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A Conversation With Architect Peter Pfeiffer: The Common Sense Approach to Green Homebuilding

July 14th, 2008

Let’s say we found a new source of energy; something like nuclear energy, but without the waste-disposal problems. And because of this new energy, electric rates in New York went from being 18 cents per kilowatt hour to a penny per kilowatt hour. Do you think people would care about designing energy-efficient buildings? That’s what happened. We now have super-inexpensive and reasonable air conditioning. Why worry about cross-ventilation in your rooms, stair placement and screened-in porches?

That’s why it’s strange for me to see the generation of architects below me resurrecting the mid-century modern. They say, ‘Modern looks really cool. I want to design nifty, modern green homes.’ They don’t see the inherent contradiction in that statement. Well, if you choose that modern movement style, you’d better make some changes and adjustments to make it work with the environment.

GRN: What if I want to build a new green home, but can’t afford to hire an architect to design a custom home. Are there drawbacks to buying a pre-existing house plan from a book or website?

Pfeiffer: If you’re going to get a house plan out of a book or off the web, look at which way the house is facing. Choose a plan that doesn’t have a lot of unshaded, west-facing windows. Maybe flip the plan on your site; maybe move the windows around so fewer face west.

Photo: Barley & Pfeiffer Architects
 
Alan Barley and Peter Pfeiffer, principals of Barley & Pfeiffer Architects

We had a client who did just the opposite. She went to a production builder and got a plan that was actually pretty good. She had them change the windows, because she didn’t like the small windows on the west side. Then she called us out, because they were experiencing high energy bills. I told her, ‘One problem is your huge windows facing right into the afternoon sun.’ They’d made that change to get more light into the house and enjoy the view, but after moving in, realized the windows created too much glare and heat. That mistake probably contributed 20% to their air conditioning load.

So she actually erred in reverse. She took what was to be a moderately efficient home and made it very inefficient, because she didn’t think about the very basic issue of west-facing windows. And she can’t enjoy the view, because she has to keep the blinds closed.

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