Green building starts
from the inside

By Manda M. Gillespie

When people ask me, "What is green building?" I usually respond, "It is designing and building facilities that reduce impacts on human and environmental health, are enjoyable to occupy, and save energy, resources and money."

Recently, however, it was a nine year old asking me the same question. The little girl stood before me, quite serious, in a church basement in the Cleveland EcoVillage. Her quivering pigtails suggested she wanted an answer; her stature suggested it better be fast. I was tempted to say, "You will know it when you are in it."

Indeed, it is seeing and touching new things that make many of us, young and old alike, believers. This is the premise behind the EcoVillage projectshowing through demonstration that it is possible to have healthy and beautiful urban neighborhoods with the best of city life and nature thoughtfully intertwined.

Solar demonstration

The power of demonstration was recently evident at Gallagher Middle School, which is located near the EcoVillage at W. 65th Street and Franklin Boulevard. On June 1, 2001, school children, teachers and a lunchroom full of school principals, politicians, and community members came together to celebrate the introduction of solar panels to the first Cleveland municipal school.

A year ago, many of these same people were skeptical that solar panels could ever be used in Cleveland schools. When the effort began, many still thought solar panels would not work in Cleveland's gray climate. On that day in early June, the Northeast Ohio sky did what it so often doesrain on the day's solar celebrationbut the panels still worked to convert available sunlight into electricity.

At peak capacity the solar electricity system will produce 1,000 watts of energy an hour. The simple act of having this basic system installed was enough to make it seem possible in the minds of other people working in Cleveland. Now that Gallagher has a working solar electric systemsupported by corporate donors and community partnerships, understood by the facility workers, used as a classroom tool and a source of excitement for the studentsthe solar glint has begun to gleam in the eyes of other school officials. Already, there are talks of other schools incorporating solar electricity into their systems.

Hidden designs

To the little girl in the church basement, a solar panel is a tangible answer to her green building question. It is, however, not the complete answer. Beyond the obvious appeal of technologies that offer tremendous energy savings and improved air quality, there is a subtler side to green building. Green building is founded in design strategies that are not so easy to sell as an immediate stand-alone feature, not always available to see or touch. These include techniques of design process, sizing of mechanical systems, building framing, and the careful integration of building systems.

Through the development of the W. 58th Town Homes in the Cleveland EcoVillage, I have begun to uncover the roots of green building. The design process itself requires more involvement. The community has been essential to the design team, making crucial decisions about where to locate buildings and on which green building strategies to focus. Architects, landscape designers, technical advisors, energy specialists, mechanical engineers and lighting engineers sit side-by-side as part of a collaborative, integrated design process.

This differs from a traditional design process where a client hires an architect to design a building. The architect typically designs the physical structure and passes the creation to a mechanical engineer who attempts to force the gutsa heating and cooling system, ducts, air vents, and plumbinginto the body. Then the electrical and lighting engineers add their parts. At the end, a landscape designer might have an opportunity to wrap the product in a bit of green.

In contrast, an integrated design process is self-informative. There is an opportunity for the landscape architect to recommend using living plants to shade windows, for the architect to work with the client to optimize building orientation, or the mechanical engineer to work with the architect on appropriate window placement.

Smart dimensions

Integrated design is just one step in what lays hidden behind the development of a "green" product. In April, I learned more about the fundamentals of good green design at an Advanced Residential Design workshop hosted by EcoCity Cleveland in partnership with the Cleveland Green Building Coalition. The workshop was led by W. 58th Street Town Home project architect Betsy Pettit and building scientist Joe Lstiburek. In this daylong workshop, I was particularly impressed at a vivid illustration that depicts the intersection between waste, green building and costs.

Imagine you are going to build a playhouse for the nine year old in the opening paragraph. By designing the playhouse to be seven feet by seven feet you will have a fine-sized playhouse. To build it, you will need basic materials: studs, plywood, drywall, nails, screws and all those tools in the basement. You will also have to provide or pay for labor.

First, you will probably buy eight-foot studs. Studs come in two-foot increments, beginning with eight feet. You will then have to take the time to saw off the unnecessary foot on each stud. When putting up the plywood (which comes in four by eight foot sheets) you will also have to take off the unnecessary foot in each direction. The drywall similarly comes in sheets just a bit too large. After finishing the walls and ceiling you then will have to decide how to dispose of the wood and drywall waste. Being an environmentalist, you will try to find someone willing to recycle or re-use both elements (or pay to dump it into a landfill.) If, however, you were to realize that all this waste is costly (both in extra labor, time and unused materials) you might decide to build a slightly roomier eight-by-eight play house and give the nine year old her first example of the basics of green building. By designing the small house to make use of the size of building materials, you have saved time, energy and materialsand created a slightly roomier structure.

Advanced framing

These same principles continue to apply throughout the framing process. It is possible to reduce the amount of building materials used, speed up the building process and not compromise the strength of the structure, through optimized framing. When framing walls, if the designer specifies two by six inch studs spaced 24 inches on center-instead of the usual two by fours spaced 16 inches apart-the result is less wood and easier building. The four by eight foot plywood or drywall sheets will line up nicely with the studs, making them easier to attach. Similarly, if studs in the walls are placed directly over each floor joist and the upper floor joists are placed directly over those studs, it is not necessary to double up the top plates, thus saving more lumber.

Advanced framing can ease the process of putting insulation in the walls, allowing energy efficiency that can reduce heating costs of a residence by one half. Energy-efficient design also allows for savings through downsized heating equipment. Smaller furnaces or fewer solar panels are needed to create a comfortable space.

My understanding of green building continues to deepen as I have the good fortune of observing a growing number of projects locally. Though my knowledge increases, the definition doesn't get any easier. After a demonstration with straws and Dixie cups, I think the nine-year-old girl in the church basement began to really get it. Before she left, she asked whether I had really needed so many straws and whether I was planning to recycle them. I hope when it comes time for her to shed her playhouse for a home, green building techniques will be the standard in all new construction and the Dixie cups and straws can be retired forever.

Manda Gillespie is the EcoCity Cleveland project manager for the Cleveland EcoVillage project.

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EcoCity Cleveland
3500 Lorain Avenue, Suite 301, Cleveland OH 44113
Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
Copyright 2002-2003



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What is green building?

Green building is a process that:

  • Creates comfortable environments that are aesthetically pleasing, have plenty of day-lighting, and are draft-free.
  • Creates healthy environments.
  • Creates durable environments that are built to last, provide moisture control, and have forgiving building envelopes.
  • Creates energy efficient environments that are affordable to operate, use materials to their maximum potential, and minimize or eliminate waste.

Betsy Pettit,
Building Science Corporation





























Advanced framing techniques: Using common sense to save lumber and labor.

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