Sustainability Works: The Intuitive Designs of Carl Mahaney

“So many of the buildings we occupy are not terribly thoughtful,” laments architect Carl Mahaney. “That has always intuitively felt wrong to me.” Thankfully, Mahaney is righting those wrongs through his firm Measured Works Architecture.

With a sensitivity to craft and detail, Mahaney has designed sustainable architecture projects for more than a decade. After receiving a Bachelor of Architecture from Kent State University and working with Seattle and New York firms for the past 12 years, he started Measured Works in New York’s West Chelsea neighborhood, placing top priority on solving problems through a “sustainable lens.”

The sustainable design movement has gained prominence in the U.S. since the 1980s, led by visionaries such as William McDonough. Although no universal standards on “green” exist, and definitions differ among industries, McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle certification and LEED standards help consumers and professionals uniformly assess the environmental impacts of buying decisions.

Mahaney is encouraged by the traction that sustainable architecture is catching in New York and nationally. But what constitutes sustainable architecture? For Mahaney, it’s bringing awareness and responsibility to his design process. “It means making deliberate decisions that think through the consequences, from each line to each material. What’s the effect on the family, the home, the neighborhood, the planet?”

One trend Mahaney thinks has certain cache is the green roof movement. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, there was a 45 percent increase in installed solar energy systems in 2007 over 2006. More than 3,400 companies are in the solar energy sector, and the solar work force (installers, repairpeople, manufacturers, etc.) is expected to grow to more than 110,000 jobs by 2016. Mahaney is one step ahead; his recent design for a competition incorporated a green roof as a thermal protection and water retention measure and also as an opportunity to incubate threatened and endangered native vegetation. “Many sustainable solutions often have multiple benefits like this,” he explains, “which can make them more cost-competitive and result in more interesting aesthetic solutions than conventional building methods.”

Since consumers of high-end residential architecture tend to follow cultural trends closely, many more residential clients understand and request sustainable solutions, says Mahaney. What’s more, government rebates and subsidies can advance progress by incentivizing green on a day-to-day basis. Municipalities can help create demand by implementing green building codes and drafting long-term development plans around sustainable principals. New York City’s recently revised building code and PLANYC 2030 are excellent examples of this, Mahaney says.

The Tree House was proposed for a lightly forested site in Ohio with the intention of minimizing disturbance to the immediate surroundings.

The Tree House was proposed for a lightly forested site in Ohio with the intention of minimizing disturbance to the immediate surroundings.

The conventional wisdom is that sustainable building necessitates compromise, which Mahaney suggests isn’t true. A technique integral to his practice is to study the project site and program and try to coax an essential truth from them, around which the design organizes itself. For example, a recent project, the Tree House, was proposed for a lightly forested site in Ohio with the intention of minimizing disturbance to the immediate surroundings, “much like a tree house,” he says. The green roof controls the impact of stormwater runoff; narrow structural walls, a chimney, and a stair are the only elements that touch the ground. The wood siding is reclaimed from a local barn.

In Mahaney’s Family Auto House, designed as a sustainable house for a fictional family and its hydrogen powered car, water is the main inspiration. The roof harvests rainwater, which is filtered and stored underground as the sole water source. All grey water is treated and reused in a closed loop plumbing system. Mahaney explains that because the hydrogen car exhausts water vapor, “the family is (poetically anyway) producing water for their home” by driving.

Another imaginative example, The Rural Retreat, is a small weekend home in upstate New York designed on a modest budget. The materials are high in recycled content; the block walls, for example, use insulated structural block made from 100 percent post-industrial/pre-consumer EPS (expanded polystyrene). The building is passively cooled to reduce energy consumption, with cross-ventilation and roof overhangs to mitigate solar heat gain. North clerestoy windows allow ample indirect daylight.

The Family Auto House was conceived for a competition to design a sustainable house for a fictional family and its hydrogen powered car. The roof harvests rainwater, which is filtered and stored underground as the sole water source. All grey water is treated and reused in a closed loop plumbing system.

The Family Auto House was conceived for a competition to design a sustainable house for a fictional family and its hydrogen powered car. The roof harvests rainwater, which is filtered and stored underground as the sole water source. All grey water is treated and reused in a closed loop plumbing system.

“Energy consumption is really our biggest global challenge, regardless of location,” says Mahaney. Finding sustainable products and solutions is not always easy or cost-effective, but simple things like specifying low-energy light fixtures and ENERGY STAR appliances, and maximizing day lighting and passive cooling, while less glamorous than other green trends, have an enormous impact on the global environment as well as a building’s overall quality.

“Looking at a project through a sustainable lens provides an opportunity for its organizing truths to resonate more deeply, both environmentally and culturally,” says Mahaney. “The actual practice of architecture, the nuts and bolts, is more than anything a problem-solving exercise, and approaching each challenge within a project sustainably often offers more meaningful opportunity for creativity than simply relying on conventional solutions.”

Posted by Margot Douaihy

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2 Responses

  1. Building your own rainwater harvesting system is really a lot of fun. Work it on the weekend with the kids and tinker with it as you go. It’s a laugh to intentionally stand outside with the family, in the rain, trying to follow where all the water’s headed and we we should redirect it. Rainwater harvesting is not just an amusing hobby, there is a serious need for it in drought-prone areas of the US, as well as, towns with summer watering restrictions. There’s a lot of resources about building your own system at RainTankDepot.com. Give it a thought and good luck

  2. […] and Measured Works were featured in an online article discussing the emerging interest in sustainable […]

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