The “green building” movement has progressed steadily from the fringes of the design and construction community into the body of mainstream architecture. During this past decade, membership in the U. S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has swelled to approximately 3,400 organizations, with architectural, engineering, and other professional firms making up over two-thirds of its numbers. And the Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating and certification program has emerged as one of the more successful attempts to encourage the development and implementation of sustainable building practices.
At the same time, confusion abounds as to what exactly constitutes “greenness,” which green-labeled products and materials are truly sustainable over their life cycle, and which methods and strategies work best in navigating the maze of choices. “The Council has proved a valuable resource in working towards a common goal,” acknowledges Kit Ratcliff, principal and CEO of Ratcliff, an architectural firm based in Emeryville, Calif. “And LEED’s attempt to group so many diverse elements into a single certification system is fostering a huge conversation among architects, which is very good.”
But, Ratcliff observes, “the LEED system’s structure also makes it hard to get a sense of how the elements relate to each other and to the whole picture.” In response, the Ratcliff group has developed an electronic tool, the Green Matrix CD-ROM, designed to cross-reference topics of sustainability with the standard phases of project design and in so doing illuminate appropriate strategies for a particular phase of work. As a research and reference tool, it is a fast way to view various options and sort through a variety of information.
Further, the Matrix can be used as a programming and planning tool for clients, consultants, and even agencies, suggests architect Dan Meza, co-designer of the CD-ROM. “It can act as a ‘portal’ to green design strategies — assisting the implementation of sustainable design goals — as well as a checklist for developing project objectives well before the pen hits the paper.”
The Green Matrix started as a paper document about four years ago, but its designers — Meza and fellow architect Kurt Burkart — soon realized a digital format made more sense. The team first developed the tool as a pdf file for in-house use, then last year decided to test the idea more fully with a CD-ROM version, which was sent to some two thousand colleagues, clients, and industry contacts. Burkart has since left the firm but remains active in the ongoing development and enhancement of the program.
Recently the Green Matrix gained its own website (www.greenmatrix.net), which was unveiled at the EnvironDesign 8 conference held in Minneapolis this past April.
The Green Matrix is set up as a grid, with a horizontal heading for the five typical sustainable topics: site, water, energy, materials, and indoor environment — the same categories that comprise the LEED checklist. Seven design phases are listed vertically: proforma, master planning, pre-design, schematic design, design development, construction documents, and construction/post-occupancy.
As the user scrolls over an intersection, he/she sees a synopsis of green strategies particular to that condition — a bulleted “index card” of strategies that are relevant at this point and of equal importance. A click on a bulleted item provides a deeper description of that subject, typically presented as a list of topics with links for more information, plus further links to the Web and other resources.
“The Matrix really is an index of resources, but a smart index that makes sense for designers, especially those just entering the area of green design,” says Meza. “It is not a rating system per se — it doesn’t assign points or offer credits for certification as does the LEED program. But it does filter information chronologically and provide a manageable set of strategies that can be easily implemented along the way. In short, our setup makes it easier to go from Point A to Point B.”
At Ratcliff, he notes, the tool has already provided added value to an existing clientele. “We’re not an ‘extreme green’ firm — we’re advocates of balance — but we’re able to address the concerns of clients who are themselves green-concerned.”
One such client is the owner of the independent private Blue Oak School in Napa, Calif. “The owners have a high level of consciousness — they are good stewards of the earth — and want to educate their students to be such,” explains Kit Ratcliff. When the firm was hired to renovate an antiquated primary school to provide a new teaching facility, the design team referenced the Green Matrix to consider sustainable alternatives to conventional heating and cooling systems.
One unanticipated strategy that “popped up” on the index was a closed-loop geothermal system, which was researched through the Matrix and eventually selected. Not only did the system appeal to the owners’ environmental concerns, it is also expected to pay for itself in four or five years. Currently, Ratcliff is in the early design phase (with another firm) of three new environmentally sensitive school and community buildings for the same client and its partner, the Napa Land Trust.
The Green Matrix has also been used by Ratcliff for virtually all design phases of two larger projects with a green “bent” — the Morgan Hill (Calif.) Indoor Recreation Center, and Vista Community College in Berkeley. In both cases, the Matrix proved especially helpful in reviewing strategies for site sustainability. The recreation center is presently at a stage between design development and construction documents and the tool is being used to evaluate energy-efficient options in the areas of lighting and HVAC.
“The tool also makes it easier to look at life-cycle issues and rate products and materials from a sustainability point of view — where materials come from, their costs to produce, and at life’s end what happens to them,” says Meza.
“Most architects try to design in harmony with nature, to be sensitive to the site, for example — it’s part of our education,” Ratcliff remarks. “But we’re now learning that there is no “away” for waste. That means redesigning nearly everything — natural resources, technical resources, all have to be looped back into the system. Many firms, like ours, are trying to develop their own standards for greenness and sustainability. We think that tools like the Green Matrix can help.”
To date, Ratcliff is offering its design tool on a pro bono basis, requiring only that users register in order to create a database for future updates and to encourage an exchange of information that may be relevant for later versions of the CD-ROM. A survey sent out to the initial group of two thousand recipients has yielded positive feedback, providing even more resource links and suggestions as how to make the Matrix more robust.
“It’s a challenge to keep the Green Matrix up, keep it knife-sharp, and unfortunately it is expensive to maintain,” Ratcliff admits. “We’re looking into ways to let it remain free, but at some point we may have to charge a nominal subscription fee. Our preference is that the program be underwritten and well-enough funded to be useful to a broad audience.”
A green advisory committee composed of educators, sustainability consultants, and architects and designers has been assembled to help direct efforts and seek financial support.
CHRISTINA NELSON IS A REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR TO ARCHI-TECH WHO LIVES IN NAPA VALLEY, CALIF. FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE RATCLIFF GREEN MATRIX, SEE THE NEW WEBSITE (WWW.GREENMATRIX.NET) OR WRITE GRNMTRX@RATCLIFFARCH.COM