Chris Briley is a practitioner of what he calls "architecture for life", or the idea that architecture should be beautiful, timeless, sustainable, and in harmony with its surroundings. He's the principal architect at the Yarmouth, Maine-based Green Design Studio and a prominent figure in the Maine green building scene. He is LEED accredited and built the first LEED Gold certified home in New England. He helped start the Maine chapter of the US Green Building Council and is a host of the Green Architects' Lounge, a popular podcast the focuses on environmentally friendly design.
Chris graduated from Ball State University in 1994 with degrees in architecture and environmental design and quickly went to work helping design a new manufacturing facility for Tom's of Maine as well as O'Naturals restaurant (now Stoneyfield Cafe), a local green-leaning favorite. He designed the Harmony House, a beautifully built home that was featured in Fine Homebuilding's Houses issue.
I first met Chris a few years ago when I hired him to design a green housing development that got waylaid by the sagging real estate market. I loved his enthusiasm and passion for green design and thought he was a pretty cool guy to boot.
Here are seven questions answered by my friend and green architect Chris Briley.
What's the coolest project you're working on right now?
Currently, I’m working on a Passivhaus in Saco. For those who are not familiar with the passivhaus standard, it is house whose energy demand is so low that it does not need a boiler, or furnace. On the coldest day here in Maine (and they can get very cold) you would need about as much energy as the output of a hair dryer, or the body heat of a nice-sized dinner party. The most exciting part, is having a client who is very knowledgeable and committed to meeting this stringent standard and eager to share his knowledge and experience with others. My client, himself, is starting a blog and he plans to maintain it throughout the design and construction process, and even beyond, through the first years of living in the Home.
Do most of your clients come to you ready to build green or do you find yourself educating them on greener directions to take?
I have the best clients. I’m not just pandering to my clientele here. I’m truly lucky. By the time they have walked through the doors of the my office, the Green Design Studio, they have already taken the most important step. They’ve decided that’s it’s important, even smart, to build to a greener standard than what they can ordinarily find on the market. They are great students and very thoughtful people, eager to learn more, explore options, and invest wisely in their home. So, yes, they are ready, and also yes I do find myself educating them on how to build a greener home.
What advice would you give a young architect interested in taking the greener path?
Seek advice, because there is always a smarter greener way to do things. I’ve learned fantastic things from mentors, colleuges, clients, builders, and quirky old guys who tinker with their houses. Also, keep your passion. The status quo has immense inertia, and it takes tremendous force to budge it towards a more sustainable direction. At times it will be daunting, tiring, and frustrating. It is one’s passion for this stuff that makes one step back square up and put your shoulder hard against it again.
What's the difference between green and greener?
Green is what you just did. Greener is what you’re about to do.
Does the world need saving?
You bet it does. It’s the only one we have. I don’t think it takes a politician making a full feature movie to make people realize the trouble we are in anymore. Right about the same time our planet’s population reaches 9 billion, we will be running out of cheap oil. Throw in the projected climate crisis and that’s going to be a real rough patch, and it will be in my daughters’ life time! No one likes, hearing bad news, being told to be more responsible, or sit through a preachy paragraph like this one, but we’re on the brink of a serious culture shift. We can shift it on our terms, or we can wait and shift out of desperation later.
Who is one person doing good in the world (besides yourself) who we should know about and why?
That is a really good question. I feel like, later I’ll think of another name that I should have said, or even another later than that. Right now, because we’re talking about architecture I really want to say Nader Kahlili. Sadly he died in 2008 but his son and daughter are carrying on his work. He was an American, but born in Iran, where he returned earlier in his career to help a town rebuild after being devastated by a series of earthquakes. He was determined to find an archetype that could be native to the region, cheap, handmade, strong, and beautiful. He realized that one of the structures that seemed unharmed by the earthquakes was the structure in which bricks fired. The building itself was a kiln. Through the kiln firing process the building, which was itself a brick dome, fused together to form one solid dome structure. He realized that what the people of this region had in abundance, was the earth and clay to make bricks. All they needed was a lesson in building masonry domes (a science that is ancient and that the Persians could even claim as their own). Soon the town was being rebuilt, by the people themselves with beautiful dome structures, that were sealed, fired, and then truly lived in.
He was later approached by NASA in the eighties to develop housing for Lunar residents. Could he apply his same creative logic to the lunar landscape? Could he use what was found on the moon to construct housing for astronauts that arrived for an extended stay? He came up with a sand bag system. The astronauts could bring a sand bagging machine and large light, empty high-tech fabric tubes. In the low gravity the astronauts could make lots of moon dust sandbag tubes, and coil them into domes, then inflate an airtight “balloon” structure inside. The thick lunar dome would protect the inflated structure from the extreme temperatures, and the shape and material of the domes could flex with ease, but without strain or failure. Best of all, most of the material was already on the moon waiting for the astronauts to arrive.
But here’s the best part, Nader Kahlili walked away thinking. We could do that here on earth! And he founded the California Institute of earth art where he taught (and where others are still teaching) not only how to build by hand beautiful sand bag houses that are literally dirt cheap, but his philosophy of ethical architecture.
(Shea's note: I asked Chris to come up with and answer his own question here) How much more does a ‘Green’ house cost than a ‘Non-Green’ house?
I get some form of this question a lot, and it’s very difficult to answer (and frankly, it drives me crazy, so I offer it as the question in the hopes of getting the answer ‘out there’ for others.) It’s like asking how much more is a fuel efficient car than a regular car. It varies widely based on one’s definition of fuel “efficient” as well as all of the other variables that contribute to a car’s value.
To answer this question for someone requires a long conversation in order to get an understanding for the type of home one is talking about. If the home is to be a ‘Net-Zero’ or ‘Passivhaus’ the increase in upfront cost could be substantial. (But of course, so will the savings during occupancy) If one is just trying to save 30% on energy consumption (over a code compliant house) with environmentally friendly materials, then it depends on houses being compared. If you’re comparing it to a custom-built and designed home the cost increase would be almost negligible. If you were comparing it to a big-vinyl-box type of home that you’d see in a spec subdivision, the cost could be 25 to 50% more.
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