Green construction a passion for Duluth architect

Conceptual drawing of MH House courtesy of Coulson Architecture.

Carly Coulson is on a mission to write a new language for green construction, and her term “invisible sustainability” defines that mission succinctly. 

The invisible aspect refers to all the variables that make for a zero-energy equation: sun and shade, air tightness, and super-insulation. All on its own a conservation approach in building can achieve a 70 to 80 percent reduction in heating and cooling loads. That’s with no renewable energy, and no mechanical heating or air-conditioning.

Since 2009, Coulson has been the principal and owner of the COULSON Architecture firm in Duluth, a full-service design firm that has offered Passive House standards as a matter of course, and as a matter of principal.

Already meeting the 2030 Challenge geared toward carbon-neutral buildings by the year 2030, Coulson is on fire to motivate the architecture industry to make that cultural shift.

Coulson admits that tackling the shift to respond to climate change is both exciting and terrifying for the industry, but one that she deems necessary.

“What we need to change in the industry and prove to architects is that there are no constraints on their creative design freedom is something on the scale of a renaissance,” Coulson stated.

Language is the key to igniting passionate change for architects, according to Coulson, who says that while the science of sustainability is essential, communicating the simplicity of this type of design has to take a front seat.

“We have to seduce the architect first with the possibilities, magic and beauty, which we often skip over to the metrics. That doesn’t communicate the powerful elemental part of a building working in harmony with nature,” Coulson said.

MH House, a 2,400 square-foot four-unit home and office space in Duluth’s Central Hillside, is an example of an upcoming project that Coulson is undertaking this summer. The building is designed not just for energy sustainability, but for longevity through versatility. 

“House and office needs fluctuate in the city, we tried to reimagine what the building’s future use could be and this provides both possibilities by being adaptable to community and life changes,” Coulson said.

The four separate spaces in the building could work as studio apartments, or collectively as a single-family home with a business, or any combination of work/living spaces.

Confounding the perception that glass equals wasted energy, Coulson says that the building will require just 2,000 watts of energy at its peak heating load. That translates to just a bit more than a hair dryer’s worth of energy to heat the entire building in the coldest winter.

“It’s fascinating that a compact built form, in this case achieved eight-foot ceilings, can reduce exterior surface which reduces heat loss,” she said.

Equipped with only radiant panels for heat, the nearly zero energy building attains that level of energy conservation by its compact nature. Coulson says that the lower ceilings aren’t noticeable with a grand expanse of glass and Lake Superior view, and without the added space of mechanical heating and cooling needed in the floors, the entire building is only 24 feet tall.

One might assume that this level of far cutting-edge design, with such dedication to both aesthetics and sustainability, would be for swankier budgets. But Coulson argues that it is in the affordable range, saying it’s possible to build a $250,000 house that meets all the green markers for sustainability and is beautiful for just $140 a square foot.

Prefabrication is a component of that affordability. Prefab is not what it used to be – it is exponentially better. Its long past reputation as shoddy construction has been transformed into environmentally friendly and high-quality.

For Coulson’s modern design sensibilities, prefab works especially well, wedding large panelized systems onto steel frame. Benefits range from factory-made control that ensures air-tightness, more rapid on-site construction with an average house completed in about three months, reduced risk of material damage due to weather, and variability on-site. All of those factors add up to large savings in labor time and costs.

“Solving the cost puzzle is a really important in order for this to catch on. We have to show that it is fiscally responsible and attainable,” Coulson stated. 

Finding clients whose priority is not on granite countertops and are willing to give up some of the superficial demonstrations of price has, over the years, allowed Coulson to find a balance that she says creates a building that has a quality appearance and is sustainable.

Most architects do not do the kind of energy modeling in which Coulson’s company engages. Rather than a traditional mechanical engineering approach that focuses on sizing mechanical systems-based issues like occupancy and airflow, Coulson uses the Passive House computer program for energy modeling that takes a completely different angle.

Eliminating mechanical systems altogether, the software models in detail every component of the building, focusing on orientation, climate date, solar exposure, and specific site data. Coulson calls it a learning tool that removes all the guesswork.

“It’s an incredibly powerful tool and helps us push the design solutions to be more creative because we don’t really know what is possible until we test the modeling.”

Disappear Retreat is a micro-dwelling that Coulson is launching this year, with a prototype going up in Duluth this summer. And the preview response has blown up far beyond anything she had anticipated.

Similar in price to a car or a camper, the 8x10x9 buildings are mirrors unto themselves, designed to reflect the landscape, and are at near zero energy. Glass ceilinged and covered in reflective material, these ultra self-sufficient living pods in their planning stage are going viral and preorder inquiries are pouring in.

“Media has taken off with this and with interest coming from all areas, that proves the concept that communication about the concept at an affordable price can catch on,” Coulson stated.

Meanwhile, with demand exceeding her expectations, she has been left with the happy problem of sorting out how to upscale production for a bigger market than anticipated.

The combination of passive solar heating in the winter, and natural shade by trees in the summer is enough of a boost to keep these super-insulated, airtight, compact buildings at comfortable temperatures year-round. The only high-tech component of the building is an energy recovery ventilator that exchanges air while recovering 90 percent of the heat. The design meets the Passive House standard, and Coulson intends to pursue Living Building Challenge certification. 

“Those five things alone can get us to near zero energy, and don’t affect aesthetics or style. No one can tell by looking that it’s a green building. That excites architects who need to communicate sustainable design verbally and visually to the public,” Coulson said.

It’s that gap that Coulson is driven to bridge, engaging the general public across audiences of the art world, and including those with environmental and wilderness sensibilities.

“Sustainability is sexy and simple. We need to educate everyone on that,” she stated.

Ignorance is exactly what is holding the movement back, Tim Johnson says of the stall on investing in sustainable building he has seen in the construction industry. Johnson is the owner of Lakeside Advanced Builders, LLC, in South Range, Wis.

“There is a tremendous amount of ignorance among contractors, homeowners, appraisers and realtors. People just don’t believe that they can have a house that will cost less than $220 a year to heat,” said Johnson.

While customers do seem more tuned in to energy efficiency, Johnson says there is a massive barrier with trusting that these low-technologies are real.

“I have to tell people over and over these techniques are tested, not that expensive, and will save you huge operating costs over the years,” said Johnson, “This is not a pipe dream. Zero energy is proven and they are doing it all over the world. We have to light a fire under the whole building industry.”