Interviews w/ Architects: Prisca Weems, Future Proof

When I first started asking around about green architects in New Orleans, one name kept coming up: Prisca Weems and her firm, Future Proof. We met up with her at her studio and had a casual discussion about green building in New Orleans, the genius design of historic homes and how the city is moving towards a greener future.

Lillian Lovich: Why should people go green in New Orleans?

Prisca Weems: This region has specific climatic challenges. Building for the hot, humid zone requires a different approach to make sure that the house and occupants do not suffer the ill effects of moisture and mold problems. To us (at Future Proof) “green” means healthy, affordable and durable buildings that create a comfortable and productive environment.

Durability touches on a number of important factors. Most importantly in our area it refers to using building materials that can withstand natural challenges such as high wind loads, water and termites, to name a few. Meeting these challenges has become easier with the influx of new building products that became available locally following Katrina.

Designers and owners need a holistic understanding of building environment to insure that they are not encouraging moisture problems which are then going to degrade the structure or are going to encourage mold growth or termite inhabitation. And safety- when we look at green we look around at environments that make people feel safe and secure. Landscape including protection and shade provided by trees is also an important factor, as is energy efficiency. Not being able to afford running your home brings as much low level stress as the threat of hurricanes. None of these are unrelated- they all overlap and intertwine, but those are the three key words that we tend to use.

LL: What makes green, sustainable design different than traditional design?

PW: There are a number of layers to it. I think a lot of it is global citizenship, which is understanding the impact that you as an individual and as a family are having on your localized environment as well as a larger environment. Educating yourself and choosing the types of products that mitigate your own impact an be very liberating. Reducing your water use, not purchasing products out of industries that either have negative ecological footprint or that have high energy usage (embodied energy) in the production of the materials so large that it is not enough to offset their application are all components.

It’s also on the micro scale about building things into a lifestyle that support your philosophy of living. And that can be specific to trying to close your cycle – eating locally, supporting local manufacturers, supporting local initiatives and food producers and all of the rest of it. Taking a serious look at your lifestyle and trying to live within a scale that is comfortable to you but doesn’t compromise your goals so that you’re not using unnecessary resources but you’re still comfortable.

LL: In New Orleans, we have a definite shotgun architecture aesthetic and a lot of the green building is very angled and modern. Is there a way to combine those two different architectural styles? A way to take the history of building practices here and weave them into green building?

PW: At the basis of green building is incorporating passive design features that are no or low-tech such as siting and shaping the house for natural ventilation or other solutions that bring good practice into the design to begin with. If you don’t take the approach that you are working with the elements of the site as opposed to against them, and instead rely on multiple layers of mechanical and other types of technologies, then you are not taking control over your environment.

For example, you can avoid heat gain by not creating too much exposure through shading strategies including trees, shutters, overhangs, etc. Katrina has given homeowners in this area an opportunity to look at the bones of their houses in order to understand how they work. In past generations the way people lived in our houses was seasonal, and they know how to use the high windows, porches, breezes for their comfort. This art of living has been lost to us.

Our historic building stock is the greenest resource that we have because the energy that it takes to extract, transport and produce building material is already embedded in the house. Reworking an existing building, or reusing materials that are already on site is your greenest option. When you look at historic houses they incorporate excellent passive strategies that are all the rage in green building. Rainwater capture systems, high ceilings and transoms for natural ventilation, overhangs. The challenge for homeowners with historic houses, and I am one of them, is to understand and build on these features.

The shotgun design was focused around allowing breezes to pass through the building in order to create a greater level of comfort for the inhabitants. You can take the same approach with a modern building. Incorporating green building features is usually the same as taking a common sense approach. It comes down to personal choice to whether it looks more or less invasive or modern.

LL: Are there three things that a homeowner can do to make their home more energy efficient?

PW: The number one thing is to do a survey of your house and find out where you’re losing your conditioned air. So, if it’s cracks, if it’s windows that aren’t seated correctly, if it’s holes that were drilled for plumbing or other features that aren’t being used or haven’t been patched up, if you are running a leaky duct work system through an unconditioned attic space- all these things are major contributors to unnecessary energy usage in our houses. And they increase the cost of living. The purpose of green building practice is to implement common sense practice in a way that makes the houses are more affordable to run.

The second thing is stopping the heat from coming in the house in the first place. You can do that with a radiant barrier in your attic or in your walls. Or doing what they called a conditioned attic by closing your attic and insulating just below the roof line, so that your duct work and everything is within a cooler space. You can significantly impact heat gain through overhangs, shutters and trees that are shading the outside of your building so you are not getting direct heat.

The third one is a trade off between upgrading your mechanical equipment [but there’s no point in doing that unless you are going to do the first two.] and thinking about the materials you are choosing to put in your house. Aesthetics are important, but anything that has to be replaced frequently or is contributing to asthma or other respiratory or health issues in the family needs to be rethought.

LL: What has been the local government’s response to your work and green building in general?

PW: The benefit of the extensive planning process that the city has undergone since the storm has been that there has been time through public education and self education for the home owners, the citizens of the city, to come through with a strong voice that they want to see sustainable rebuilding practice in the city because they believe it really affects the viability of the community and the health of their families. And it addresses all of those health, safety and durability issues that really without those, people don’t have that much of an incentive to rebuild.

From the city, there has been a top-down response to this growing demand and through that we now have the city council considering comprehensive green energy policy for the city. We have the mayor announcing the greening of New Orleans/ greenola program. And we have Home Builders Association and other trade groups who are specifically going through an education process and incentive process with their tradesman that will increase the use of best practice. So, the market has been established. Now, it’s a question of getting the resources and incentives in place, including more public education and really concrete examples of projects that people can relate to and learn from while they are making decisions about what they want to do with their own property.

LL: Your answer leads right into my question about the green corridor and the eco design industrial park. What is that and how are you involved?

PW: The eco design industrial park has morphed a lot since it started. Originally, it was specific to one semi-industrial zone. It’s now more of a conceptual and organizing entity which works with economic development and the Louisiana Clean Tech Network, Alliance for Affordable Energy and other groups to identify incoming or potential manufacturers of green building products and sustainable energy products/renewable energy products.

The idea behind it is that Louisiana has a wealth of agricultural and other resources that can be used to make the products that the market is demanding for their “green” rebuilding and building projects. We can interrupt our own waste stream, bring other resources from the whole environment of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast to create our own materials that we need for the rebuilding process while offering workforce development and high quality jobs. The intention is to build a new, progressive economic base that captures the long term potential of this rebuilding process for the state and for the city.

LL: Now for some more specific question about you and the firm. Are you from here? What’s your background?

PW: I am from DC. I moved here in 1988 and I did my first architecture degree at Tulane. I completed a Masters of Architecture at Tulane and then started working with historic building stock, either in straight renovations or as adaptive reuse. In 1997, I went to work at a zero energy building engineering consultancy in London to learn the other end of the market, specifically because I was interested in more progressive approaches towards building.

One of the things you learn working with old buildings is that they were for the most part very cleverly designed. Because energy is cheap, we’ve forgotten a lot of the tricks. I wanted to try to see what passive or low-tech solutions could be brought back in to the modern design process to address the strong demands we have on energy use. Through that I started my education in green building practice through more of an engineering perspective, and realized I had a lot to learn!. So I went back and did another Master’s in Advanced Energy and Environmental Studies which concentrated on how to understand those ideas at their core and take them into an urban scale.

LL: Was that at Tulane as well?

PW: No, it’s at the Center for Alternative Technology in Wales. As I was starting that, I wanted to come back to the States because I really saw this split as there were some things the US did much better – net-metering, some of the technologies we have available with photovoltaics and things like that. In Europe, they had different levels of products. For instance, windows were highly developed. And I started FutureProof to blend the best of different approaches. And start to do it on a larger scale, a developer scale in the States.

LL: I saw that the mission for you company on your website was “to create beautiful, safe, healthy, and resource-efficient buildings that are in harmony with their inhabitants and the environment.” It’s interesting what you say about the cleverness in the design of old buildings because I was at my desk listening to the first installment of the Monticello Dialogues with William McDonough while I was preparing for this interview . So, what do you think about the Cradle-to-Cradle design perspective?

PW: I think it’s a natural and obvious approach…again it’s a theory and application that has been incorporated historically in many types of product development. Through cheaper and cheaper resources, transportation and the ability to get sourcing from larger distances, we’ve lost that need to retain value in a product once it’s fulfilled its natural life cycle. So to me, it’s just going back to best practices. And technologically, it’s a challenge for us. There is this whole concept of living lightly on the earth and this fits very much into that. You should be able to have both a strong and durable product and should the circumstances in which it was initially created change, it should be able to be removed in such a manner that it can be reused whole or broken into its component parts for reuse.