Riverwoods Preservation Council

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Green Architecture House Houses in Harmony with Nature
 Nathan Kipnis
 Kipnis Architects, Inc.


 September 9, 2006



(photograph courtesy of Greg Mancuso)

There is a growing preservation movement in Riverwoods to protect this unique area. Two events in September highlighted some of what makes Riverwoods so special, and provided insight into how to preserve our wonderful heritage. The first was a talk and tour by Mr. Nathan Kipnis, an architect well-known for his environmentally-sensitive traditional designs. It was sponsored by the Riverwoods Preservation Committee on September 9th. The second, sponsored by Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond, took place on September 17th. It focused on the many mid-20th century houses in Riverwoods designed by Mr. Edward Humrich and other contemporary architects of that period. The two presentations highlighted an important point: although the designs of Mr. Kipnis and Mr. Humrich are very different, both reflect a strong attempt at environmental sensitivity. Mr. Humrich tried to design homes that blend seamlessly with their environment. Architects such as Mr. Kipnis try to reflect a client’s aesthetic while invisibly integrating environmentally-sensitive elements and minimizing environmental harm. The lesson is that preservation comes in many forms. Whatever your design aesthetic, and whatever your budget, you can be environmentally responsible.
Here are answers to a few common questions.

What is “green” remodeling? It’s a way to make your home look better and work better. It can mean, for example, choosing paint that doesn’t emit toxic gases. Or orienting windows and eaves to capture winter sun but block summer sun. Or installing extra insulation and a programmable thermostat to reduce heating and cooling bills. Or using recycled materials, or materials that need to be replaced less frequently.

Why consider “green” remodeling? It can save money by reducing energy usage for heating and cooling and by reducing replacement costs. It can be healthier by reducing toxic gas emissions from finishes and construction components. It can help preserve the environment by reducing usage of scarce resources, and by reducing waste sent to landfills. It benefits you and your environment.

Isn’t being “green” more expensive? Cost, whether for traditional or “green” construction, includes not only the up-front cost, but the later replacement cost. More durable items may cost more initially, but be lower in cost over the long-run. For example, asphalt shingles are relatively inexpensive, but when replaced they frequently end up consuming limited landfill space. A steel or recycled slate or tile roof costs more initially, but is far more durable than an asphalt shingle roof. Bamboo, a renewable resource (actually, a fast-growing grass), has become popular as an attractive and cost-competitive flooring. New technology has developed low-emission water-based paints that cost the same as, and perform as well as, petroleum-based products that emit toxic fumes.

Is Riverwoods too shady to take advantage of solar energy? Every time sunlight strikes your house, it absorbs solar energy. The trick is to increase absorption in the winter and to decrease it in the summer. Effective placement of windows and roof overhangs, and use of window coverings that let in light but reflect heat, can make a huge difference. Masonry flooring exposed to winter sun will absorbs heat during the day and slowly release it at night. “Passive solar” energy was considered in construction for thousands of years, but lost favor as energy costs declined in the 20th century. It is now increasing in popularity. “Active solar” – use of photocells and solar panels with water piping – is more expensive initially, but energy savings are greater and up-front costs are declining.

What is geothermal energy? Geothermal energy is energy that results from the fact that the soil temperature a few feet below grade is a generally constant 55 – 57 degrees F. Earth-sheltered homes use the earth as a natural heat exchanger for summer cooling and winter warming. A more popular approach is use of piping to circulate water or other heat transfer fluid between the household forced air system and coils of pipes buried in the yard. During the summer the pipes carry heat from the house and release it into the cooler earth. During the winter they absorb heat from the warmer earth and convey it to the house. Most of the system is buried out of sight.

What about conserving rainwater? Rainwater is a free resource, plentiful at times and scarce at others. It can be collected for later outdoor use by means as simple as a rain barrel connected to a downspout. Or you could install an underground cistern to which rainwater is diverted and held for later use. Beneath the office area of the Ryerson Woods “Welcome Center” is a cistern that captures roof runoff and holds rainwater for use in case of fire and for landscape watering. A good overview of rainwater collection systems is at http://www.twdb.state.tx.us/publications/reports/RainwaterHarvestingManual_3rdedition.pdf.

How about a rain garden? A rain garden is landscaping that uses plants that thrive in wet conditions coupled with soil that allows percolation of rainwater to replenish groundwater. You can get more information at http://clean-water.uwex.edu/pubs/pdf/home.gardens.pdf, and http://clean-water.uwex.edu/pubs/pdf/home.rgmanual.pdf.

What about the trees? In Riverwoods, it’s always about the trees. Trees define Riverwoods, and provide innumerable benefits to us and to Riverwoods’ wildlife. They cool the air, filter out pollutants, and provide food and habitat for wildlife. Limit destruction by designing around the trees. Aggressively protect them from construction damage. Many trees in Riverwoods are over 100 years old, and near the end of their lives. The older-growth forest is dying, and there are few saplings to replace them. Riverwoods is losing its trees. Protect and replant.

Is recycling significant in remodeling? Absolutely. As costs of energy and virgin raw materials increase, and as landfill space decreases, materials with recycled components are becoming more available. Examples include flooring such as porcelain tile, carpeting, and masonry; recycled wood and wood-based products for construction and furniture; and recycled metal roofing materials.

For more information about Green Architecture, visit these web sites:
Edens Lost & Found - practical solutions and models for sustainable building
SustainableHome.org - find resources to make your own home "greener"
Eco Products - biodegradable paper and plastic products
Find resources for building supplies in this guide, available at bookstores and online:
"Green Building Resource Guide" - by John Hermannsson, 1997

© Riverwoods Preservation Council- - Page last updated: December 2009