• Miller often manages to meet his clients’ programmatic needs with a smaller house than they originally requested. The off-the-grid Marquand Retreat, which he designed, tops out at just over 500 square feet.

    Credit: Stephen Cridland

    Miller often manages to meet his clients’ programmatic needs with a smaller house than they originally requested. The off-the-grid Marquand Retreat, which he designed, tops out at just over 500 square feet.

Designing for sustainability can be one of the most important and challenging architectural tasks. Through modern engineering, architects have been able to produce reasonably comfortable interior conditions in almost any climate. However, the engineering necessary to accomplish this sense of comfort requires high-grade energy to control natural environmental conditions. Architects interested in sustainable design must reduce reliance on the precious resources fueling these high-grade energy systems while still providing a reasonable degree of comfort for a building's occupants.

To further complicate matters, the essential elements and principles of sustainable design go beyond issues of energy conservation and material content. They must bring into play the qualities of space and form, flexibility for adaptive use over time, qualities of transparency and utilization of daylight, the free flow of air within a building, and fit with a particular site. There should be an aesthetic quality that endures, heals the heart, and ultimately renders a house worthy of preservation. We should want our homes to be passed on from generation to generation, as they were in earlier times.

I believe overall concepts of sustainable design can be grouped into three areas: designing for place; designing smaller and multivalent solutions; and designing for beauty first.

think locally

Current strategies for designing sustainable solutions are too general. They fail to take advantage of critical conditions of place. As the architect Harwell Hamilton Harris stated, “To be expressed, an idea must be built; it must be particularized, localized, set within a region.” Architects can produce amazing solutions when they understand local conditions of ecology, geography, and climate and when they involve the use and transformation of regional materials and building traditions. This is not to say that we need to replicate the vernacular; we just need to understand the principles of vernacular architecture that are relevant today, of which there are many, and translate them into current practice.

  • The author singles out the Lake Marcel Residence by Bob Hull, FAIA, for its fluid integration of beauty and sustainable principles.

    Credit: The Miller/Hull Partnership

    The author singles out the Lake Marcel Residence by Bob Hull, FAIA, for its fluid integration of beauty and sustainable principles.

Solutions that involve technology, active and passive solar systems, water conservation practices, ventilation strategies, and recycled content materials all revolve around understanding the local environment. In the Pacific Northwest, we worry about cutting down trees, yet wood in our region has 50 percent less embodied energy than steel. We just need to manage the resource. Seattle architect Roland Terry, FAIA, for example, used large reclaimed trees that drifted up on the beach below his site when designing his own house on Lopez Island in Washington state's San Juan Islands. At the Reeve Residence, also on Lopez Island, Cutler Anderson Architects built up columns and beams using 2x dimensional lumber. This reduced the need for heavy timber structural members usually made from old-growth Douglas fir or glue-lams.

small and lovely

Architects typically ask clients for a program brief describing the functional requirements of their residence. In this brief, clients often predetermine the size of their dream home based on subjective information relative to experiences in homes of others or perhaps a simple desire to own a home of a particular scale. The job of the designer is to question assumptions such as these. We must transform the program into a statement of balance between the functions of necessity and the values of the spiritual. The spiritual feel of a space might be achieved in half the square footage of its typical preconceived size. Equally, the size or number of spaces in a house might be reduced by questioning their use and ultimate flexibility over time. If we can meet the functional needs of our clients in 70 percent of their original program and yet provide a better-built and more spiritually engaging solution, we have gone a long way toward preserving our environment. The Marquand Retreat in Eastern Washington, which I designed, is off the grid and, at 500 square feet, a viable alternative to city living.

Only beautifully made residences contribute to our built environment in a sustainable way and will be considered worthy of preservation. The challenge is to integrate function and aesthetic value into an enduring architecture that cooperates with nature and works in concert with ecological principles. One of my partners, Bob Hull, FAIA, did so with the Lake Marcel Residence, an 1,800-square-foot earth-sheltered house near Seattle.

  • Credit: The Miller/Hull Partnership

The number of designs for sustainable residences and ecological buildings has expanded in just a few short years, but architects still hold an underlying suspicion of the lasting nature of this movement. This resistance to embracing environmentally responsible design as a significant contributing factor to shaping form is due in large part to the belief that it is a fashion, or a radical offshoot movement, and will not last. It is of vital importance to the discipline of architecture that we overturn this suspicion—and we are running out of time. We should be looking at the pivotal relationship between ecological values and the design of our physical environment.

David Miller, FAIA, is a founding partner and principal of The Miller/Hull Partnership in Seattle and a professor at the University of Washington. This article is adapted from his 2005 book Toward a New Regionalism: Environmental Architecture in the Pacific Northwest (University of Washington Press).