Forum #3: 5 Architects on Building a Better City

Five Minneapolis designers/builders talked with fellow residents and community leaders about how to build a better city, at the third Sustainable We forum.

photo by Bergerson Photography

photo by Bergerson Photography

At Sustainable We forum #3, five home builders/designers debated the state of energy efficient housing stock in Minneapolis today. It was a lively discussion. Will we be able to meet standards to cut carbon emissions from our leaky old houses and inadequate insulation? How? Why?

The City’s Climate Action Plan calls for 30 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, compared to a 2006 baseline.


Making better decisions around the embodied energy of our existing structures, reducing water waste, and personalizing our energy usage – while ‘sexing up’ the conservation lifestyle — emerged in the group discussion as essential elements of the overall solution.

Michael Anschel: We’re Not Thinking Deeply Enough

Michael Anschel

Michael Anschel

Michael Anschel, of O&A Design + Build is not shy in a room full of energy efficiency minded peers. As he said at the forum, he thinks the emphasis on energy is narrow. He strongly believes building science dictates a bigger picture view of client and community health that goes beyond reaching specific emissions goals with existing stock. He has previously talked with MPLSGreen about why he thinks people make mistakes investing in sealing structure without being mindful of potential mold and moisture issues that can result.

He believes that the incremental gains we make in energy efficiency in our homes can often lead to simply consuming more energy in other ways.

At the forum he put it this way: Fossil fuels are currently fast, portable and inexpensive as an energy source. But if the commercial world simply finds more ways to use energy, what are we gaining?

As he explained to MPLSGreen in more detail: “As energy has become more compact and portable, we have found more opportunities to use it. Plug loads [things plugged into the wall] were a nominal factor in the 70s, and today they represent the majority of electricity consumed in the average home. The refrigerator used to be the energy hog in the house, then it was the TV, now it is the conglomeration of TVs, phones, gadgets, computers, chargers. Batteries used to be sold in packs of two and four. Today they are sold in packs of 40. The extraction of raw and rare materials to create the devices of today — and the embodied energy [energy to extract, convert, create, and ship] — is at an all-time high. So, looking at energy efficiency as a solution seems short sighted.”

Alex Haecker: Embodied Energy

Alex Haecker, AWH Architects

Alex Haecker

As someone who grew up in Omaha at a time when ten blocks of historic warehouses were torn down, Alex Haecker, of AWH Architects, strongly believes that the embodied energy of existing buildings can be more creatively utilized – as Minneapolis has done with its own warehouse district.

We need to continue to be smarter about adaptively reusing what we have as a community, he says. Yet he also acknowledges that most home buyers, owners and developers today aren’t asking what embodied energy they are saving by investing in a certain property – “they are thinking more about the five great restaurants nearby.”

Until we make the conservation lifestyle “sexy,” as we discussed as a group, top-down policies and incentives might have to take us further.

Haecker mentioned the example of Edison High School, in Northeast Minneapolis, which has benefited from an Xcel renewable development fund that has allowed him to design a solar canopy and other improvements that will save the school $35K in energy/electricity costs each year. Federal incentives and utility rebates like that make the difference, he said, since most investment developers don’t care to consider much more than the next two to five years, when their goal is to make as much money as they can.

Rosemary Dolata: Designing for Long Term Value

Rosemary Dolata

Rosemary Dolata

Rosemary Dolata, of Concentric Architecture, is passionate about building sustainable affordable housing. We might not agree on how (or why) to create more energy-efficient homes, Dolata said at the forum. But we are at least elevating the standards and recognizing added value in the long term. Ultimately, owners and developers will better recognize that building more sustainably doesn’t always cost more. It can be as simple as noting the importance of south-facing windows, and incorporating cross ventilation into design.

Although she knows well the possible energy efficient benefits of building from scratch, Dolata believes we often tear down existing structures for the wrong reasons – and we need to focus on what will remain standing 100 years from now.

For example, she points out, we no longer build with old growth lumber and real plaster. Today’s new construction often lacks the craftsmanship and design features of days gone by, including detailed woodwork, hardwood floors, and windows placed for light and ventilation.

In her opinion, building from plastic – i.e. vinyl siding and vinyl windows – is not progress. The Minneapolis Green Homes North initiative she has been part of – 100 new construction homes promised for vacant lots in north Minneapolis – is “aimed at building something that will last 100 years, not 45.”

Sean McLoughlin: Reaching for Zero

Sean McLoughlin

Sean McLoughlin

In a conversation with Sean McLoughlin earlier for MPLS Green, his belief is that market forces will ultimately lead the demand for homes that burn far less carbon than they do today. His non-profit Carbon Zero Home is taking a 100-plus-year structure in North Minneapolis and turning it into a space that spends significantly less money to run it effectively.

“I love old houses,” he said at the forum. “The craftsmanship… A house has a life, at the risk of sounding mystical about it.”

He strongly believes that climate change is this generation’s problem to resolve, “and not enough of us understand that.”

“All building practices are an experiment. Construction code is the result of centuries of trial and error,” he said. “In attempting to solve the climate problem, all we can do is experiment. It will be for tomorrow’s generation to determine whether it worked.”

Tim Eian: Passionate About Passive

Timothy Eian, TE Studio

Tim Eian

As a designer with a special interest in passive house construction – partially learned in his native Germany before deciding to tackle the challenges of the Minnesota climate – Tim Eian, of TE Studio, believes we know everything we need to design low-energy buildings. We simply need more owners and builders to reach for those better standards.

Our Minneapolis homes tend to be an average of 67 years old, he said, and they are energy hogs. We can continue to let our older homes not perform more strongly, or we can systematically build a healthier environment and reduce our carbon footprint. As he told MPLS Green in an earlier story, incentives from the city are needed to make it easier for more people to make notable changes to their homes.

The nearness, and challenge, of getting there, he said, “is why I get up every morning. I’m optimistic. The future is bright. Our level of performance [from home efficiency] will accelerate. The pendulum swings, and right now it is our opportunity to be here while it swings in this direction. I’m only worried that there aren’t enough of us who understand how to design what we’ll need.”

Related Stories

  • Community discussion: personalizing a more efficient – yet thriving — lifestyle. “Sustainable We” forum comments by City Councilman Kevin Reich, real estate owner Timothy Springer, Center for Energy and Environment’s Megan Hoye, MetroBloom’s Rich Harrison, Steve Thomas of Better Futures deconstruction, and Minnesota Congressman Frank Hornstein.


TruNorthSpecial thanks to TruNorth Solar, sponsor of the forum discussion, which was held at Fulton Brewery.