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The State of the Art of Architecture

An exploration of the present and future state of sustainable architecture in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, The State of the Art of Architecture took place Thursday, July 27th, on the roof of the Aspen Art Museum. A collaborative event where members of AIA Colorado, the statewide voice of the architecture profession, rowland+broughton architecture and interior design, and CORE, a nonprofit committed to leading the Roaring Fork Valley towards a carbon-free, net zero energy future, presented an exploration of the present and future state of architecture in Colorado’s mountainous regions.

The event featured three separate panels: residential architecture, commercial architecture, and public architecture. Comprised of panelists from AIA Colorado’s board, and moderated by CORE‘s CEO Dallas Blaney, each 15-minute panel produced insightful commentary and memorable exchanges regarding sustainability in architecture.

Below are just a few quotes in response to questions posed to each panel, providing a brief snapshot from the afternoon’s discussions.

Residential Panel

Dallas Blaney, CEO, CORE: What are some of the emerging trends and technologies in sustainable residential design that get you excited?

Sarah Broughton, FAIA, rowland+broughton: Some of the most exciting things are going back to the core elements of passive design, and that’s the way that we’re really doing our purpose is looking at our siding, looking at natural vegetation, looking at solar orientation and wind, and really using those given elements to work with and make sure that we’re designing with those first and foremost.

Scott Munn, AIA, MA Studios: We’re finding more and more clients and people are willing to take a look at more energy efficient and climate forward techniques.

John Glenn, AIA, Davis Partnership Architects: The adoption of new renewable energy codes and meeting the greater requirements to net zero 2050.

Scott Rodwin, AIA, Rodwin Architecture: We had the biggest wildfire in Colorado history with the Marshall fire and it has turned into an experiment likes of which I’ve never seen. You now see 1,000 homes going up next to each other… once the residents started working with the architects, they found that they could imagine the possibility for their house that was dramatically better, with lower energy bills, more thermally comfortable, and more environmentally responsible across the board than the house that they had.

Dallas Blaney: We’re going to start spending more time thinking about embodied carbon, the kind of carbon that gets captured in the actual construction of the building materials in the construction process. Can you all talk a little bit about that and the role that’s playing in your design process and trying to think through these embodied learning challenges?

John Glenn, AIA: We’re beginning to see the proliferation of cross laminated timber, heavy timber wood projects like this in the mid-rise, high-rise sphere because of the adoption of newer building codes.

Sarah Broughton, FAIA: We are doing a lot with with heavy timber on cross laminated timber, but also we’re looking at our installation and again, these are not very sexy stuff subjects. Your core shell is the number one thing you can do. So, if you’re a homeowner, right now, and you’re wondering “what can I do with my existing home?” Get a blower door test, understand how much air is infiltrating through your current house, and you’d be amazed and that’s the number one thing you can do to reduce the amount of energy that you’re using in your home. And so we’re building very tightly.

Scott Rodwin, AIA: There are things such as the density of housing per capita, so if you can have what would have been one 5,000 square foot house and cut it into a duplex with two 2,500 square foot houses, you’re automatically reducing the amount of carbon per capita… Because the price of land is so expensive. Most developers and most homeowners build the biggest building they’re allowed to on any given parcel. And if you can turn that into two or three houses, or two or three things instead of just one, it automatically instantly reduces the amount of carbon that each person is using.

Scott Munn, AIA: We happen to be working on a project down here in Salida, where we’re experimenting with earth blocks. This is a technique where you take the soil from the actual site that you are working on, but add a little concrete or something in it but not too much and actually structurally make the blocks for the entire project. That’s a very low carbon footprint right there. ..The actual mix of that soil also works as a sort of release of energy and moisture. And we can reduce the size of mechanicals when we use that type of technology.

Commercial Panel

Dallas Blaney, CEO, CORE: If you start a project today, given how long it takes to go from design to actually, you know, implementation, how can you even begin to plan for the day when that project will go under construction and try to forecast or allow for the flexibility to incorporate the most recent technology as the buildings being designed or not designed to build? How do you design for a building to allow it to adopt the most recent technology as its being?

Andy Rockmore, AIA, Shears Adkins Rockmore: We’re always we’re looking out ahead to see not only what the technology is but what the market will want, what the demographic issues are. It’s a real challenge. And I think, what might be a little controversial, but but we find ourselves more and more, looking away from technology, looking towards more passive strategies because not only do things wildly change in the societal changes, certainly just lived through a major one. But technology is changing faster than we can keep up. So, if we looked for the greatest lighting control system in the design phase, and then that building is open two or three years later, it can be a real problem by then there could be a much, much better system. So we’re looking at, as I said, back to sort of time tested solar orientation, building envelope issues, passive strategies, looking at kind of all of the things that used to be really regarded as good design.

Alexander Person, AIA, SmithGroup: I’ve seen a few buildings that we designe have thet dual purpose. So if it’s an office building, you can think about, you know, the future use of something else that would allow more flexibility to incorporate new construction methods.

Dallas Blaney: So we heard earlier about the fire in Denver area that wiped out 1,000 homes in a day. I mean, just unbelievable. And now we’re all living through these incredible heat waves that don’t seem temporary anymore. The Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of Florida if y’all caught this, they just recorded what may be the hottest temperature ever recorded in the ocean over 100 degrees and it beat the previous record which was set off the coast of Kuwait. It really makes you pause. So as you all are, I can’t imagine the challenges you all are going through, as you’re building particularly these large buildings and doing these designs. How do you design for a building that’s resilient to climate change?

Alexander Person, AIA: I think it’s our biggest challenge. As designers, as architects, as people that care about the built environment, I don’t think I have the correct answer. But what we’re trying to do in some of our buildings is looking at it in a regional standpoint, for instance, in Colorado, we’ve got fires. So think about the way that you design your house to be more targeted.

Andy Rockmore, AIA: We have to be really careful and really specific, especially about our climate, which is a huge, huge challenge. And we have clients from all over the country who come in and say this is what we love. This is what we do. And it takes a lot of sort of unwinding. To talk to them specifically about how challenging it is to be an architect or to design buildings that last in Colorado… Now I bet all the architects in the room would would agree the way we’re practicing now just seems lightyears ahead of where we were even five years ago, kind of like we were saying about technology. So it’s just getting smarter. And maybe one other point is making sure that our buildings, especially our commercial buildings, are flexible, that they can accommodate a variety of uses.

Public Panel

Dallas Blaney, CEO, CORE: Because public buildings have a lot of stakeholders, it’s very difficult more so maybe than other projects. So what design choices do you help make for them that are climate positive public building?

Julianne Scherer, AIA, HDR: It’s the material choices. That would be embodied carbon in the materials that we select. Concrete, you heard that dirty word, and also steel when there’s a lot more steel manufacturers now. That are looking at the wetlands process in order to reduce the amount of carbon that those products have, and that sort of considering the CLT and other opportunities of materials that we select and put to our clients and show them the benefits. Also, the lifecycle costs because most of our public clients are going to be in their buildings for quite a long time, versus maybe some residential or other commercial projects. And so we want to show them that over the lifetime of their building the value that they’ll get back in real dollars.

Wells Squier, AIA, Anderson Hallas Architects: I think the greatest impact at the initial onset of design really talks about goals, right, and we try it, if there’s not sort of an energy policy that this county or city has adopted, we will often engage in those discussions and ask, how could we establish a goal for this project in terms of performance, or sustainability for the long term?

Marc Swackhamer, Assoc. AIA, University of Colorado Denver College of Architecture & Planning: I’ll talk a little bit about how we foreground decision making in our students and how we really encourage them to think about the circumstance of a project and how it gives all the clues they need on the best materials to use the best strategies, using both both passive and active strategies. And how the kind of critical decision making around sustainable choices happens both from intimately understanding and being empathic with the client and also the site and the materials that are appropriate for a project.

Dallas Blaney: So public buildings, there’s such a rich opportunity there not just to create a space for the public but also to use the building as a catalyst for educating the workforce on new technologies, new strategies for building design and kind of up-skilling the workforce and all of that. Can you talk about your experience in designing public buildings as as kind of an early mover, early adopter and advancing some of these new strategies, design methodologies, etc?

Wells Squier, AIA: The technology is emerging on this incredible curve when you think about our tools and our resources as designers and architects 30 years ago compared to where we are now obviously, this curve is super steep. And in my experience, not explicitly, but generally, I find that the public clients are not risk takers, but at the same time, that comes back to our responsibility and I agree to an end in that. We need to be cautious with new technology. As well especially when we bring this responsibility to a public building that is going to be occupied and used for 50 plus years.

Julianne Scherer, AIA: They are typically not risk takers in that this is the taxpayers money that’s going towards these buildings and you might not be able to get everything you want. But is there something within the dialogue and the discussion of those early goals setting, admission setting of that specific entity that you can at least start with one thing. So, perhaps it is showing how you’re going to use gray water for some of your plumbing systems, or the lighting, how you’ve put daylight harvesting in a building. So maybe there’s some little tweaks that you can make in a building and then make sure that you’re transparent to the community and to those that are actually working in that building as well as the value of those small, incremental pieces that you choose to put into the design.

Marc Swackhamer, Assoc. AIA: We are really passionate with our three grand challenges, global challenges that we try to tackle in all our courses in all of our curriculum: equity in your workplace and equity and in terms of who we serve as architects, the housing crisis we’re facing, and climate change. They’re asked to grapple with these questions that are massive questions. But all three are questions that architects interface with and by the time the students leave, they leave with a set of a set of questions that they’re asking around sustainability, because that’s why we’re here now and the other two grand challenges I mentioned, that drive them forward for their entire career.

© AIA Colorado 2023