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Architectural team takes a ‘sensibly green’ approach to building design

CHARLESTOWN — Megan Moynihan and Andrew Baer are developing strategies for designing buildings that can better withstand the threats posed by climate change.

Moynihan, an architect, and Baer, a project manager, are a husband and wife team who moved to Charlestown from Manhattan to live in Baer’s family summer house on a nearby salt pond. They co-founded the Oyster Works design firm in 2008, and have since been recognized for projects such as the Charlestown Wine and Spirits package store on Old Post Road, with its geothermal heating and cooling system and other energy-saving features.

In the small, open space inside a building on Old Post Road that was once Charlestown’s one-room school house, the couple designs and builds residential and commercial buildings that are not only environmentally sustainable, but produce real savings in operating and maintenance costs. Moynihan and Baer call their approach “sensibly green.”

“We want the measures that are taken to improve energy efficiency to provide a return on investment,” Baer said.

Models of several proposed buildings sit on tables throughout the room. One is a daycare center and another is the new home of the Tomaquag Museum, the location of which has yet to be determined. There are also a couple of houses. One, to be built in a zone prone to storm surge, is elevated far off the ground.

“The top of the first floor is 19 feet above the base flood elevation,” Moynihan said, noting that with municipal zoning regulations limiting the height of the building to 35 feet, designing this home was a challenge.

“How do you make a two story building look nice and still look beautiful in the context of all these pitched and gables roofs, when, as you can see, they don’t have height to have a two story building and a gabled roof,” she said.

In addition to incorporating more conventional mitigation measures such as elevating buildings off the ground, Moynihan and Baer also focus their attention on a lesser-known but equally important measure: helping water-soaked buildings breathe.

Problems occur during heavy rainstorms, when water soaks a building, but is prevented from running out. To make matters worse, building materials such as paper-backed sheet rock encourage the growth of mold, a common and dangerous problem that can cost thousands to remove.

“What we’re really looking a lot at is how you can build with materials that when they do get wet, they can dry out without creating either structural damage or unhealthy conditions in a house, which we see a lot,” Baer said.

Believing that trying to completely waterproof a building is futile, Oyster Works uses a technique called a “rain screen system,” a breathing wall that lessens the damage from water entering a building by giving it some place to go back out.

“It’s going to get through. It’s a simple fact. The force of the rain, the capillary action, the pressure differential is going to pull water into the building,” Baer said. “A rain screen system basically recognizes that, and creates a cavity behind the siding, before the wall, so that when the water gets in, it drains out… It’s something that we feel is important, so we’re incorporating this in all the buildings that we’re doing around here.”

Oyster Works also uses landscape architecture techniques that improve storm water drainage and help prevent erosion.

“I think how we deal with the landscape can really help mitigate the damage caused by climate change, especially with rising sea levels and these catastrophic storms,” Baer said. “Where we see an opportunity to do that, we really embrace it. It’s cost-effective over the long term, because you’re not constantly battling having your shoreline disappear.”

At the new YMCA sailing center at Camp Fuller in South Kingstown, the firm will restore the badly-eroded shoreline using plants such as native grasses to help stabilize it.

“It’s not simply decorative, but it’s meant to be restorative in that we will, over time, get rid of the invasive species, bring back native non-invasive species and stop the erosion,” Baer said. “This will help stabilize the shoreline, and by controlling the storm water, we will again be stabilizing the shoreline, because we will be reducing the runoff.”

Moynihan noted that the addition of designated pathways would reduce foot traffic in other erosion-prone areas.

“We’ve connected the buildings with a series of either wooden or gravel pathways that will keep campers more on the path and less on the ground surrounding it, so less erosion,” she said.

The sailing center has been elevated to nearly 14 feet above base flood elevation. Also incorporated in the design are foundations that will allow flood waters to pass underneath without hitting and damaging the buildings. Construction is expected to begin in the fall.

Moynihan and Baer traveled to Florida and New Orleans to see how those flood-prone areas had modified their building codes and practices to produce buildings that would better withstand storms and flooding. They have incorporated many of those building practices into their Rhode Island projects, all of which are now designed with climate change in mind.

“We understand there’s the chronic effects of sea level rise, then there’s the effects of the catastrophic storms, so we get it,” Baer said.


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