Q&A: Green Architect Alex Haecker

“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.

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