Building Greener from Mongolia to Moscow, Idaho

By Andrew Clouse '03

Kelly Lerner '85, like most architects, sees green when she works on a new project. But don't be fooled: she's not in it for the money. Lerner is a "green" architect, which means she designs homes, schools and other projects using sustainable building techniques. The walls of the buildings she designs are made from bales of hay or other construction supplies of local origin. The structures take advantage of free energy available - sunlight, wind and rainwater. Windows are placed strategically to provide natural heating and cooling.

And while she's earned international awards, has been named one of the top 10 green architects in the country by Natural Home and Builder magazine and is publishing a new book on sustainable renovation, this humble builder says helping others is her top priority.

"I take the whole 'Culture for Service' thing very seriously," Lerner said from her home in Spokane, Wash., where she founded her solo architecture firm, One World Design.

For the last 10 years, Lerner has designed and built efficient straw bale houses in China, Mongolia and Argentina as a consultant through the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), an agency Lerner calls "the Adventist version of Mennonite Central Committee."

The purpose of the project is to evolve the standard brick houses that most farm families in China and Mongolia build. The current houses are wasteful, relying on bricks made from the clay stripped from fertile fields, rendering them useless for farming. The brick walls don't retain heat well, so families spent a significant portion of their income on coal, which in turn, pollutes the air.

According to Lerner, the straw bale houses are beneficial on a number of levels.

"From a local perspective what I'm trying to do is make housing more affordable for people, and improve local air quality," Lerner said. "What we're doing locally really improves their own lives, but it also improves the global picture as well."

Most of the houses she designs in China can be constructed on a budget of between $2,500 and $3,000 - a sum comparable to the cost of building a standard brick house. When ADRA began building these houses in communities China and Mongolia, people were skeptical of these untraditional houses. ADRA offered to subsidize much of the building costs at first until the new blueprints and techniques caught on.

Now it seems everyone wants one. ADRA has built more than 600 houses and four schools, and are designing training programs to teach sustainable building techniques to local builders.

"The most fun and exciting things for me are seeing people in the local communities go from doubt and disbelief to, 'Wow, this really works" - to go from "This is crazy" to "It was so warm last winter," Lerner said.

Lerner said a Chinese family may burn anywhere from three to eight tons of coal in one winter. In houses she designed, less than half of that is burned as her houses are 68 percent more efficient than the standard brick houses that most subsistence farmers live in.

This means that families have more money for other things they need, like food, and in some cases, education for their children.

Seeing firsthand how her work has improved the lives of families is her greatest reward.

"You realize that because of the cost savings of living in a sustainable house you've impacted the economic well-being of this family," she said. The hope is that the buildings are sustainable both environmentally and culturally. To that end, the focus of the programs in China and Mongolia has shifted from building to teaching. Lerner has designed simple straw bale homes that can be mass produced, and has spent time training community builders to continue the efforts.

Her work earned her the 2005 World Habitat Award at the United Nations World Habitat Day, an honor given to two builders a year in recognition of practical, innovative and sustainable solutions to current housing issues.

Getting her hands dirty
Lerner grew up in Goshen and graduated from Goshen College with an interdisciplinary degree combining sociology, Spanish and women's studies - not quite the typical pre-architecture program. She said her interest in building traces back to her parents. She calls her dad a "habitual remodeler." "We always had some remodeling project going on," said Lerner. "I always had my hands dirty with something." Her mother designed the family's home on 16th Street in Goshen, and everyone took part in planning and building the small house next door.

In college, she received encouragement from Marvin Bartel (professor emeritus of art) and Shirley Showalter (former GC president and professor of English) and gained the confidence and training she needed to be successful. Bartel recalls that Lerner was entrepreneurial. During her senior year, she realized she needed to make money to be able to move to Oregon following graduation and decided to make lots of potpourri pots to sell. Bartel thinks she probably set a record - around $4,000 - for the most pottery sold in a single-day student art show.

Bartel also remembers Lerner as someone who enjoyed "hands-on" work like mixing clay and firing kilns. He isn't surprised that Lerner is a proponent of owner-involved architecture.

"Marvin Bartel and working in the studio with clay - this kept me sane and happy," said Lerner, "and in a way, it encouraged me in my career path toward architecture. Making pots is not all that different than making houses."

But it wasn't until she enrolled in the University of Oregon's architecture school six years after finishing her undergraduate degree that her love of architecture was transformed into a vocational calling.

Through One World Design, she is currently focusing her efforts on eco-friendly remodels and "net-zero" houses - dwellings that generate all the energy needed in the home. In some years, she designs five or six personal homes.

Lerner's own house, a two-story Craftsman-style, is currently being remodeled - an environmentally friendly redo, of course, in keeping with other "green" choices. Living close to the center of Spokane, for example, she enjoys being able to pick up groceries on her bike, and sometimes goes weeks without using her car.

"My commute doesn't take any more energy than two Cornflakes' worth - from the master bedroom to the second bedroom," she said, describing her appreciation of having a home office.

Green building is an underused option for building in the United States, Lerner said. The houses she designs cost only 5 percent more than a typical custom-built home. Sustainable high-rise buildings are even more affordable, and save significant money on utility costs over time.

Yet most people don't think about greener options. Sometimes it takes a wake-up call - like soaring gas prices - to make people curb their energy consumption.

But Lerner has hope for a sustainable future. She said architecture schools are listening to students' demands for more sustainable building classes. And with rising energy costs, it's just a matter of time until sustainable communities are the norm rather than the exception.

"It's certainly growing in acceptance and we're figuring out more and more the best things to do," said Lerner. "But building is a very conservative part of our economy. People want to do things the way they have done them before."

Lerner is currently working on a sustainable development in Moscow, Idaho, and continues to work on net-zero houses across the country. For her, the philosophy behind green building sustains her.

"We're all animals, we all depend on natural systems, and to the extent that a house separates us from natural systems, I don't think it's beautiful," she said. "Of course I'm interested in beauty, but I think that ties right back in to natural systems. Good buildings can remind us of our place in nature."

Tips for energy efficiency at home

Making your home more energy efficient is a win-win-win; you reduce fossil-fuel use and the accompanying global climate change, you save money on utility bills, and you increase your physical comfort. Here are a few tips from Kelly Lerner's forthcoming book "Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House":
  • Refrigerator, freezer, dishwasher, washing machine, and clothes dryer - we love the convenience of modern appliances. Because they last a long time (10 to 20 years), it's important to buy appliances wisely.
  • Look for the Energy Star label when shopping for appliances and lighting products and check the Energy Star Web site (www.energystar.gov) for special rebates in your region. Consider Energy Star as a minimum standard. You can often find products that exceed these standards.
  • Install a programmable thermostat. You can set the timer/programmer to determine when and at what temperatures your heating/cooling system will operate.
  • Lower your water heater thermostat to 120 degrees. This can save as much as $45 per year and reduce the risk of being scalded by tap water.
  • Don't try to achieve uniformly high levels of light throughout your house. Task lighting, such as desk lamps or fixtures that shine directly on kitchen work surfaces, puts the light where you need it most.
  • Where electric lighting is needed, make the switch to Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs). They are three to four times more efficient than incandescent bulbs, and they last eight to 10 times longer. Replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs may appear expensive, but it can actually reduce your lighting energy costs by 50-80 percent without any loss in lighting quality.
  • To avoid standby losses, unplug appliances when not in use. Better yet, group appliances (for example, a computer, printer, and other peripherals, or a TV, DVD, VCR, and stereo) on one surge protector that can be turned off when the appliances are not in use.
  • Replace your heating/cooling system with a new energy-efficient unit. Heat pumps are especially efficient in milder climates; look for a Seasonal Energy-Efficiency Ratio (SEER) of at least 14.5 and a Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) around 9.0. For fuel-fired heating units, look for sealed combustion and an Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) of 90+.