Several years ago, I bought and installed an air quality monitor for my house and gave my two daughters a brief tutorial on what it was and how to use it. One day they noticed a change in colors on the monitor: It was red, meaning poor indoor air quality. Excited, they came running to me. “Daddy, daddy! The color on the monitor changed! The air is bad!”
After reassuring them, I asked: What could we do to improve the air in the home? I made some suggestions — open the window, change the thermostat setting to turn the fan on, for example — which we did until the monitor went from red to orange and, finally, to green. My kids were delighted to see the results.
Their natural curiosity got them interested in the air quality monitor and they were happy about their ability to create a cause-and-effect sequence: The monitor had been red and now, through their actions, it had become green again. It struck me that achieving moderate change could be done at a micro level.
The macro level, though, can seem daunting.
When Allegheny County underwent a Code Red Air Quality Alert in late June, followed by more alerts of varying degrees, it highlighted two issues I have been thinking about, as an architect, for years: how to design environments for the public good and how to reimagine sustainability going forward.
As a region, we can’t just turn on the fan and open the window. There are, though, things I can do, and changes you can make, too.
How my daughters changed my focus
Before moving to Sewickley, I spent two years in The Strip District, enjoying the city’s culture, beauty and history, from the Phipps Conservatory to the Carnegie Mellon Museum of Art and the breathtaking view from Mt. Washington. Unlike some newcomers to Pittsburgh, I never noticed the air pollution that hangs over much of the city.
As time went on, though, it became hard to miss. Today, air quality is a central civic issue. In May, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined Shell $10 million for exceeding emissions limits at its ethane cracker plant in Beaver County. June brought added pollution in the form of smoke from Canadian wildfires. And in July, the Allegheny County Health Department fined U.S. Steel more than $300,000 for pollution violations.
My perspective on architecture began to change when my daughters were born. Being a father made me see the world in a different light. Although I had always conceived designs with a sustainability component to them, I understood with new urgency that the built environment — the one that existed at the moment and the one that was under construction — would play a crucial role in the futures of my children. Would they grow up facing even more pronounced global warming complications? Would they find themselves adversely affected by what they breathe every day?
These fears turned me on to an entirely new vision of architecture. I became a Certified Passive House Consultant and a RESET Accredited Professional and focused on designing high-performance buildings, which emphasize sustainability, energy efficiency and the well-being of the occupant. In my professional life as an architect, I worked on several innovative projects across North America, including Colorado’s first certified Passive House, combining comfort and very high energy efficiency.
Architecture profoundly impacts our everyday lives, aesthetically, practically and psychologically. But it has also risen to the forefront of a sustainability movement dedicated to reducing carbon emissions and lessening the environmental impact of construction.
As the science around building technology has progressed, we have learned to design with carbon emissions in mind, reducing footprints from project to project and contributing to the battle against climate change. We have also learned how to design in response to the increasing effects of global warming by emphasizing renewable energy, solar panels and repurposing existing structures instead of tearing them down to build carbon-intensive new developments in their place.
Advances in technology and science have made it easier than ever for conscientious people to live change through design. Today, Passive House projects and high-performance buildings offer a solid, if under-publicized, way of mitigating the damage done by greenhouse gas emissions (which, among other things, fuel wildfires) while improving health outcomes driven by heat and dirty air. In the case of high-performance buildings, for example, the actual physical effects of hazardous pollutants can be diminished by optimized HVAC systems and air-tight construction.
But perhaps you’re not an architect.
How can I make a difference?
Climate change can be overwhelming. It can be intimidating. How can I make a difference? is probably the first question someone asks, closely followed by, Where do I start?
If you are in the market to buy a house, you can reduce your impact on the climate without having to take major steps such as a retrofit.
To make an educated decision based on energy consumption, a prospective buyer should look for a house with a Home Energy Rating System [HERS] score. This score reflects a rating based on a thorough inspection of air barriers, insulation and other factors that determine energy performance. A house with a HERS score will give you a simple breakdown of its energy usage, allowing you to consider its effect on the climate before purchasing.
If you plan on renovating your home or office, think about retrofitting it with high-performance principles in mind: pursuing net-zero goals, upgrading insulation for airtightness and weatherization, and keeping sustainability in mind for each design choice you make.
Architect Nathan St. Germain’s computer displays a reading from his office air quality monitor, displayed at right. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
But even if you’re renting, there are things you can do to monitor and improve your indoor air quality.
Installing an indoor air quality monitor is an inexpensive way to provide information that then becomes actionable. You may need to do something as simple as open a window or adjust your air conditioner settings. With knowledge, you can develop a strategy.
Monitoring can also have immediate, practical benefits. My wife and daughters suffer from asthma and allergies, and keeping track of the air quality is important for their conditions.
There are other low-cost ways of measuring air quality. ROCIS [Reducing Outdoor Contaminants in Indoor Spaces] offers a free program for monitoring indoor air quality. From there, you can invest in an affordable air purifier or air filter that will reduce indoor pollutants and minimize allergens in your space.
The spate of heat waves and smoke storms plaguing our region reveal that we have to build, remodel and monitor for tomorrow, today. You don’t need to be an architect to experience the kind of cause-and-effect sequence that so thrilled my daughters and that gives me just a little brighter perspective on the future of our world.
Nathan St.Germain is an architect and principal at Studio St.Germain and can be reached through the contact form at www.studiostgermain.com.
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