Innovative architect says 'most clients want green'

Exterior of modern home designed by Frits de Vries Architect Ltd.

'We let them know what will give them the best value, the highest impact'

In the early 1970s, working on his architectural thesis in Holland, a young Frits de Vries was inspired by a book that viewed cities as living things, likening human activity to an ecological system. So when he founded his own firm in Vancouver in 1985, de Vries began to implement some of his ecologically inspired plans and designs.

Today, Frits de Vries Architect Ltd. is an award-winning leader in green building design, with an honorable mention for green building from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and a 2010 SAM award for Greenest Home of the Year from the Canadian Homebuilders Association. The firm built the first home in western Canada to achieve LEED Platinum certification.

Home buyer market shifting to green

The majority of the firm's work is focused on single-family homes. And Patrick Warren, an associate with the firm, says most of their clients want to have a conversation about green. "Most clients see some merit in a higher performance envelope. We let them know what will give them the best value and the highest impact. They can get on board with high performance if they find the eco-friendly argument a harder sell," he says.

The good news for the average homeowner is that for very little money, they can increase the performance of their home, particularly by making use of Power Smart New Home Program incentives to reduce costs. Warren points to products such as LEDs or vinyl windows that are coming down in price.

"The middle ground is starting to disappear," he says. "For spec homes or builder homes the costs are coming down for high performance products, but for custom projects the costs are going up. This is because modern, custom homes can no longer use many inefficient commercial-grade products that they would have used in the past. This is positive in that the performance expectations have gone up, but it presents a new challenge to the homebuilder who wants a custom contemporary home."

Warren finds most clients are receptive to relatively simple add-ons to mechanical systems, such as heat recovery ventilators and heat pumps. "The overall architecture isn't affected by these systems," he says. "Energy efficient windows can be more challenging to sell because the aesthetic could be compromised and there could be a significant cost increase."

Into the future: testing shared heating

Many of de Vries' clients are already ahead of the shift to green building, like Nick Kerchum of Natural Balance Homes. In addition to high performance in their homes and laneway houses, they've been asking for green roofs, and food gardens in their yards. So what's next in the field of green building?

"Shared alternative heating," says Warren. "It's already being done in Europe."

One of de Vries' clients is piloting the model to test its feasibility. He has installed a shallow geothermal field under the street and plans to share the energy with his neighbours.

"Streets are dark and hot, perfect for charging the thermal mass of the ground with heat for geothermal," says Warren. "The same shared system could be applied using solar or methane gas recovery. Sharing resources makes sense on a larger scale and makes it affordable for the individual homeowner."

Warren says Frits de Vries Architect has two reasons for building green.

"The building industry is a huge energy consumer," he says. "We feel it's our responsibility to help deal with those environmental challenges. But from a purely pragmatic perspective, a high performance home is more energy efficient, more comfortable and costs less to run."