Michael Glenwood

Since the Federal Trade Commission merely suggests guidelines for environmental marketing, product claims for “pure and natural” eclipse a real consumer understanding of what’s legitimately sustainable. The green movement’s pervasiveness has been a blessing and a curse. Clever product marketers have bloated the bandwagon and made everything “green,” even when there are real differences in sourcing and manufacturing practices. The same spectrum exists in architecture; even the most common standard of “green” in architecture, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program, is assessed within a range of silver, gold, and platinum—which says nothing of the projects that aren’t even put up for certification.

Where does this leave the “consumer”—the clients looking to work with an architect on their home? Residential architects have a larger burden than ever before; they form the front line between industry definitions of sustainability and public perception. Because so much residential work comes from referrals, it’s perception that matters.

“Clients have become more educated in the last decade. In the old days, people would rip out beautiful pictures from magazines and ask for it. But, today, there is so much more access to good design ideas,” says David Andreozzi, AIA, a Barrington, R.I.–based architect and a member of the Custom Residential Architects Network (CRAN). Andreozzi points to websites like pinterest.com and flickr.com that his clients use to find what they want their homes to look like.

Beyond looks, though, the websites also allow Andreozzi to help clients identify sustainable materials. Mark Demerly, AIA, an Indianapolis-based architect and chair of CRAN, agrees. “We are looking for products that are reclaimed—especially for finishes,” he reports, “and we want our clients to be able to afford that material. But we also want things that have some integrity.” Demerly often uses woods from razed barns or lakebeds, which are then milled locally. “I’ve got a project now where we’re using snow fencing from Wyoming, which has this wonderful patina that our clients love and can see being put back into use.”

CRAN, which has been an AIA Knowledge Community for over a year now, claims members from every region in the United States—all of which are greening their architectural practices and defining a local spectrum of sustainable options for their clients. “The premise of CRAN is that we need to judge architecture based on commodity, firmness, and delight,” explains Andreozzi. “That’s a stylistic issue, but it’s also about adapting vernacular local methods, materials, and labor.”

Since most of CRAN’s members are sole practitioners or run a small firm, local labor is hugely important; the ability to secure the right team of contractors and manufacturers is critical. “There’s a deep sense of sustainability in retaining artisans, too,” Demerly points out. “Bringing in skilled local labor early benefits the project immensely.” In recent years, Demerly has incorporated “urban logging” into his projects, which involves finding uprooted city trees, milling them, and using them for flooring or countertops.

“We have an opportunity to teach as we work,” says Demerly, “because residential design calls for craft in every way, in every corner of the project.” In the end, he adds, “Good design never goes bad and is always relevant. That’s probably the most important baseline for sustainability as far as any architect should be concerned.”

CRAN's annual symposium will take place Oct. 14–16 in Newport, R.I. For more information, visit network.aia.org/CustomResidentialArchitectsNetwork.