By Carolyn Swift Lasako. Photography by Angie Myers.
Sustainable Design is Anything but Modern
For local sustainable design pioneers Lauren Dianich and Jon Braithwaite, there are a lot of good lessons in old houses. As owners of the architectural firm Atelier 11 in Easton, the married couple has been practicing sustainable design in earnest for the past 15 years, but much of their knowledge comes from principles developed hundreds of years ago.
“It’s funny, a lot of people think (a sustainably designed) house has to be modern,” says the versed Dianich. “But actually, what we try to point out to people is if you look at an 1890s house, they often had more ‘green’ principles incorporated than some modern houses because they didn’t have air conditioning. They absolutely had to think about the prevailing winds, where the strong sun is coming from, how to keep the house cool in the summer, how to get more light in in the winter. A lot of it is taking old knowledge and re-integrating it.”
A seemingly foreign concept just 10 years ago, sustainable design has come a long way over the past decade, Dianich says of the philosophy that aims to lessen a structure’s negative environmental impact through skillful, sensitive design. “When we first started integrating sustainable design, we felt like we were sneaking it into the projects,” she says with a laugh. “As long as it was a beautiful project and had everything they wanted, the client didn’t care. But they weren’t interested in it; they didn’t want to be bothered.” Today, however, thanks to rising energy costs and government backing, homeowners seem to be more open-minded, Dianich says, although many misconceptions surrounding the philosophy still exist. “A lot of people think if you’re going to do sustainable design, you give up some of your aesthetic taste or you have to use everything recycled or use all wood,” Dianich says. “But that’s not the case. We have a pretty extensive list of criteria for how we design a house.”
The criteria differ slightly between renovations and new construction projects, since the former is reactive and the latter is proactive, Dianich says. “With renovations, we’re having to be as ingenious as we can, but we can’t always get the existing shell as perfect as we would like,” she says. “But when you’ve got a clean slate, you can do amazing things.”
Regardless of the type of project, there are several prevailing principles in sustainable design, the most significant of which is passive solar design. “The sun is the biggest concern because cooling is one of the biggest uses of energy,” Dianich says. With new construction, siting is key, she says, using the Atelier 11 office on Aurora Street as an example. “The bulk of the windows are on the north side because if we did them on the south, we’d get too much sun,” she says. “So we’ve got much smaller and fewer on the south side and then these large ones on the north. Then the west that’s very hot and the east that’s very hot are short sides of the building. We’re really looking at manipulating a building in such a way that it actually works with the site as best we can.”
With renovations, the siting already is determined, Dianich says, so architects have to find other ways to lessen the impacts of the sun, such as shading the windows with porches, pergolas, solar shades or even working shutters. Landscaping plays a big role, as well, Dianich says, as properly placed shade trees can have a huge impact. “About five years ago, we started making the landscape plan part of the design of the house,” says Dianich, who adds that the Eastern Shore is “notoriously bad” for not using shade trees properly. “We designate where the shade trees need to be located and what general species they need to be. It’s such a simple principle, but people don’t do it.”
The biggest challenge with passive solar design, whether it’s a new or existing house, comes in the form of waterfront homes, Dianich says, as most waterfront homeowners have a tendency to use too much glass. “Just because (a house) is on the water doesn’t mean you have to be bombarded with the sun,” says Dianich, who promotes framing views instead. “We’re extremely careful with how we use glass—I guess we judiciously use glass—because you get no insulation value with it. So we want to make the views so incredible, really framing them, so that people don’t feel like they need to put in a complete wall of glass.”
Another hard sell in sustainable design is the concept of “right sizing”—building small, living big. “We basically are looking at every room and how to make every room the best it can be so people don’t have that unused dining room or unused formal living room,” Dianich says. “We talk a lot about their lifestyle and how they like to entertain and then make the house work with that.” While any architect can make a building bigger and bigger and bigger, Dianich says, it takes a really good architect to make the building the right size for the homeowners. “It takes a long time to figure out because you want the house to be luxurious, you want it to be comfortable, but you don’t want unused space,” she says.
You also don’t want to build with materials that won’t stand the test of time. “We always design thinking of at least a 100-year plan,” Dianich says. “We will invariably recommend to a client to use a 200-year material, which is masonry—it’s either brick or stucco or stone. That isn’t appropriate for every site, but we’ll always start with that to see if there’s a way to incorporate it.” With brick, for example, no maintenance is needed for at least 100 years, Dianich says, as opposed to wood, which needs to be repainted every five years. “That’s a huge waste of materials, labor, transportation, factories,” she says, noting that many people overestimate wood, thinking that just because it’s renewable and all natural, it’s the right material throughout a home.
Unbeknownst to many, the bulk of buildings are being constructed for a 40-year lifespan, Dianich says. “It’s not even on purpose; it’s just happening over and over,” she says, using strip malls as an example. “They have no intrinsic architectural merit; there’s no beauty in the materials used—and people value beauty.” In contrast, the buildings in downtown Easton are a glowing illustration of the right kind of construction. “When you look at downtown Easton, those buildings are on 150 years,” she says. “People keep upgrading and reusing. That is how buildings should be. We should value the buildings and the initial design should be good enough that it ages well and is not just a flash in the pan.”
In Dianich’s opinion, too many sustainably designed buildings are trendy and very “look at me; I’m the wildest thing on the block.” “In some cases, that would be cool, but I’d say 90 percent won’t stand the test of time because they act against the neighboring buildings,” she says. It is both Dianich and Braithwaite’s desire, however, to make more of a lasting impact. “We hope that when we’re 80 and we look back on our work, we can see a bigger difference—that we’ve added to the technology and intelligence of how people build, in addition to adding to the cultural beauty of our towns,” Dianich says.
Much more than just a way to make a living, Dianich and Braithwaite view sustainable design as a duty. “Since buildings use more energy than anything else on the planet, it’s really up to designers and the building owners to do what they can to decrease energy usage,” Dianich says. “And homeowners don’t necessarily know what to do to their house. They might know about light bulbs and insulation, but it’s up to architects to lead the way.”