You could say that Rob Brennan was interested in green architecture before it was cool. Even before Sarah Susanka's iconic book, The Not So Big House, changed the way Americans thought about the proportions of their living spaces, he was a proponent of that philosophy of design. He's active on numerous historic-preservation committees, declaring that, "The greenest thing you can do is reuse old buildings." Brennan + Company is a founding member of the Chesapeake Sustainable Business Alliance (which encourages environmental sustainability and social responsibility), and the firm has taken on the role of activist educator through its advocacy arm, Common Ecology, and its sustainable product store, alterego.
In his Catonsville studio, appropriately located in a converted historic bank building, Brennan explains that after an initial push during the first environmental awareness era in the 1970s, sustainable architecture lulled in the opulent '80s and turgid '90s. The recent public awareness of global warming, coupled with easier access to more reasonably priced sustainable design features, has caused a resurgence in green design that does not seem likely to lose steam again.
The most common measuring stick for green architecture is LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). "We like to say we're beyond LEED," says Brennan.
Brennan's associate, Carri Beer, was one of the first LEED-certified architects in Maryland. "Being sustainable and making smart choices is something everyone can do," she says. "If each person does something, the ripple effect makes a difference."
"Our goal is to present sustainable options to all of our clients," says Brennan. "Some people bite on it immediately, some aren't interested at all, though that's rare now, which is a huge leap forward. If you make this approachable and not intimidating, people are very accepting of it."
One of the misconceptions about green design is that it needs to be expensive. Brennan explains that whether you are building a new house or retrofitting an old structure to be more green, some changes can be cheap and easy to execute. In an existing home, start with an energy audit to find energy-sucking culprits such as cracks around windows. Seal up those cracks and replace or add to outdated insulation with a more effective form. Replace old plumbing fixtures with water-saving options—dual flush toilets are all the rage now—and when it's time to upgrade or replace appliances, phase out energy-hogging refrigerators and dishwashers with energy-efficient models. (Look for the Energy Star logo on the product.)
But don't get Brennan started on replacement windows.
"Especially with old homes in Roland Park, for example, the tendency is to replace the windows first. But from a historic preservation standpoint, you don't want to do that," he says, explaining that often it's the gaps around the windows that are causing the drafts, not the windows themselves. Often, homeowners bypass expensive replacement windows and choose vinyl. "Vinyl windows degrade very quickly, maybe lasting only five years."
When Brennan's team assesses a new construction project, they create what they call an "integrated sustainability action plan" that encompasses everything from energy, materials, and resources to occupant health. Perhaps the easiest thing any homeowner can do (even those buying an existing home) is to look at how the house is, or will be, situated in the landscape.
"Think about site and the orientation of the house and spaces to take advantage of passive solar energy," says Brennan's associate, Beer. "Think about where the sun is and how the house will be best positioned to take advantage of that."
Next, consider alternative energy options such as a geothermal system, which uses the constant 55-degree temperature of the earth below 3 feet to heat and cool a home's air or water. These systems, like solar panels, are more affordable than they were a decade ago. Or simply opt for a very efficient model of a traditional system and use highly effective insulation materials. Particularly with the increase in asthma and chemical sensitivities occurring in children and adults now, Brennan recommends choosing materials on a home's interior that improve indoor air quality, such as low- or no-VOC paints, and avoiding plastics and vinyl that give off gases. As an added benefit, many green-home choices qualify homeowners for tax credits.
"They say a healthy house should have no smell," he explains. "If a house smells new, that's all the bad stuff you're smelling."
Another misconception is that green equates to modern. "It's really about the client and what they want," says Brennan. "Right now, we're doing a very green, modern, spa-like addition on a very traditional house, but it's because that's what the client wants." Brennan also did a kitchen addition in Ruxton that uses materials including bamboo flooring and recycled glass tile to create a composition that's traditional in style.
Partly to dispel that myth, but mostly to conveniently showcase green materials for clients and consumers, Brennan and Beer opened alterego, a showroom in his studio that sells environmental materials. In accordance with the green concept of "buy local," alterego provides a showroom for the Baltimore-based artisan concrete company, Luke Works, as well as mass-produced green products like Marmoleum (all natural flooring), Breathe Easy sustainable cabinetry (made within the 500 mile radius required to meet LEED certifications), and IceStone, a mix of concrete and recycled glass suitable for use on countertops.
The day Baltimore spoke with Brennan, a customer came into alterego asking if they sold vinyl flooring—how gauche. But that's no longer the norm. "People do their research and I've actually learned a lot from some of our clients," Beer says with a laugh. LEED specifications are rapidly moving from avante garde to everyday and may even become obsolete as green design becomes the standard rather than the exception. Even contractors and builders are warming up to environmentally sound practices, especially when they find they can spend less on dumping costs and create safer work conditions for construction crews.
Small choices can create a greener home and make a real difference in the environment. According to the EPA, 17 percent of the U.S.'s greenhouse gas emissions comes from homes, mostly from electricity use, home heating, and trash. Simply turning off the lights and recycling can make a difference. "Consider your choices," says Brennan. "Green design doesn't need to cost more; it's all about making smart decisions and planning ahead."