Aiming for Net-Zero: Farr Associates’ Sustainable Design
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on August 07, 2018 |

While there are a number of companies looking to slow and, hopefully someday reverse, the impacts of climate change, Chicago architecture firm Farr Associates is a pioneer in incorporating sustainable design into its practice. We spoke to Douglas Farr, founding principal and president of Farr Associates, to learn about some of the firm’s projects and what it takes to build a sustainable future for the planet.

Established almost 30 years ago, Farr began by creating “environmental buildings” and, when the certification was launched in the late 90s, buildings with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Many of the requirements built into LEED, ranging from water conservation and planting native landscape to the use of low volatile organic compound (VOC) paints, have become second nature at Farr Associates.

Using the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) standard, Farr now initiates most products with the goal of achieving net zero energy use. PHIUS takes an aggressive approach to energy efficiency, determining a maximum energy use per person and relying on insulation and high-performance windows to ensure that no air leaves or enters a building.

“When an architect or their builder has designed an envelope that way, the task of heating and cooling it becomes less onerous altogether. It uses so little energy to maintain interior comfort,” Farr said.

While Farr Associates doesn’t achieve net-zero energy even a third of the time, according to Doug Farr, the goal puts the firm on a path that ensures as much energy efficiency as possible depending on budget and customer constraints. One case in which Farr did meet net zero energy use is the home of Michael Yannell.

The Yannell Net-Zero Energy Residence

A crowning achievement for Farr Associates, in terms of energy usage, is the home of pharmacist Michael Yannell, who, when he decided to have his own house built, wanted something of ecological beauty. To send a signal to others who have similar financial security, Yannell wanted, not a 15,000-square-foot mansion, but something that would encourage others to explore sustainable house design.

The Yannell House has 96 windows that limit the need for the use of lighting, as well as 48 solar panels, which make the house generate more electricity than it consumes in the summer. (Image courtesy of Farr Associates.)
The Yannell House has 96 windows that limit the need for the use of lighting, as well as 48 solar panels, which make the house generate more electricity than it consumes in the summer. (Image courtesy of Farr Associates.)

The house is extremely insulated, with no place for heat to escape in the winter or cool air to escape in the summer. It also features 48 photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roof and a grey water system that uses a 550-gallon cistern to collect rain water and a system for recycling water from the home’s washing machine to its toilets. The house has an underground garage covered in a green roof, which absorbs CO2, as well as rain water, and does a small part to fight the urban heat island effect.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the house is the way in which it performs heating and cooling using a geothermal system. While the air temperature fluctuates constantly, the soil beneath one’s feet maintains a relatively steady temperature, warmer than the air outside in the winter and cooler than the air in the summer. At the Yannell house, three 260-foot deep wells dive below the home, using the soil temperature to heat or cool channels of water that are then fed back into the house’s heating and cooling system. In addition to potentially lowering overall costs, a geothermal system doesn’t rely on fossil fuels the way that a natural gas system does.

A diagram of the Yannell House and its various green features. (Image courtesy of Farr Associates.)
A diagram of the Yannell House and its various green features. (Image courtesy of Farr Associates.)

In the past, Farr and his team might have designed a building with a great energy footprint, reducing energy use by half or 60 percent. However, the team would then heat the home with natural gas, known for leaking methane into the atmosphere. Methane is actually known to be 84 times worse than carbon dioxide in terms of its impact on global warming, though its lifetime in the atmosphere is shorter. This was the ultimate reason for relying on geothermal heating.

V-shaped butterfly roofs help to collect rainwater, which is directed to an underground cistern for use in irrigation. (Image courtesy of Farr Associates.)
V-shaped butterfly roofs help to collect rainwater, which is directed to an underground cistern for use in irrigation. (Image courtesy of Farr Associates.)

The geothermal system, coupled with the house’s solar panels, made it possible to achieve 98 percent energy efficiency; however, Farr’s group ran into an issue in terms of heating the house during the biting Chicago winters between January and March. As a result, Yannell would have to use backup energy to compensate for the cold. With some clever thinking, Farr Associates was able to push the home to become net-zero in terms of its energy usage.

“The house is abundantly heated in the summer time with an excess of heated water and way more electricity than we needed to use,” Farr relayed. “So, our engineer had a brilliant stroke and said, ‘Let’s use the excess hot water heat in January to preheat the soil column, so that, by February, there’s enough heat in the soil column to heat the house. That put the house over the top.”

Green Infrastructure

Farr Associates also goes beyond individual buildings to design entire neighborhoods and urban areas. For instance, the firm worked with the city of Austin on a master plan for Colony Park, where efficient buildings, water conservation, and zero-waste technology will be used to create an area that encourages walking.

In his latest book, Sustainable Nation: Urban Design Patterns for the Future, Farr and his contributors highlight walking as crucial to a sustainable urban environment. Before World War II, U.S. neighborhoods were inherently walkable, but the widespread adoption of automobiles resulted in the sprawl we see across the country today. The book goes on to describe ways in which urban areas can be changed to encourage such environmentally and community-friendly practices as featuring more “walk-to parks,” that is, parks within walking distance.

An illustration of the master plan for Colony Park in Austin, Tex., adopted by the city in 2014. The plan designates the park as a walkable residential area with commercial areas, as well as “efficient building design, water conservation strategies, and zero-waste technologies,” according to Farr Associates. (Image courtesy of Farr Associates.)
An illustration of the master plan for Colony Park in Austin, Tex., adopted by the city in 2014. The plan designates the park as a walkable residential area with commercial areas, as well as “efficient building design, water conservation strategies, and zero-waste technologies,” according to Farr Associates. (Image courtesy of Farr Associates.)  

Sustainable Nation describes in greater detail a number of other key elements to a thriving, ecologically sound environment. These include preventing gentrification; incorporating multiunit, clustered housing and high-density housing into neighborhood planning; providing housing for low-income individuals and families; and encouraging community organizing. Many of these ideas are as much about cultivating strong local communities as they are about reducing the environmental impact of cities.

Onefeature in particular that can lead to a more sustainable urban environment is distributed electricity. Because there is no central location responsible for generating all of a city’s power, a distributed system means that, in the event of a storm, power outages affect a smaller number of locations. In fact, if one building loses power, its solar-powered neighbors may be able to provide it with supplemental electricity.

A distributed setup also means that it’s easier for individual locations to switch power supplies—from solar to wind, for example. Power supplies may be less expensive to deploy and upgrade, since there is no need to build or modify a massive power plant. And, because 7 percent of electricity is lost during transmission, there’s less energy to lose when sending it a short distance, rather than a long one.

Farr Associates’ portrait of a city in which sustainability is placed at the center of urban planning. (Image courtesy of Farr Associates.)
Farr Associates’ portrait of a city in which sustainability is placed at the center of urban planning. (Image courtesy of Farr Associates.)

Farr indicated that, in a future in which energy is distributed and flexible, it’s possible that buildings and vehicles could have a symbiotic relationship. During the day and in the summer, solar panels could enable a building to provide all of its own electricity and, in the winter or at night, all-electric vehicles plugged into the garage could provide the building with supplemental power.

Building a Sustainable Nation

Sustainable Nation compares the ability of the U.S. to cut its CO2 emissions to preindustrial levels to other large-scale trends, such as the reduction in smoking and infant formula use. Smoking in the U.S. peaked around 1964, when the Surgeon General issued a report about the dangers of the practice, and infant formula use peaked in the 1970s, with both trends projected by Farr to terminate by 2040.

CO2 emissions, however, have yet to peak and, while there is no exact deadline for when humans should stop smoking or using infant formula, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has urged the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2100. The first deadline would see us avoid a global temperature increase of more than 2°C above preindustrial levels, while the second would avoid projected runaway climate destabilization and the prospect of a planet that is uninhabitable to humans and other forms of life. Based on the IPCC’s conservative targets and projections in Sustainable Nation, we will not be able to decarbonize until 2150.

Upon making this discovery, Farr said that he was fueled by passionate anger to help address the problem. Continuing his lifelong work of building sustainably, he and his firm have launched a campaign to push AEC firms in Chicago to cut their own CO2 emissions. By November 2018, when the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo takes place in Chicago, Farr hopes to have 50 percent of the Chicago members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) sign a pledge to track carbon and energy performance.

Beginning with just 4 percent of Chicago firms signing the pledge in October 2017, the pledge rate has since increased to 12 percent. It may not be possible to reach a 50 percent pledge rate by November 2018, but many AIA architects working in large firms have joined. These are just small first steps toward Carbon-Free Chicago 2050, which has the goal getting the entire city of Chicago to be carbon-free by 2050.

As for other cities, Farr sees a lot of hope in young people’s awareness that a lot of ecological destruction occurred under the watch of the previous generation. He sees them and older committed environmentalists pushing management to steer things in the right direction. In the case of AEC firms, this means performing energy modeling, tracking carbon and doing other appropriate work.

“If you don’t know how to do this,” Farr concluded, “Please don’t slow it down for the rest of us.”

To learn more about Farr Associates, visit the firm’s website. You can learn more about Sustainable Nation here. To read more about the relationship between climate change and the built environment, read our recent article on the topic.


Recommended For You