oday, our conversation with Christopher Grech of the Catholic University of America in Washington DC. CUA is home to an innovative green architecture program. Christopher Grech is Director of the Masters of Science in Sustainable Design program at CUA’s School of Architecture and Planning. We talked with Chris about a range of topics related to green buildings, including the teaching methods and purpose behind a leading sustainable design program.
Narrator: Today on the GreenLeaders DC podcast: our conversation with Christopher Grech of the Catholic University of America in Washington DC. We’ll discuss the teaching methods, activities, and purpose behind one of nation’s leading sustainable design programs.
Christopher Grech is Director of the Masters of Science in Sustainable Design program at the School of Architecture and Planning at Washington DC’s Catholic University of America. We talked with Chris about a range of topics. We started with the basics of Catholic University’s sustainable design program.
Christopher Grech: We have two programs. One is in sustainable design; the other is city and regional planning. That is a program that looks at cities – it’s a larger scale initiative. Whereas the MSSD would look at individual buildings, the MCRP looks what happens when you go a scale up from the buildings. So how do buildings work with each other, how do buildings create cities and regions and infrastructure that’s required and it’s a mixture of design and policy, too. It’s looking at things from an urban design but also maybe from the legislative, policy point of view.
Narrator: Sustainability, of course, is a slippery concept. It means different things to different people. And it’s full of potential contradictions. Many of us, as citizens, for example, may be committed environmentalists by recycling or consuming only organic food. But we also might be investing our retirement savings in a mutual fund, which holds shares of oil and coal companies. Our retirement savings depend on those companies doing well. There seems to be no single, silver bullet for achieving sustainability.
Christopher Grech: I agree absolutely – I think that’s the case. And let me explain first that we tackle sustainability on at least two levels here. One is we obviously offer the Masters of Science in Sustainable Design program, which I would say is a fairly high level, but we’ve also introduced an introduction to sustainability course for our students. It’s a requirement at the sophomore level. All our students will get this course. It’s a three credit hour, core semester course. And I’ve divided it in my mind into three sections. One is some theory about sustainability, which includes ethics and how that influences us on a daily basis, not necessarily as architects or designers. The second third is some of the more practical aspects about climate change, what we can do as architects and then the last third, I ask practitioners to come in and talk about how they apply sustainability. We’re not just hearing from architects. There are contractors, even lobbyists that we try and get people in to give the students as broad a perspective as possible on sustainability. And what I do at that course is I stress to the students that there are two levels that they can make a difference in terms of sustainability. One is a personal level, and the other is a professional level. And I think before you even get to the professional level, you have to understand sustainability on a personal level. So, in addition to all the sort of lectures and presentations by outsiders, three are two important assignments. One is to take an everyday process and analyze that and see what the implications are say of brushing your teeth, do you leave the faucet on all the time, what kind of toothpaste do you use. That’s the first thing and then later in the semester, the second assignment is: what’s your carbon footprint – just in a very basic way to try and calculate that and then estimate how the students can actually reduce that. So I think once they get that idea of how as individuals that they can make those adjustments, they can then try to understand professionally what impact they can make and I think as professionals, they can make a huge impact.
Narrator: One question we raised with Chris is how the program addresses the wide-ranging subject matter that sustainability touches on. Even within the single discipline of architecture, tackling green building would seem to require a holistic approach.
Christopher Grech: It’s as holistic as one person or small group of people can make it and I try to address that by inviting a number of people in to speak in not just the introduction to sustainability course, but the whole program. We’re very keen to offer a wide variety of electives that tries to deal with the holistic nature of sustainability. We have a course in integrated coastal management, we’re offering courses in affordable housing, I’m developing courses in environmental law, and even hopefully workplace psychology. These are things that really excite me – we’re not just thinking about architecture. We’re taking a much broader view. Sustainability is not just about energy or materials, and it’s not just about architects.
Narrator: So if the program is not just about architecture, how does the program combine all these different elements, and still give students the specific skills they need to graduate and then perform as professionals. Thinking about that, we dug a little deeper into the details of the courses.
Christopher Grech: We take a look at energy that goes into acquiring the materials and making the products, the architectural building products, and we also take a look at life cycle analysis. And that has to do with not just energy, but resource depletion, air pollution, water pollution. Now we deal with these on a fairly basic level, at the introduction to sustainability course, but we deal with it in much more detail in the MSSD program.
Narrator: We also asked how students gain the hands-on experience to prepare them for working in the field.
Christopher Grech: I think the most hands on sequence of courses, are the energy modeling and simulation. Because apart from the theory of understanding how the software works, its about going to buildings and assessing how much energy they use and trying to model that, predict it and model it. So I think that affords an opportunity to actually go to the buildings, to assess them, and then test that assessment against the computer model. And I think it’s important to question the efficacy of a computer model and to try and get data that either proves or disproves some of the assumptions that we’re making. And this might be a bit controversial, but we make a lot of predictions about LEED buildings, but I don’t think enough work has been done to evaluate how successful they are with those things. I would hope that as we grow as a program that we will be in a position to do some of that post-occupancy evaluation to assess how accurate those predictions were.
Narrator: Once the students graduate, they’re off to practice their skills gained in the program. And as with any industry, sustainable building architects confront a range of challenges in their professions. What are those challenges and how do they affect practicing architects and their clients? For example, buildings are a huge consumer of energy in this country.
Christopher Grech: That’s probably the aspect that would have the most effect. You know it depends on which particular consultant or component that the design team or the construction team you’re talking about. The client’s concern is most cases is related to cost and so there’s always sort of backwards and forwards in how cost effective is putting in this amount of insulation or this amount of glazing, etc. And architects have to try and have a feel for both the technology and the cost effectiveness. It’s a question that we come back to many times. There are some institutions that don’t want to spend the additional money up-front to go through the certification process, and that’s a big problem. The way that commercial development happens here, the costs associated with construction really have to be recouped in a much shorter time than say in Europe, so developers take a very short-term perspective here, in Europe it’s slightly longer. And we talk about embodied energy and there’s embodied energy of the building materials, but there’s also the recurring embodied energy, which is how much energy you use to maintain the building. And after about 25 years, the recurring embodied energy becomes significantly more than the initial embodied energy so if a client had to take a long-term view of the building performance, 25-50 years down the line, small adjustments or increases in capital expenditure early on will reap huge dividends in the long term. And we hope that more clients will take that kind of view.
Narrator: Because buildings are such large consumers of energy, they are also large sources of greenhouse gas emissions. For this and other reasons, many companies across all industries have embraced sustainability. We asked Chris about this and the suggestion that green building is a new field with huge commercial possibilities.
Christopher Grech: It’s a huge field but I think there some are dangers too at the same time, and that’s the sort of “greenwashing” thing and how much of it is a marketing exercise. You see a lot of ads on TV that make things out to be really green, and that’s just not the case. From a personal point of view, I was born and brought up in Malta. Malta is an island community and it tries to be as self sufficient as possible. And partly because my parents were teenagers in the Second World War; they are quite frugal, you know it’s always switch the lights out when you leave the room, and finish what’s on your plate, etc. And so I think I’ve come from a sort of culture that, one of your questions is given that green that green building is a relatively new field. It’s not. What’s new is the way that we waste energy and I think we’re trying to redress that problem now. Something’s gone awry, and that’s the cheapness, the inexpensiveness of fuel that has allowed us to squander it.
Narrator: While the practice of green architecture has been around for some time, the idea of offering an academic degree based on the concept is relatively new. So how is the program developing? And more importantly, how is the community and students reacting to this program?
Christopher Grech: It’s interesting, because we were very conscious in coming up with this program; there isn’t really a precedent or a track record. I think that especially now that we’re talking increasingly about green-collar jobs and opportunities, etc. I think we’re well placed in DC for our graduates to find employment but more importantly applications for the knowledge that they’ve gained here. One of the best bits of information we got is that the information that they’re learned certainly about energy modeling and simulation, they’re actually been able to use directly either to help inform the design team or even to better communicate with their consultants. Ten years ago before the LEED rating really took on; people looked at you wondering what you were talking about when you mentioned sustainability. Now I think that it means something to everyone.
Narrator: We asked Chris more about the student experience at the program and how they’re able to contribute to its development.
Christopher Grech: I think taking a lead from the student comments, the fact that they’re learning information that is directly applicable, I think there’s tendency at universities to learn about theory and theoretical backgrounds, etc. I think we’re talked enough about that in terms of sustainability and the fact that you have a skill, which allows you to reduce energy, use materials wisely or understand how to select materials that aren’t toxic, I think that’s what’s very useful. The other thing that I think is healthy, architecture students tend to barricade themselves inside schools of architecture, the studio is important and they spend hours and hours on that in a lot of schools, what we’ve tried to do is introduce a range of courses to give students a wider experience and introduce topics that they wouldn’t normally come across in schools of architecture like environmental law or even workplace psychology.
Narrator: Finally, because many feel that sustainability will be achieved at the local and regional level, we asked Chris about the relationship the program has with the Washington DC community. He suggests that educational programs such as his are realizing the important role that local governments, associations, and individual citizens can play.
Christopher Grech: They are increasingly aware of that. Probably what they don’t realize is the value that students attribute to feedback, information from folks who are actually doing some of these things on a day-to-day basis or have some of their own expertise and knowledge. So I think everyone has a participate contribution to make and in a sense, don’t be shy, if you think you have some information or some aspect of your job or profession that you want someone else to know about, get in touch with us, because I think universities have to start becoming more plugged in to whatever’s going on outside.
Associate Professor, The Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning
Professor Grech serves as the director of the Master of Science in Sustainable Design program and the Center for Building Stewardship. Grech completed his architectural studies at Liverpool University’s School of Architecture gaining B.A. (Hons) and B.Arch (Hons) degrees. He is a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects and has practiced at some of the UK’s leading architectural and engineering practices such as Norman Foster & Partners, WilkinsonEyre Architects, Arup Associates and Whitby Bird and Partners. Grech also has extensive teaching experience at The University of Michigan and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte as well as Oxford Brookes University in UK.
Grech’s expertise lies in Construction Technology; he has co-authored two books on the subject: The Building Envelope and Connections. Both these books have been translated into German, Italian and Japanese and have won publishing awards. He has also edited “The Multilingual Dictionary of Architecture and Building Terms” and “Future Office: Design, Practice and Applied Research”. Grech was moderator of AIA DC’s 2030 Challenge Training Program in 2011 and 2012 and has served on the Education Coordinating Committee, Board of Direction, Building Enclosure Technology and Environment Council (BETEC).
From 2011 to 2013 Grech, together with faculty from the CUArch, Georgetown University and American University, headed up Harvest Home Team Capitol DC’s entry to the Department of Energy 2013 Solar Decathlon which finished in seventh place.