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

July 14th, 2008

By Paula Minahan

Peter Pfeiffer doesn’t mince words. His passion for green building takes an almost proselytizing tone at times. And it’s no wonder. The straight-shooting architect has spent the past 30 years at the forefront of the


Photo: Barley & Pfeiffer Architects
 
Peter Pfeiffer’s green house in Austin

green building movement. The award-winning work of his Austin-based firm, Barley & Pfeiffer Architects, has been showcased on TV, National Public Radio and in a host of magazines and newspapers. In 2006, Residential Architect named Pfeiffer one of the 10 most influential residential architects of the past decade.

We spoke with Pfeiffer in his corner office, set in a 1930s two-story house that’s home to the firm. During our conversation, Pfeiffer pointed out tried-and-true design principles incorporated throughout the old house.

Green Right Now: Tell us your philosophy about ‘going green.’

Pfeiffer: Use your common sense and go back to the idea of climatic-specific design decisions. The way you do your roof, shade your windows, use light colors. Building a tight home with spray foam insulation. The basics. Deal with things that make you physically uncomfortable; those will be the most efficient from an energy conservation perspective.

I often wonder, ‘How are people so tuned out to what’s important to the environment?’ I think the answer is this: You and I grew up without air conditioning. Our kids are the first generation where probably 99% are growing up in homes and buildings with central air. I think that disenfranchises you from being tuned into the environment. Your environmental control is just a matter of which direction you push the button on the thermostat.

The kids who grew up in this house, where we’re sitting, got very good lessons in ‘green design.’ They knew the prevailing breezes came from the southeast; that’s why the screened-in sleeping porch was situated in that corner. In the hot summer, they’d sleep on the porch to take advantage of the breeze.

And it’s no coincidence the stairs are over there: The air could come in low, go up the stairs and vent out the


Photo: Barley & Pfeiffer Architects
 
A stairwell can act as a “thermal siphon” to keep a house cool

open window at the top of the stairs, creating suction in doing so. Heat goes up a chimney, not because it’s smart, but because heat rises and pulls air behind it. Smoke goes out with the rising heat, which is why you have to heat a chimney to get it to draw.

That same concept is why we have domes on the Renaissance churches or on public gathering places, like the Capitol. They built thermal siphons into those buildings and into their homes.

GRN: So how did architects and builders lose sight of the lessons and knowledge from past generations?

Pfeiffer: Air conditioning. The modern movement of the 50s and 60s basically said, ‘With these new machines, we don’t have to worry about environmental responsiveness any more.’ The modern movement was, at its very root, antithetical to the environmental movement. The whole idea behind the modern movement was 1930s Bauhaus; it was actually called ‘the machine aesthetic.’ Because of better heating systems, better windows and things like that, you no longer had to worry about which way your building faced or which city you were building in. Glass-faced high rises came out of that movement. Air conditioning and heating systems could take care of all our worries.

Then after World War II, Carrier came up with what’s called a DX (direct expansion) air conditioning system. They were able to make air conditioning so cheap the common man could afford it in their home. Once that became available, why bother?

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