In February, award-winning architect Douglas VanderHorn launched a YouTube channel focusing on sustainable building practices, including green technologies, energy efficiency and high-tech smart house controls. While his initial YouTube output is relatively modest –
six videos recorded during a recent design seminar – he sees the online medium as a logical route to further spread the message on the positive aspects of green home design.
“The technology of home construction has advanced so much in the last 15 years, compared to what was available previously, and is changing more rapidly than it used to,” VanderHorn said in an interview with the Business Journal at his Douglas VanderHorn Architects office in Greenwich. “It becomes more challenging to keep up with the latest things.”
For VanderHorn, whose honors include a 2015 induction into the New England Design Hall of Fame and multiple awards from the Home Builders Association of Connecticut and regional chapters of the American Institute of Architects, a renewed interest in green building is being generated by the younger families seeking out his firm’s services. “This is a group that has the means to invest in a low-energy-use house or a material that is going to last longer,” he said. “A lot of them are building bigger homes and realize that is a bigger footprint environmentally, so they are trying to do what they can to mediate that.”
Among the energy efficiency technologies that VanderHorn recommends to his clients are geothermal heating and cooling systems. While acknowledging that the upfront costs of installation can require “a very substantial investment” – adding upwards of $100,000 to the cost of a home – the technology can pay for itself after seven years. “Then, your air conditioning is so inexpensive that you are glad to make that investment,” he said. “And the families we are designing for plan to stay in their homes for more than 10 years.”
VanderHorn’s designs, however, do not incorporate solar panels on the roof – not because of perceived inefficiencies but due to perceived aesthetic qualities. “For our clientele, the appearance of the house is the paramount thing,” he explained. “They are coming to us for a classic-looking home and there’s nothing classic about solar panels – yet.”
The architect noted that new solar roof systems designed to resemble traditional roof tiles and roofing products are being tested, including a solution from Elon Musk’s Tesla, but he does not see this approach as being ready yet for his designs.
Inside the residence, VanderHorn pointed out the increased popularity of smart home technology, which allows homeowners to control lighting, heating and appliances from a smartphone. Yet the full potential of that high-tech innovation will only be achieved when wireless technology is adapted for home lighting controls.
“Now, the standard being the Lutron control system requires substantially more copper wire because each lighting circuit is wired back to the mechanical room where the brain of the system is, as opposed to just going circuit to circuit,” he said. “The smart light bulb, which is in development, communicates wirelessly with the brain of the system; that will be greener than what we are currently using for home control.”
“Copper wiring also adds costs to the home. It is expensive to install a Lutron lighting system – and a lot of the expense isn’t the Lutron brain but what you have to pay your electrician to run all of the additional wire necessarily to gain that control over each individual circuit.”
VanderHorn’s commitment to sustainability in home design ranges from the most visible aspects of interior design – he has reclaimed and repurposed mantles, leaded glass doors, beams, plumbing and lighting fixtures from demolished properties into his new designs – as well as the unseen agents that retain heat within a house. During construction, he specifies insulating spray foam based on the propellants used and the potential damage they can cause to the atmosphere.
VanderHorn is also experimenting with cold wall and cold roof building techniques that he studied in Denmark, where a cavity is created between exterior and interior layers that can be filled with foam layers to establish a thermal break. However, he noted that approach adds expense to the construction project and works better in Denmark, where home construction is mostly masonry, as opposed to the American penchant for for wood homes.
VanderHorn does not consider Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program, for his houses. While common in commercial real estate projects, he said he saw no value in pursuing that for residential properties.
“Most of my clientele is interested in saving money in the long term,” he said. “They are not looking for a plaque on their wall. That is a bragging rights thing and in the corporate world that means something in your marketing.”
As for YouTube, VanderHorn said he hoped to add more videos to his channel later this year and to widen the discussion on the challenges and advantages of green construction.
And while he is grateful for the response he has received from his videos, he is not expecting to rival PewDiePie as the next viral sensation. “I doubt it,” he said with a healthy laugh.