Green Building Interview with Alan Abrams of Abrams Design Build
A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to interview Alan Abrams, CEO and lead designer of Abrams Design Build, a design firm that emphasizes sustainable building practices. If alternative home building and green design are topics that interest you then the following interview may be intriguing for you:
Q: What sparked your interest in alternative home building?
A: The roots go back to my days in New Mexico, during the 70’s. I bought a piece of land on the bank of the Rio Grande. By lantern light in the tent I sketched the plan for my first house on the flyleaf of Ken Kern’s “The Owner Built Home.” The house was a tiny, free-form adobe home that I built almost entirely by myself.
A: I specialize in residential remodeling and home building. I am the lead designer on all projects. My design philosophy is based on responding to nature - sunlight, breezes, rain and snow. The geometry of the plans often derives from passive solar principles, which sometimes results in non-orthogonal footprints, and large south facing windows with tuned overhangs. I emphasize the use of natural materials, and man-made materials used in a direct manner. I incorporate best practices for energy efficiency, based on manuals such as EEBA, as well as personal experience. I also incorporate methods for water management, both within the home (like dual flush toilets, foot controls for the kitchen sink and meticulous rainscreen detailing) and outside the home (such as stormwater management methods like green roofs, porous pavement, and rain gardens.)
Q: What steps have you taken in your professional and/or personal life that are related to alternative home building?
A: Please see my website for a case study of my home.
I also devote at least a quarter of my time to promoting green building and educating the public. For example, I was part of a team of instructors at the EnviroCenter, in Jessup MD; the program was on green remodeling. I’ve made numerous presentations on green building to local communities and civic organizations.
I’ve worked on numerous committees at the local and national level, promoting green building and working on policy. In 2003, I conceived of ramrodding a resolution in support of green building adopted by AIBD. I also recently participated on the site subcommittee of a joint of ANSI and GBI, to develop a national standard for green building. I’m also training my staff; several members are now participating in the NARI green building training program.
Q: How do you go about meeting or networking with other people interested in alternative home building?
A: In addition to the groups mentioned above, one of the most valuable and stimulating resources is the green building listserve—an international place to chat with architects, engineers, builders, and building owners on every imaginable subject. See: http://repp.org/discussiongroups/index.html
Q: Where do you get new information about alternative home building? (websites, publications, etc.)
A: Among other publications, I subscribe to Environmental Building News.
Q: What other companies or individuals do you look towards as being leaders in this field?
A: Bill Hutchins, AIA, Stan Serson, RA of the Envirocenter.
Q: What changes have you seen in the field since getting started in it?
A: It’s no longer a hard sell; some clients are actually pushing me farther toward sustainability. I don’t have to argue so hard with staff and subs; vendors are now coming to me with better products. It’s quite a relief!
Q: Do you feel that alternative home building is cost-efficient?
A: People ask me, “apples to apples, how much more is green going to cost me?” I teach that when we understand the principles of green building, and adopt a mindset of sustainability, we no longer are comparing apples to apples; we’re developing a fruit salad. We reprioritize, and maybe in the end come up with a project that is less costly than what we would have created using more conventional assumption.
Q: How do you feel that alternatively built homes compare in performance with other homes (meaning are the foundations, the longevity of the home, the comfort of the home comparable and how so or how not?)
A: A great part of green building involves focus on durability, particularly with regard to water and water vapor management. A green home should last far longer, and require less maintenance, than a conventional home.
Q: What are the biggest benefits of alternative home building?
Aside from energy efficiency, and a healthy indoor environment, what I find is that as we respond directly to nature, and use natural materials, natural elements, like the wind and sun, we create profoundly beautiful space, very sensual, even spiritual space. That to me is sufficient reason in itself, to build green.
Q: What warnings or advice can you offer to individuals who are interested in buying or building an alternative home but who are just getting started in the process?
Learn the principles up front, and incorporate them into your design organically. For any substantial project, create a team approach at the earliest stage of design, including at a minimum, the building designer, landscape designer, builder, mechanical sub, and energy specialist. Green is not something you can add after the design is substantially complete.
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