Our first decision turned out to be our first mistake.
We were hunting for architects, and were wowed by a prominent husband-and-wife team. He’s a professor with an Ivy League degree. They’d just won a local contest to design an affordable green house.
They took us on a tour of the lovely home they’d created for a retired engineer and his wife in an upscale neighborhood. It had been a typical ranch-style house. They turned it into a refined-yet-comfortable, classical-yet-modern two-story villa. Although more extravagant than anything we could afford, it struck the balance we’d hoped to find between traditional and contemporary styles. And it was beautiful.
We signed the standard contract: Around 10 percent of the project’s overall costs, and they would hold our hands all the way through.
The truth was we weren’t a good fit. I’m sure we were a disappointment to them: Not the wealthy retirees with plenty of budget flexibility, nor the hands-off customers who just wanted talented architects to do their thing. In fact, I’m probably the most frustrating kind of client an architect could have — the wannabe, with lots of precious ideas and idiosyncratic priorities.
Little things should have clued us into our looming differences: A taste for more formality than we were seeking, an instinct to add fancy features and to select materials that inflated costs. Had we had the courage to act on some of those early hints, we’d have saved time, money and misdirection.
More than anything, we differed over a core principle. Silvia and I were committed to a project as environmentally sensitive and energy efficient as possible.
I don’t doubt that our architects liked that idea. But they’d had a lot of success doing things the way they already did things. Why sacrifice tried-and-true approaches for new ideas that might not work? Why compromise the design principles on which they’d built their reputations?
In our own small way, we were playing out a contemporary drama for the architecture profession. Once upon a Frank Lloyd Wright, “natural” was the keyword for designers interested in the environment. It usually meant lots of interior wood, big windows to invite in light and scenery, and a house situated to maximize dramatic views.
Now, the keyword is “sustainability.” And a lot of the principles of sustainable construction — tight building envelopes, minimizing the impact on natural areas, using materials that aren’t harvested in a way that harms nature — run counter the very qualities that used to be thought of as “natural.”
Like everyone else in the building professions, architects are being compelled by many forces to face up to the environmental impact of their projects. And their values as artistic intellectuals make them as a group more sensitive than most to environmental issues.
But architects also are used to doing things in ways that clash with some of the core ideas of sustainable design. Typically, they’re trained to choose materials and products for their aesthetic features along with a whole list of other values — usability, availability, durability, price, etc. Adding in the question of sustainability creates a whole new set of complications.
More fundamentally, the central tenet of sustainable design is to engage as many professionals and tradesmen in a project as soon as possible — as a team. It kind of makes sense when you think about it, and not just for sustainability’s sake. Why not have the HVAC guy take a look at whether an air handler can fit in an attic of that size? Why not have a plumber take a look at whether there’s a good way for the water flow to and from a bathroom if it’s placed in that location? Why not have an energy-efficiency consultant take a look at, say, the orientation of the windows?
Most architects may think of themselves as enlightened when it comes both to sustainability and to collaboration. But I think many of them fool themselves. Very few involve the building trades in single-family homes they’re designing until well past the time the decisions are made. After all, if you were an architect, would want to give up the kind of control that comes with that traditional way of doing things?
Slowly, practices are changing. Over the decade, the profession has ramped up its interest in sustainability — especially when it comes to commercial buildings. Perkins + Will, which has a huge office in Atlanta, is a leader among major American commercial firms in embracing the 2030 Challenge to make carbon-neutral buildings the standard by the year 2030.
Until very recently, though, the only architects who placed sustainability at the core of their practice were a tiny pack of iconoclasts. It’s not hard to see how difficult it must be for architects — particularly successful, confident creative leaders in their field — to overhaul the way they’ve done things for a long time.
We picked some mighty fine architects. The house they designed was beautiful. It integrated modernism with the idiom of a craftsman bungalow to create a contemporary sort of play on the Prairie Style that fit the site. They took our rough ideas for the house’s layout, and refined them into something that could work and also was aesthetically pleasing. I’m sure they’re detailing would have been exquisite.
But getting them to stay within our budget and to treat our environmental imperatives as anything but an afterthought was a constant tug. We’d ask why the dimensions required odd lengths of wood that would result in wasted material; they wondered why we were being picky about such a minor issue. We’d wonder whether insulated panels could be used instead of conventional walls; they said we could decide about that later. More than anything, we didn’t know what we didn’t know, so we didn’t know what they didn’t know.
That beautiful design included a row of beautiful clerestory windows on the west facade that would allow for stunning light in the living room. Ostensibly all that “natural” light was a green-friendly feature. Except it turned out to be a textbook example of what not to do if you were looking to avoid solar heat gain.
Meanwhile, the changes and charges piled up higher and higher. Finally, one day, we had our come-to-Jesus meeting. We’d just been billed an amount that took us past the total estimated for the entire project — all the way through construction. And we weren’t even ready to seek a permit yet.
They said, “That’s because you kept insisting on changes.”
We said, “Why didn’t you tell us that before now?”
We agreed to go our separate ways — with the stipulation that our then-architects would whip the plans far enough into shape and give us the right to use them as we saw fit.
It was, I’m sure, a bigger blow to us than it was to them. We’d been looking forward to working together as a team with these esteemed professionals. And we were out a lot of money — I don’t even want to admit how much. We had a plan. But even then we didn’t want to admit to ourselves that we’d have to change that plan quite a bit if we were to be build anything remotely considered a “green” house.
Our poor choice at the start would delay our dream house far longer than we imagined at the time. Just as importantly, as we were to find out, we’d made design decisions with them that really don’t make sense for an environmentally sustainable house.
My mom’s cousin is a blunt, astute woman from New York. A few months, while visiting Atlanta, she asked Silvia and me a blunt question.
“OK. You haven’t even started yet,” she said. “But, so far, what have you learned that you wouldn’t do again?”
The answer to that one was easy: Choose the professionals you plan to work with very, very carefully.