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Sigi Koko

Hay Is for Houses

Sigi Koko has seen an upward trend in her business in recent times. As an architect, she designs buildings that use natural and sustainable materials and techniques and educates people on it through seminars and workshops. The first couple years, she found people interested in sustainable architecture, but they didn't know much about it and were skeptical. "In the last two years, I've seen an absolute explosion," she reports. She notices that more people attend her seminars, "and the questions are completely different from what they used to be." Before, they covered more of a global, overall scale. "Now they're specific questions, which is really exciting to me."

Getting down to nuts and bolts like this may signify a trend that society is embracing environmental measures more when it comes to buildings -- indeed, the green building movement has gained momentum. It also provides validation to a career that started at an early age in conventional fashion but slowly veered off the beaten path into an entrepreneurial niche focusing on sustainability. Now Koko finds herself in the right place at the right time.

At the age of seven, the 36-year-old Koko, who comes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, saw a picture of a building designed by Antonio Gaudi, the famous Spanish architect. "I was emotionally moved by it," she recalls. "I knew right then and there that's what I wanted to do, make buildings that move people." She went on to get a B.A. from Bucknell University with a major in fine arts and a minor in mathematics and later a masters in architecture from the University of Texas with a concentration in environmentally conscious design and minors in Japanese architecture and intaglio printing.

Rather than launch immediately into a career in architecture, Koko opted for more education, but this time on the practical side. "When I got out of grad school, I felt I didn't have a good concept of how buildings actually got put together. So I went and built houses for a couple years just to get a better understanding," she says. She worked for a contractor initially and then started a construction and carpentry business with a partner.

After two years of learning construction, Koko went to work as a designer for Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (HOK), a large international architecture firm headquartered in St. Louis, working out of its Washington, D.C. office. "I had always been interested in the application of environmentally friendly issues as they relate to buildings, and at that time, there were few firms doing sustainable architecture," she explains. HOK was one of them.

At HOK, Koko prepared and integrated sustainability elements into the firm's design and construction documentation. She developed HOK's interactive Healthy and Sustainable Building Materials Database and researched building products and general issues with respect to environmental and health impacts.

This made Koko happy but not totally fulfilled, as she only worked on environmental architecture part time. "I wanted more in-depth, pure sustainable design. That's all I wanted to do." Also, big firms like HOK concentrate on big buildings and don't handle smaller structures like houses. "That was a huge interest of mine." So she left HOK in 1998 to start her own firm Down to Earth in Arlington, Virginia.

Covering the mid-Atlantic region, Koko designs natural, healthy, and sustainable residential and commercial buildings, specializing in strawbale construction and passive solar design, energy and water efficiency, and waste management. Clients include government agencies, non-profit organizations, universities, other architects, developers, builders, and building owners.

Part of her work comes from HOK in providing firm-wide environmental architectural specifications. She also consulted on building materials, construction recycling, and building waste management for the Montgomery Park Business Center in Baltimore and served as project architect for the Walker Nature Education Center in Reston, Virginia. Other projects have included the East Stroudsburg University Alumni Center in Pennsylvania and a city block urban development site in lower Manhattan. And she has designed several strawbale structures in the Washington-Baltimore area.

Strawbale has emerged as one of the more common techniques Koko employs. This uses bales of straw, left over stalks from grains such as wheat and oats that farmers must dispose of. Non-loadbearing construction uses an independent structural system such as standard post and beam with exterior walls consisting of strawbale infill, which must be protected by water-resistant but breathable finishes such as plasters.

Why use strawbale? "It's super duper insulating. It's readily available. It's a waste resource that often gets burned, which is a big pollution problem. So you're taking it out of that negative impact and giving it a positive life," Koko explains, adding, "The plasters are all either earth-based plasters or lime-based plasters. So those are also locally available, natural materials that are highly durable." The basics of strawbale infill construction are easy to learn and require no expensive tools. Koko even goes so far as to make her own paints for strawbale houses, the simplest being a lime paint, basically thinned out hydrated lime with an earth-based pigment like iron oxide added. If she uses lime plaster for strawbales, she takes the leftover lime plaster and adds water and pigment and strains it. "It's really easy."

Using techniques such as this, Koko has honed an approach she takes on projects. "I look at several factors. I look at locally available materials. If you drive around and look at older buildings, you can see what materials are local," she says. "The next thing I do is look for salvage material resources, and there's so much out there when you start looking. People take down barns left and right. You can get slate roofing; people don't know what to do with it. And then I look at climate issues." For example, stone is a poor insulator and doesn't work well in cold areas. "And then the client is a big factor. What are their esthetic goals? What are their ecological goals?"

Koko identifies building materials with the greatest potential for environmental sensitivity on a project and covers many aspects reflecting the entire life cycle, including recycled content, end-of-use recyclability, hazardous material content, ease and safety of installation, appearance, and relative cost. She provides information on natural building techniques, including strawbale, cob and adobe, rammed earth, cast earth, living roofs, natural finishes, biofiltration, and wastewater treatment marshes. She explores sustainable energy sources and recommends ways to maximize passive solar design and natural cooling and ventilation and identifies water conservation, reclamation, reuse, use-reduction, rainwater catchment, and stormwater management techniques.

In doing this, Koko works with energy and mechanical-electrical-plumbing (MEP) engineers, and she almost always uses a structural engineer on projects. She regularly calls on an energy consultant that specializes in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.

When it comes time for construction, Koko coordinates with contractors on natural building techniques and teaches crews these methods. She offers construction waste management and creates a tailored plan that minimizes waste generated during building occupancy and provides methods of reducing, reusing, recycling, and composting generated waste.

Not surprisingly, a critical part of Koko's work involves working with regulatory officials to obtain building permits for newfangled materials and techniques. "I actually have not found it to be a big problem. The approach I take is, I'm not there to fight them, I'm there as a resource to educate them," she reveals. This comes up often with strawbale construction and water issues such as using graywater recycling or waterless urinals. "I always try to show specifically how out-of-the-ordinary building techniques actually meet the building code."

As for converting contractors to sustainable building techniques, Koko says, "That's a much bigger problem." When she finds creative ones with an interest in environmental issues, "those types of builders actually get excited about these things. But the selection process can be a bit of a challenge."

Still, Koko sees sustainable architecture as being on the upswing. She thinks part of the recent explosion has to do with the U.S. Green Building Council launching its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. This gives people a concrete way of applying their interest and rating performance. "All of a sudden, people can talk about it in a different way." As part of the trend, Koko notices that different types of groups are sponsoring lecture series on environmental building. Now it's community level, and they invite legislators and people who create and apply building codes. All these signs point to a career that should continue to flourish as she improves the environmentally friendliness of our structures.

Progressive Engineer
Editor: Tom Gibson
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©2004 Progressive Engineer