Andre DeBar, a highly acclaimed architect, has over 20 years of architectural experience and specializes in sustainable design and construction. He has been designing homes in Portland, Oregon since 1992 and has received many awards for his projects, including the National Green Custom Home of the Year in 2003 and Honorable Mention in the National Association of Home Builders Energy Value Housing Awards in 2007. His portfolio of experience includes green homes, office towers, community centers, higher education buildings and mixed-use development.
Winsome had the privilege of working with Andre DeBar on one of our projects and appreciated the opportunity to talk with him about his passion, projects and extensive experience. His practical advice paired with his unbridled optimism and enthusiasm for the future are an undeniable asset to our Northwest community and beyond. His mission statement affirms, “We take pride in crafting buildings that are high-performance yet simple, reflect and respect their place, and will serve their inhabitants well for many generations.”
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Interview with Andre DeBar
Winsome: How did you get started as an architect?
Andre: Starting in elementary school and junior high I had a little pad I used to always draw on and my interest in sketching my ideas continued through high school. I also always had a natural affinity for math and art, which are both crucial for architecture. Coming out of high school, I applied to architecture school at the University of Virginia, where I was offered a pretty traditional architecture education. My time there taught me a lot of fundamentals of design and was a great foundation for me to start with. After graduating from the University of Virgina, I went to Yale Architecture School. At Yale I branched out beyond the fundamentals and was able to explore more of my own approach to architectural design, but still had those fundamentals to fall back on.
Winsome: What piqued your interest in sustainable design?
Andre: I was always interested in the environment and concerned about those issues, but this concern with environmental issues didn’t marry up with my architectural designs until after I got out of school. My wife and I had just gotten married when I went to visit two classmates from school in Taos. They were working with Michael Reynolds on Earthships. I was intrigued. They built houses out of used tires, tin cans and bottles, incorporated off-grid solar systems and passive solar designs, and the houses rode the earth’s energy waves instead of sucking them dry. It was so fascinating to me that I spent a summer in their off -grid community in Taos “pounding tires” and absorbing all that I could of what they were doing. From then on it was a focus for me.
After my summer in Taos, I moved to Portland and quickly got a job with architect Gregory Acker, a “solar survivor” who started his own practice in the 70s. My Earthship experience got me in the door with Greg which was fortunate because it was a down time economically. Greg had just enough clients to keep plugging along. He incorporated active solar, passive solar, nontoxic and recycled materials among other green technologies into his projects. I worked for him for two years doing a lot of design work and sometimes project management on design/build projects.
Winsome: If you were to say that you had a specialty, what would it be?
Andre: I don’t like to say that I have any one style, but if I were to characterize a tendency, it would be for the generally good practice design principles that are essential in the Northwest climate, ie., generous overhangs, good shading, sloped roof, organizing spaces to the south side to take advantage of passive solar, etc.,. These are more principles that I usually implement in the buildings and they can really be incorporated into most building styles. This allows me to be flexible to design the style of building that the client wants. Some want more traditional, some want more modern/contemporary. If I could say that I have a bias, though, I would say that my approach is trying to keep it more simple than complex – an honest expression of materials that is more simple in nature.
Winsome: What would you say has been the most important breakthrough in building design in your career?
Andre: Awareness of green building and energy efficiency and the use of computers are the two most important things that have happened since I have been working in the field of architecture. Plans used to be all hand drawn – a few people used Autocad when I was in college – but soon that changed and computer drawing became a huge factor. Now with modeling it has become a pretty powerful tool. The other factor – interest in and knowledge about green building and how systems connect within and outside of a building – has really grown. I feel like it is now reaching a critical mass where it is much more common. I think this awareness in the building industry has started with architects and has filtered out from there although, there was some early interest from progressive contractors, especially on the small residential scale. Big construction companies are harder to move, but many developers and larger companies are working on implementing green designs now. Some institutional clients that have long term interest in their buildings can take the long vision and can be more innovative in their use of green technologies in their buildings because they will see the payback.
Winsome: You recently accepted a position with Earth Advantage. What will you be doing at Earth Advantage and why did you decide to move in this direction with your career?
Andre: My new position is Senior Green Building Consultant. My job has two main areas of responsibility.
My first role will be as a Residential Account Manager. This means I will act as a liaison with Earth Advantage new home builders to help get their projects through the system for certification.
My second role will involve managing a new Earth Advantage certification for existing homes. This role is the one that is really exciting for me. There are so many existing homes and there has not been a very successful certification program for existing homes anywhere in the country yet. How can we create some incentive for people and drive up the value of green building? It is complicated with existing homes but we are trying to make it as simple as we can. We will have some pilot projects this spring, so stay tuned!
As far as why I decided to make the move, you can only do so many homes at a time while doing custom homes and residential design. You can provide great models for people and hope that this will have a greater impact on the community than just that one house, but with a job like this, this program could have a huge effect on the market. The overall effect could be a lot greater than the one exemplary green home. If you can get every home to get 10 or 20 % greener you will have a far bigger impact on the environment. Having a big impact on the marketplace is a goal of mine.
Winsome: Do you still plan to do some design work even while you are working in this capacity with Earth Advantage?
Andre: Yes, I still hope to take on some good projects on the side that can be special and industry leading demonstration projects.
Winsome: There are many accreditations out there, Passive Haus, LEED, Earth Advantage, Net Zero, Energy Star? What are the benefits of getting accredited and how would you advise a client regarding choosing among the options that are available today? Are there any cons of getting green certified?
Andre: It really depends on what the homeowner wants to achieve and how far they would like to push the envelope. There are potential negatives. A big increase in efficiency is easy to a certain level then it gets incrementally harder and more expensive. Payback will take longer as you head up the degree of difficulty and expense.
Here is how I would breakdown the differences and specialties of the different accreditations:
- Passive Haus – This is just about energy. These homes are superinsulated, energy efficient homes.
- LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is more encompassing of everything. They have a similar approach to Earth Advantage, but certification is more expensive. LEED is the leader in market awareness as far as accreditations go. This is good if you want to sell your home because it will have more widespread recognition in the marketplace. LEED and Earth Advantage really work together a lot. LEED is also developing their own existing home program.
- Earth Advantage is really a step down from LEED with regards to complexity. It is meant to be a more builder friendly program that is less expensive. This accreditation is good if you plan to keep the home. It provides quality assurance, ensures that you meet a minimum level of energy performance that will save money over time and certifies durable details in the home construction that will last longer with less maintenance. Earth Advantage rates homes and structures based on energy, health, land use, materials and water. Although Earth Advantage is used in a few other markets, it is still predominantly Northwest based, although they are trying to expand their reach. The remodel program can have a large reach nationally since there is no existing program that has yet proven to be successful.
- Energy Star is built into Earth Advantage and is also just about energy use.
Winsome: What are some of the challenges or obstacles to overcome in designing a green/resource efficient home?
Andre: Getting clients to understand that it is not that difficult and not that much more expensive to do something that is significantly better. It is not that expensive to get a big bump in performance. If you can achieve that awareness it is not that difficult. If you really start getting more cutting edge with the home design, you could run into building code issues potentially but that is less of a problem than it used to be. Cost can become more of issue if you really start pushing the envelope, but at this point it becomes even more important to figure out what your systems are. You can spend a lot of money and achieve impressive results in energy savings and resource efficiency, but how can you spend just a little and maximize the result?
Winsome: What do you see in the future of sustainable building?
Andre: A lot more energy monitoring and technologies to monitor energy use down to a much smaller scale. These technologies will get occupants feedback so they can change behavior and hopefully use less energy. All these loads of little transformers add up and knowing where your energy is going can give people the information that they need to make better decisions. Different energy monitoring technologies are starting to build some momentum in the market. You can monitor the wiring out of an electrical panel to evaluate how much energy is being used in each circuit. On an individual level you can use a Watt Miser to measure how much a device is using over time. In the future smart appliances will interact with software, using the cloud, the web and/or software to help manage those things. All of this gives people feedback so you can show them where that energy use is going to.
Winsome: What advice would you offer to someone who wanted to build a more sustainable, green home or remodel their home to make it more green?
Andre: Design small and think about adaptability, accessibility, resiliency and durability of the building.
Design for resiliency and durability. If we have an earthquake will your house stand? Can you provide for yourself? Passive survivability is something that is ideal to think about when you are designing your home. Is your home energy-efficient enough to be able to “float” at a reasonable temperature during prolonged power outages? Maybe you utilize passive solar design to help heat it. Maybe you install a potable water catchment system so you have your own supply of water. You also need to really think about air leakage and air sealing. Air leakage can create a lot of moisture and mold issues because air transfers the moisture into the structure. It also causes a lot of heat loss which means the building has to use more energy. Air sealing is really important and has been underappreciated.
Design for adaptability and flexibility. If you have a limited budget put money into your shell since you are not going to change that any time soon . Good windows, well insulated walls, orientation and size are some good places to start. Put in laminate countertops if you have to because kitchens are changed all the time. Put more money into the shell and upgrade other features as you have the money. Having no interior baring walls allows internal walls to be moved around over time. Even with mechanical equipment, systems can evolve and get changed out if money is an issue. Spend money on the shell and try to design a system that is flexible as to where it gets its heating and cooling over time. Design your shape for passive solar and not to preclude active solar use in the future (i.e. be “solar-ready”). Designing our buildings to allow aging in place is another important part of the longevity of our buildings.