My Journey to Sustainable and Resilient Design

Design-Build Personal Profile

My Journey to Sustainable and Resilient Design

architect Nathan Kipnis and his journey to sustainable and resilient design

By Nathan Kipnis, FAIA

My Journey to Sustainable and Resilient Design

I knew I wanted to be an architect when I was six years old. I can thank Lincoln Logs and Legos for that! A little later, as a young kid, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and ensuing Middle East oil embargo opened my eyes about America’s dependence on foreign oil. I felt that designing energy-efficient buildings would help decrease our reliance on that volatile energy source.

I chose to go to the University of Colorado at Boulder because of its highly renowned solar architecture program. Just being in Boulder taught me a lot about how a community could live sustainably.

For my graduate studies, I attended Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, Arizona, which is recognized internationally for its solar and energy-conscious architectural design. I graduated with a Master of Architecture degree with an emphasis in energy-conscious design.

I started my firm in 1993, but it took a while to establish our credentials for sustainable design. One of my greatest challenges early on was convincing clients to let me push the envelope with what I wanted to do with “green” design. With the recent explosion of interest in sustainable design, I now actually have the opposite problem. I have people coming to me with so manyeco ideas for their projects that I need to prioritize their goals and select the one that are most appropriate for their project goals, location and budget.

Over time my firm has developed a solid reputation in Chicago and beyond for our sustainable portfolio of work. However, we had trouble reaching beyond a certain construction value on projects. I was invited to attend the Goldman Sachs 10K Small Business program in Chicago. It is a 16 week business program designed to focus on how to grow your business. In my case, I wanted to see how I could attract more clients at the highest level of construction.

What I decided to do was to focus not only on sustainable design but also on resiliently designed homes. Resilient design is the ability for a building or community to withstand natural or man-made disasters and quickly recover.

The concept I came up with was to assemble a team consisting of an architect, general contractor, interior designer, landscape architect and technology designer. This would be the ‘best of the best’. If anyone was interested in doing a sustainable or resiliently designed home, we would be at the top of the list. And the ‘pain point’ that we wanted to eliminate was the number of interviews that are required to assemble a team like that. Generally, you are looking at three or four interviews for each part of the team, meaning about 20 interviews. With NextHaus Alliance, it would be one interview with one dream team.





Nathan Kipnis

“It is an exciting time to be designing sustainable and resilient residences”
-Nathan Kipnis, FAIA

We also wanted to focus on a slightly younger client. The reason for this was that they would have a better understanding of why one would want to have a sustainable home. Additionally, it is more likely that this would be their first project and so they wouldn’t need to bring in their own team members.

There are many reasons for wanting to design these larger, sustainable homes. Homes at this level are generally not thought of as sustainable. They are ‘too big’ or the people that own them don’t care. My thought is that just because you have the ability to do a home like this doesn’t get you off the hook for making it sustainable and having a very low carbon footprint. In fact, it makes no sense for you to not do this. The resale on a home that ignores its responsibility to have a low carbon footprint is going to get worse and worse, and very quickly.

One of the main concepts we incorporate when we design these homes is to have the mechanical system as modular and smart as possible to allow it to function as efficiently as possible. To fully decarbonize, the homes are all electric without a natural gas line connection. We integrate as much on-site renewable energy as possible. The interiors use healthy materials and mechanical systems.

The HVAC systems we like to use in particular are mini-split electric heat pumps. These are getting to be more and more common. They essentially ‘move’ heat and cooling more so than producing it. They function as an air conditioner but work in both directions. Mitsubishi’s system works down to -20 degree F.

From a home automation standpoint, we want the homes to provide easy control and feedback. I really like how ‘geofencing’ can work for us. Geofencing is enabled for the thermostats, so along with time-of-day setbacks, the temperature is allowed to float when everyone in the house is further than the geofence radius, and the system is reset to the standard comfort level when you pass back into the radius.

My definition of sustainable should be in balance with the environment. To me, the term ‘green’ just meant being ‘less bad’. Sustainable is moving beyond that. The ultimate goal is to be ‘restorative’, where the building is providing positive benefits to the environment. That can produce more energy than it uses, collecting more water than it uses, cleaning the air beyond what the house is putting out, etc.

It is an exciting time to be designing sustainable and resilient residences. Let me share some other thoughts on the topic, including the AIA’s 2030 Commitment and our team at the NextHaus Alliance.