Green Architecture

By Carol Davit | September 2, 1999
From Missouri Conservationist: Sep 1999

When I was growing up, I enjoyed working in my family's vegetable garden. I helped plant corn, pick beans and dig potatoes, as well as did a fair share of weeding and mulching. Often I held tomato stakes steady for my dad as he pounded them into the ground. "I want to be sure I don't get the stake too close to the plant," he explained to me. He knew, as do all gardeners, that getting the stakes too close damages the roots and hurts the plant.

His garden structure was simple, just a wooden stake driven into the ground, yet it had the potential to damage the garden. Similarly, whenever we build a structure, such as a shed, house, company headquarters, shopping mall or an airport, we are still building in a garden, a really big one-called the planet.

These structures allow us to carry out our planetary business, but many create more problems for us than solutions. Usually we build with cost in mind: the less cash the better. But the money we hand over is pocket change compared to the "big-picture cost" of buildings.

For example, development on "inexpensive" land on the edge of town requires more roads and driving distance and destroys habitat for wildlife. Laying the utility infrastructure to these new developments destroys yet more plant and animal habitat and can cause erosion and groundwater pollution.

Most of our buildings' heating, cooling and ventilation systems rely on non-renewable energy sources. In addition, energy sources derived from nuclear power, natural gas, petroleum and coal produce toxic pollution, from exploration to combustion.

Ever wonder about that new smell of your revamped office? You better sit down in your new chair and exhale. You have just taken gaseous styrene, formaldehyde and various man-made volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into your lungs. These are some of the chemicals in the latex backing of carpeting, adhesives in particle board, acoustical ceiling tiles, most paints, foam furniture padding and other furnishing materials. These compounds likely contribute to "sick building syndrome," "building related illness" and perhaps even some forms of cancer.

Many Missourians are choosing to make work and living spaces healthier for themselves and the environment. Architects and community planners are creating "environmentally appropriate design," or what is sometimes referred to as "green" architecture. They examine how materials are made and carefully select those that are not detrimental to human and environmental health. They also select materials and energy systems that are best suited for the location and climate of individual building sites.

"I think of environmentally appropriate design as having four main components," says architect Gregory J. Polanik, of Polanik Architects in St. Louis. "First, we look at site planning issues. We try to reuse existing buildings, build on urban sites that already have utility service and avoid contributing to suburban sprawl. Since energy used to operate buildings has the greatest impact on pollution, we try to make buildings as energy efficient as possible. We look at how healthy buildings and furnishings are for people, and we use the least toxic products available. Finally, we study the resource efficiency of building materials.

"As an example of resource efficiency," explains Polanik, "if you choose to build with large-dimension lumber, you are demanding a product that must be obtained from a large, old-growth tree. Logging an old-growth forest has a greater environmental impact than harvesting smaller trees, which can provide alternative forms of engineered lumber."

One Missouri organization using environmentally appropriate design is the Missouri Botanical Garden. In 1996, to accommodate its growing research staff, library and herbarium, the Garden acquired four acres of unused lots to build the Monsanto Research Center, a 78,000-square-foot facility at 4500 Shaw in the City of St. Louis.

Exterior features of the research center include:

  • A concrete-paved parking lot, which absorbs less heat than asphalt and for which far less pollution was produced in its manufacture.
  • Two storm water retention ponds that slowly release water into the storm water system.
  • Landscaping, including prairie grasses, which need minimal fertilizing and watering.
  • "Grasscrete" made of recycled plastic used around trees in the parking lot allows water to flow into the soil.
  • Parking lot lighting that includes lighting of 6-foot candle intensity controlled by motion sensors.

"When the vacant building on the site was demolished, many of its building materials were salvaged," explains Paul Brockmann, director of General Services for the Garden. "Instead of going into a landfill, the brick was sold to other builders, and all concrete on the site was ground up and used as backfill for other construction projects in St. Louis."

"We wanted the interior to be as energy-efficient as possible, and to provide safe, efficient storage for our collections," says Brockmann, "but we also wanted it to be a great place for people to work."

On all four floors of the Garden's research center, sunlight pours through large windows on the south side. "Light shelves" built at the top one-third of the windows bounce light onto slanted ceilings that, in turn, disperse natural light to offices and common areas far into the interior of the building.

Partitions between work stations are low so natural light can come through the entire work area. By using natural lighting-called "daylighting"-up to 60 percent of the light in work areas is provided cost- and waste-free by the sun. In addition, the reduction of artificial lighting, which generates 55 percent more heat for the same amount of light that sunlight generates, substantially reduces cooling costs in summer.

Furnishings manufactured with the least impacts on the environment were chosen for work areas.

  • Linoleum used throughout the buildings is made of ground wood, ground cork and linseed oil.
  • Carpeting is colored with natural dyes.
  • The lobby floor is made from end-grain blocks of fir left over from the manufacture of doors.
  • Wood paneling and finishes come from Wisconsin forests that are owned and managed as a renewable resource by the Menominee tribe.
  • Office furniture was ventilated or "off-gassed" in warehouses before being shipped to the new building to rid the furniture of harmful gaseous chemicals.
  • All cleaning products used in housekeeping practices are natural.
  • Even the elevator received careful attention-the hydraulic fluid is vegetable oil rather than a petroleum product.

The Garden's research center is certainly a model of sustainable design, and it uses some of the best materials on the market. Many of these same products can be used for residences as well, and can save homeowners money.

Among the many individuals in Missouri turning to sustainable design is self-proclaimed "problem solver" Peter LaVaute of Columbia. LaVaute is a former farrier (horse-shoeing blacksmith) and now president of Ecosense Solutions. His business card defines his services-ecologically sensitive and economically sensible construction materials, consultation and "strategic alliance formation."

"There are lots of sustainable products out there," LaVaute explains, "and a lot of people would like to use them, but it isn't always easy to incorporate them into developments. That's why I want to provide ways for builders to ally themselves with new materials and designs."

LaVaute is designing low-cost, ecologically sound house kits. "The kits will cut down on waste because they will use sustainable materials and be energy efficient," he says. "And builders can choose a kit that best fits their needs." He plans to offer a standard frame kit and also a straw bale kit.

For future homeowners and for business people, he offers this advice: "No matter what your philosophy about the environment is, you can make money selling ecologically sustainable materials, and you can save money by using them."

LaVaute, who is known locally as "the straw bale guy," has personal experience building with alternative materials. After he spent many hours negotiating with the Boone County Protective Inspection Department, in 1997 he succeeded in building a 367.5-square-foot straw bale workshop next to his residence in Columbia.

"I learned about building with straw from a magazine article," says LaVaute, "and then I talked to as many people and read as many other things about it as I could." With a background in agricultural economics and farming, he was intrigued with using this familiar material. "The insulation of a straw bale wall has an R value of 40 to 50-that's two to three times the insulating factor of a traditional frame house-and straw is an agricultural waste product. I don't advocate using straw in every structure, but for this purpose, and in this part of the country, straw is a viable building option.

"To build sustainable structures," says LaVaute, "you can spend the same amount of money, or less, than you would on a traditional structure. With simple design and material changes, you can have a great, sustainable, energy-efficient structure." In order to do this, he adds, "you have to become an educated consumer. Your research will pay back dividends to the people in the structure and everyone else on the planet."

In Missouri, as in every other place on the earth, building sustainably means more than having healthy places for people to live and work. It means using building materials more wisely and, in return, having more healthy land. It means protecting more of our priceless garden.


The Conservation Department has tried to use the latest techniques for energy-efficiency and sustainable use in the design of its facilities. For example, the August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area features gypsum board made with recycled paper from newspapers and phone books. A staff residence at the Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery has a solar heating panel.

The Conservation Department's planned Discovery Center, slated for construction in late 1999 in Kansas City, will incorporate as many sustainable features as possible-daylighting, solar ventilation, a groundsource heat pump, recycled timbers, a composting sewer system and solar panels to generate energy to operate pumps.

"Once you've built a house," says Energy Engineer Michael Bumgardner, "you then have to pour energy into it for its lifetime. Using less energy for home use not only saves you money but decreases impacts on our environment." Bumgardner works for the Department of Natural Resources Division of Energy, which has recently opened an Energy Information Resource Center at 1500 Southridge in Jefferson City.

In 1997 the center handled 15,000 requests for energy information from the public. It houses a library well-stocked with free federal and state publications on energy efficiency, books and periodicals on sustainable development and videotapes available for loan.

The center also offers use of the BuildersGuide software for residential preliminary energy use design, and Energy 10, software for commercial energy use design. These programs automate calculations of energy use with a variety of building components, including passive solar systems. Both programs are developed by the Passive Solar Industries Council.

You can reach the center via mail at P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0176, phone (573) 751-6654, email <> or view their webpage at < >.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer