If it isn’t simple, it isn’t green.
That’s a quote I came across while reading Green Metropolis. With all the talk (and sales pitches) about high-tech contraptions that track the path of the sun and the mountains of data that prove how one material is more sustainable than another material, sustainability can be achieved through simplicity and an understanding of some basic principles:
1.) The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The sun is incredibly predictable. Depending on the latitude of where you are the sun typically rises a little south of east in the winter, and a little north of east in the summer. And likewise the sun sets a little south of west in the winter and a little north of west in the summer. The angle of altitude of the sun (its angle from the ground) is also predictable (of course also depending on your latitude).
So now that we know where the sun is on any given day at any given time, the other simple guideline is determining of the sun is a good thing. In Minnesota during the winter the sun is a great thing to have shine into your home and office, while during the summer in Phoenix the sun is a horrible thing. With this information you know when sun shade devices (such as awnings and trees) are necessary and what size they need to be. Block the sun when you don’t want it, and allow the sun to penetrate into the building when you do want it.
2.) Warm air rises. It’s the reason hot air balloons don’t burrow into the ground. When the air is warmed it will rise until it’s obstructed and can no longer rise. If you’re designing a space where being warm isn’t necessarily a good thing (like Phoenix in the summer), then you need to allow that warm air to either escape the occupied space or have it remain high enough so that it doesn’t bother people. High ceilings and windows near the ceilings (to allow the air to escape) work great in very warm climates. Likewise, having two-story high ceilings in a house in Minnesota will require more energy to warm the house (more energy = more money).
3.) Gravity goes down. Watch any episode of the television show Destroyed in Seconds and you’ll see gravity in action. This simple principle doesn’t necessarily create a more comfortable living environment, but it does come in handy for maximizing the materials used for the construction of a building. Every building requires openings in walls for doors and windows, as well as openings in the floors for stairs. Depending on the structural layout of your building there are very logical places for these openings (which allows the maximum efficiency in building materials), and thus there are also very illogical places for these openings (which requires additional structure, which requires more materials and money). There is a balancing act between structure and fenestration (fancy architectural word for openings), so a balance between the two translates into fewer materials being used.
Gravity going down also helps with design issues dealing with drainage from a roof. A typical gable roof for a house will need gutters along two sides of the house and usually involve four or more places for downspouts. Having multiple downspout locations makes it incredibly difficult to collect this water for irrigation or a gray water system. Designing a roof that slopes towards one corner eliminates the need for any gutters and gives you one point for rain water collection.
There are many other attributes for creating a more sustainable architecture, but it’s not supposed to be complicated. The only time it requires tens of thousands of dollars is when you’re trying to make a typical building designed within the vacuum of space-time more adaptive to its environment. If you start the design with an understanding of the specific site conditions (climate, latitude, altitude, available building materials) then sustainability can be achieved through simplicity.