Nathan Good: Designer of Harmless Homes

Architect Nathan Good is well known as a leader of LEED design in the Pacific Northwest. He specializes in projects that bridge environmental performance with character and aesthetics. Nathan utilizes a collaborative design process, actively engaging his clients, contractors, and consultants. When designing a project, he strives to reduce its environmental impact through thoughtful site planning, an aggressive reduction of energy consumption, water savings, materials selection, and enhancing indoor air quality and durability.

Nathan has received numerous awards: “Western Home Award” Sunset magazine, “Excellence in Design” Environmental Design + Construction magazine, “Custom Green Home of the Year” National Association of Home Builders, “The Root Award” Portland Spaces, “Top 50 Architects in the Northwest” Northwest Home and Garden magazine, “2000 Energy Manager of the Year” Association of Professional Energy Managers (APEM), “2003 BetterBricks Award” Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, and one of the “25 Green Building Leaders in the Pacific Northwest” Sustainable Industries Journal.

In addition to those mentioned above, Nathan’s projects have also been featured in the following publications: Alaska Airlines, Time, Solar Today, Ultimate Northwest, Cabin Life, and Fine Homebuilding.

What do you feel is the biggest trend in architecture today?

Green, sustainable, and restorative design is the most significant trend in the past twenty years that we are experiencing as architects. Prior to that it was the role of computers in our work for visualizations, research, analysis, and construction documents. The two trends merge with our rapidly evolving understanding of how buildings work through building science, measurement and verification and modeling of energy performance programs to predict energy performance, and the ability to analyze materials for their life-cycle implications. Sustainable design is evolving into more than just a trend. It is eliciting a profound change in our expectations of the built environment and architects’ response to how buildings are conceived, engineered, built and maintained.

In the last couple of years, what has changed in the way you do business?

Since starting my architecture firm in 2005, I have specialized in the design of new custom homes. Currently, half of our projects are new homes, and the other half are major remodels. Three, four, and five years ago, I was designing homes in Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Texas, Arkansas and Hawaii. I am now more focused upon homes in Oregon, although we are currently wrapping up the drawings for a home in Alaska and another in Baja. My office has undergone a number of other transitions, primarily in response to the lagging economy. I have reduced my staff from seven to three, moved my office from Salem to Portland, trimmed overhead and non-essential expenses, reduced the number of professional organizations I belong to, and cut back on the time I used to devote to non-profit board positions, non-compensated speaking engagements, and mentoring students.

Where do you look for inspiration?

Nature is my best source of inspiration, especially for light, texture, form and space. One example of this is the gentle asymmetrical curve of a sand dune, which has been integrated into a number of our designs. Experiencing homes by other architects is also inspirational, especially the work of Alvar Aalto, Frank Lloyd Wright, Harwell Harris, and E. Fay Jones. What each of these architects has in common is the orchestration of space as sequence, scale, and light—from the time you approach their homes to the process of moving through them. Most of us have experienced similar sequencing as we walk through nature—rounding corners on a trail with a surprise around the bend, being drawn to a light-filled clearing, noticing the variation of scale in an overhead tree canopy, or enjoying the intimacy of sunny niche. And when it comes to the design of curved objects, those found in nature are superb: devil’s claw, the tendrils of grape vines and wisteria, unfolding ferns, and seedpods… to name a few.

 How would you define sustainable building practices, including LEED?

Harmless buildings. We can now not only envision, but cost-effectively engineer and construct buildings that produce more energy than they consume, collect more water than they use and provide healthier indoor air quality equal to or better than the out-of-doors. LEED is simply one tool that we use to measure the design and construction of a building’s environmental performance. The LEED green building rating system is one of the most important tools we have had to guide the design of environmentally responsible buildings. Not all green buildings are created equal… there are multiple shades of green, as there are multiple levels of achievement associated with a LEED certification. Fortunately, we now have other rating and performance feedback systems to utilize that supplement, and, in come instances, exceed the LEED criteria. These include the Living Building, Net Zero Energy, and Passive House certifications.

Can you explain LEED in more detail?

There are four ways to use the LEED rating system: a) as a framework for the education of architects, builders, consultants, and clients about the energy and environmental implications of constructing and occupying buildings, b) as a performance target and road map for the design and construction of a building, c) to recognize the achievement of individuals and organizations who contributed to a LEED-certified building, and d) as a basis for financial and tax incentives, reduced insurance rates, and higher building appraisals. Some of our most meaningful projects have utilized all four of these. There is very little difference between the posting of ingredients and nutritional value on the side of a food carton and the listing of a building’s performance for energy, water, indoor air quality and material use.

I am a TQM (Total Quality Management) junkie from my days as the campus architect at Sandia National Laboratories. Through TQM design methodologies, I learned the importance of data collection and feedback information systems. LEED provides a convenient organizational structure to measure the energy and environmental performance of the buildings we design, providing us feedback during design in order to optimize our intentions.

What are the major construction differences with LEED over “normal” methods?

It is possible to achieve a LEED certification for a building that is not that much different than one that meets our State of Oregon building codes. When that is the case, the most significant difference is the record keeping and documentation during design and construction in order to prove that the building’s performance criteria were met. There are some common elements that do distinguish high performing LEED certified homes from normal homes. In general, LEED certified homes have substantially higher levels of thermal insulation, less air infiltration, more efficient heating, cooling, and ventilation systems, materials that are locally sourced (within 500 miles), indoor materials that are less harmful to the indoor air quality (low or no VOCs, no off-gassing of urea-based formaldehyde), products with more recycled content, less water consumption, and quite often… some form of on-site energy generation.

Why should homeowners want a sustainably built or LEED home?

All of our clients have different needs and aspirations for their new home, and that includes variations in their interest and perceived value with a sustainably designed or LEED certified home. Some of our clients focus upon energy performance, while others are more interested in reducing their domestic water use and capturing rainwater. We have yet to work with a client who asks us to design a home for them that uses more energy, is larger than they need, and is less healthy to live in. Our client’s initial intrigue with LEED is usually its organizational structure of energy and environmental considerations associated with the building of a home. As with most goals for a home’s design (like the size, budget, and aesthetics), environmental performance goals are common with our clients. And how does one know if they are achieving energy and environmental performance goals if they don’t measure and document their results? One reason we recommend LEED to our clients is so that it may serve as a basis of performance for the builder and their sub-contractors. Though all of our homes could achieve a LEED certification, that’s just how we design them, many of our clients prefer not to seek a LEED certification for various reasons: they don’t have a need for the certification and associated recognition, they don’t want to add the rigor to their project, resale value with the LEED certification is not relevant to them, or they prefer not to pay for the associated costs for LEED registration and documentation.

Does it take longer to build a sustainable home? Does it cost more?

We are finding that it does not take any longer to build a sustainably designed or LEED certified home than is comparable to “normal” homes. There is some additional time required on the part of the builder and the individual responsible for the LEED documentation, but none of their time falls within the critical path timeline for a home. My office usually does not charge a premium for homes of our design that are pursuing LEED certification. There is occasionally a modest charge by the builders of our homes for LEED certification, mostly for the time to track the targeted points. We recommend the use of the skilled LEED personnel at Portland’s Earth Advantage Institute to provide the LEED documentation and performance testing services, for which they charge a modest fee ($4,000 +/-).

Sustainably designed homes generally cost more than “normal” homes, due to more care and attention being devoted to their design, the enhanced insulation, high-performance windows, energy-efficient heating systems, the addition of Energy Recovery Ventilators (ERVs), more durable and longer-lasting products, and the use of products that are composed of recycled content and void of VOCs and formaldehyde. Most of our homes include a collaborative eco-charrette early in the design, design-phase energy modeling, and various performance tests (like blower door and duct blast test) during construction. These do add some additional cost (and value) over a normal home. That being said, once you factor in the cost savings associated with our efforts to design as small of a home as possible to meet our client’s needs—there is often a net cost savings. For example, if a clever design results in a 2,000-square-foot design rather than a 2,250-square-foot design, the reduction of 250 square feet at $150 per square foot renders a $37,500 savings, which is enough to pay the incremental cost for enhanced insulation, triple pane windows, an ultra-efficient heat pump furnace, an ERV, and a multitude of green interior finish products.

What is the design and construction timeline for a new home?

The time it takes to build a new home depends upon a number of factors, such as size, site conditions, the builder and the availability of their sub-contractors, the project’s budget and most of all… our client’s expectations for the quality of their home’s construction. If we assume the design and construction of a moderate 2,250-square-foot green home on a slightly sloping lot with municipal utilities nearby, a construction schedule between nine and twelve months is reasonable. Larger homes tend to take longer than small homes to build. However, one of our smaller homes was designed and built like a piece of furniture and required approximately two years to construct. We designed a small 400-square-foot structure for the Breitenbush Hot Springs community and a 2,500-square-foot home in Arkansas that each have taken over eighteen months to build, in part due to the structures being paid for without bank loans and in part due to the limits of available labor.

How about remodeling and/or adding on to an existing home? What are the restrictions and benefits of these sustainable practices?

The scales are currently tipped to favor remodeling over new home construction, due to the low cost and availability of existing homes. In today’s market, the cost to buy land and build a new home usually exceeds the cost to purchase and modestly remodel an existing home. But, that too depends. A couple of our recent projects have been to bring older homes up to the same performance standards as our new homes with regards to energy efficiency, indoor air quality, comfort, daylighting, and materials. For these projects, the cost differential has been equal to the cost of a new home. There is a higher risk of discovering unforeseen costs with a remodel, like wood rot, mold, materials containing asbestos or lead, faulty wiring, or less than adequate structural support. It is important for us (as design professionals, builders, and societally) to develop and implement cost-effective remodeling techniques to transform the vast number of existing homes to the standards that will be required by future generations.

Please describe your building philosophy.

By working closely with our clients and involving contractors, craftsmen and consultants early on in our projects, we create innovative buildings that are energy efficient, lifestyle-oriented and in character with their surrounding environment. We design all of our projects to a) respond to unique climate, site location, and context, b) facilitate craftsmanship and lasting value, c) recognize the health, energy and environmental needs of our clients, and d) exhibit grace, elegance and delight.

When hiring an architect, what is the most important question that should be asked?

Based upon the needs and aspirations we have shared with you for our new home (or remodel), what challenges do you anticipate with the design and construction?

About The Author: DC Rahe

Contributing Editor