Q&A: Green Architect Alex Haecker

Minneapolis green architect Alex Haecker talks about sustainability myths, green ideas we need to use, and inspiring local innovators in sustainable living.

“The greenest building is the building that already exists.”
— longtime phrase used in the preservationist architecture industry

Alex Haecker, AWH ArchitectsGrowing up in Omaha, Alex Haecker watched a large collection of historic warehouses demolished. It set him on a path of finding new ways to restore, repurpose and recreate older spaces and its materials into modern, sustainable designs.

The mission of his Eat-Street-based AWH Architects is largely to bring sustainable, creative solutions to an existing environment, partly “as a way to combat unnecessary loss of our collective cultural heritage and embodied energy inherent in existing buildings.”

He is a member of the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission, which is part of a nationwide network of groups dedicated to the preservation and celebration of local and national heritage.

Recent projects include: Bemidji library, solar canopy at Edison High School in Northeast Minneapolis, an adaptive re-use project at the Jackson Building in Minneapolis, Tiny Diner in Longfellow neighborhood, rehabilitation of the historic Lake Harriet Spiritual Community center in Linden Hills, a permaculture residential co-housing development near Milwaukee that changed its east/west grid to face solar.

Q: What is a sustainability myth you’d like to help dispel?

That green building is expensive. Very often when you take what already exists — instead of paying to tear it down — and apply other benefits to recreating what is there, you discover great potential.

In the residential sector, for example, often people believe they need more square footage, when re-visioning the flow of a space will work more effectively. In one recent case, a client considered a $450K add-on, and simply needed a much more sustainably minded $90K remodel.

Pre-Fabricated Materials: There are excellent high-performance retro-fitting materials that can be used. Instead of bringing individual materials to a job and creating from scratch with costly on-site construction, for example, you can order a pre-fabricated ice-cream sandwich offsite based on 3-D computerized specs — plywood, insulation, plywood — and have the crew erect it on site in a day or two. Not only are labor costs less expensive, but there is less wasted material.

In one project, we did a LEED project that competitors priced at $325/square foot — compared to a sustainable design at $185/square foot.

Long-term Savings: There are tremendous and simple solutions using passive solar. In the days before we had a lot of heating options, and electric lighting, people were quite smart about facing a building to the sun for maximum heat and light. Nowadays, we can remind ourselves to be strategic about property placement, rainwater gathering, and Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) options.

It can be challenging for Real Estate Investment Trust developers to understand the impact of sustainable building. Many REITs are looking for upfront costs to bring a 25% return in five years, and are not looking to the long-term savings. Unfortunately, this means we still have a lot of inefficient, non-sustainable building going up.

Passive solar, slab concrete, smart thermal envelope (letting more energy in during winter than is let out)…making use of yard shading. Strategic design goes a long way toward holding heat that is slowly released in the winter, and reducing heat in the summer months, which have a huge impact on heating and cooling costs every year.

Putting a wine bar in your basement might give you boasting rights, but more smart projects are using sustainable designs for long-term value.

Q: What under-utilized green measures do you support?

  • Carbon taxes
  • Use of smarter energy sources — studies show that there is a tremendous transmission loss — some research indicates as much as 75% is lost — between the power plant that produces the power to the actual item being powered (e.g., light bulb, television, etc.); more on-site power generation, such as solar or geo-thermal, is tremendously more effective
  • Multi-family developments, like one I’m starting to work on now in Midtown, that enables multi-generational families to share living spaces.

“Set up processes that encourage groups of 8 to 12 people to come together and establish communal households. Morphologically, the important things are: 1) private realms for the groups and individuals that make up the extended family: couple’s realms, private rooms, sub-households for small families; 2) common space for shared functions: cooking, working, gardening, child care; 3) at the important crossroads of the site, a place where the entire group can meet and sit together.”

“A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction” (1977) an extensive book series authored by a team led by noted designer Berkeley-based Christopher Alexander and the Center for Environmental Structure

Q: Describe a disappointment or mistake on a sustainable project

A project in Portland, Oregon, was lost to a more basic residential concept. There were a series of mill buildings that were to have been re-used beyond sustainability, using water collection, solar power, and a culinary arts base in which only local vendors from within 50 miles would be used.

Q: What MPLS Green innovators inspire you?