Annual conference stresses we embrace green future

We were looking at a collection of elegant buildings, nearly all of them white on the exterior but some with exposed concrete. Unique, askew roof planes sloped upward, shading large expanses of glass carefully designed and located to direct the views out.

Inside, modern minimal spaces made warm and comfortable with textures and colors opened out to courtyards and splendid landscaped settings.

We architects, and our advocates, were watching a slide presentation, a sampling of contemporary buildings spanning 40 years. They were designed and built by the architectural practice of architect Carl Abbott — a longtime resident of Sarasota and member of the Sarasota School of Architecture (“Architect About Town,” June 2008).

As architects, we always look forward to the annual AIA (American Institute of Architects) chapter design conference and award ceremony to meet with our professional peers from all over Southwest Florida and catch up over cocktails and dinner.

A prominent keynote speaker from a different city or state is invited to share his or her experience and expertise, and an outside jury critiques buildings designed by members of the local chapter. Our talent is distinguished with awards and honors for their accomplishments.

During the day, relevant classes are offered to keep architects current on codes, technology and green building principles. Like most licensed professionals in Florida, education courses are required by the state to maintain a professional standing.

Among the classes offered, we got an update from the Regional Planning Commission, learned about the impact of lighting advances on our buildings and the environment and how important it is to plan early if a building is to be a green, environmentally friendly structure.

Jaime Correa, of the University of Miami, presented a more theoretical course. With the rising cost and looming scarcity of fossil fuel, it is necessary to rethink our communities. Circumstance is forcing us to consider “localization” not “globalization.”

He speculated communities will return to a society much like traditional settlements of the 18th and 19th centuries — smaller but more populated communities, self-sufficient and resourceful. The local production of food and clean energy is vital and it all, literally, happens in the backyard — if not on the roofs and walls of buildings.

Architects should embrace the imminent change. Designs need to function and be visually pleasing to neighbors living in close proximity. Solar, wind and biomass energy (biomass means “natural material” and when burned, releases heat that can be captured and used) is not the future, but now. Why shouldn’t water reclamation such as rainwater cisterns and wind turbines be attractive?

Correa presented examples of energy-producing public art, wind and solar, in the United Kingdom and China.

Known in the industry as “Solar Dell” — Dell Jones, of Regenesis Power LLC — shared his expertise in solar technology. Did you know that solar collectors have been with us since the turn of the century? The same principle is used today to draw on the energy of the sun to heat water. Solar electric panels or photovoltaic energy, however, is a more recent innovation that converts the sun’s energy to electricity, with the potential to power an entire home or building.

And, if more energy is collected than a building can use, the excess energy can be sent back to the power company. As of last year it is possible to connect into the FPL electrical grid, and sell back the excess electricity.

OK, they don’t give you money but you can be paid in kilowatts — when your electricity goes back in to the grid, the meter goes backward, offsetting the cost of the energy taken from the grid.

Alternatively, with a battery system, the excess electricity can be stored, ready to be used when the panels are not producing energy, ie, when there is no sun.

Progress in solar technology is exploding. It is possible to install walls of glass with a thin-film photovoltaic coating that can collect sunlight and produce energy. Research is concentrating on laminating this photovoltaic film to a variety of rigid or flexible building materials — roofing membranes and shingles are already available. These products, used in Europe, are ready to be used here, too.

Envision how the integration of these new products will change the way we build and design in South Florida with its abundance of sunshine. As fuel prices increase, why not start in the Sunshine State? New buildings in this area can be on the cutting edge of solar integration. And state and federal tax credits available for residential and commercial projects may just be the catalyst to jump-start the trend.

Dell does advise, however, that using solar panels to heat water is still the most effective method to incorporate solar into a building. It has been around awhile, and is an inexpensive and effective method to use the sun’s energy.

In a whirlwind day full of information and ideas about the future and new directions in building, it all boiled down to an opportunity to think about how Southwest Florida can lead the way to making Florida a green and energy-conscious state.