building will spread out like wings to capture the sun’s energy to provide power to itself and the overnight Lodge. Rendering courtesy of The Alice Fergususon Foundation

One example of a net-zero energy, net-zero water, and carbon-neutral Living Building project is one that Alex has been monitoring since 2007. Called The Potomac Watershed Study Complex, it’s an environmental center for inner-city kids, set on the Potomac River in Maryland. “We’re rebuilding a lodge there and several smaller buildings. One building is called Grass because it has the photo-voltaic panels and generates energy from the sun. The other one is called Moss because it’s more in the shade and is the water-collector building, so they’re meant to be symbiotic and work together.”

Alex enjoys working on special projects, but emphasizes how easy it has become for everyone to green their own home. She suggests looking for reliable product labels like FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) wood, HPD (Health Product Declaration) products, or Energy Star or Water Sense appliances and fixtures. She makes note of low-water-use toilets and showerheads, energy-efficient LED lights, double-glazed windows, non-lead plumbing fixtures, and low VOC paint as some of the many purchase options that can make a big ecological difference.

“An uber-green project doesn’t have to look a certain way,” she says. “It can look clean and modern. You might not know that a project is sustainable just by looking at it.”

What you can know, too, is that green architecture is filled with possibilities. Not only does it offer creative fulfillment for its architects, but it also does good for the community–and the world.

Featured photo (top): The Potomac Watershed Study Center Moss Overnight Lodge will gather rainwater that will be purified and used throughout the Center. Rendering courtesy of The Alice Fergususon Foundation

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