Sustainable design

Architect Hyland Fisher has a passion for designing eco-friendly buildings

Green architect Hyland Fisher

Green architect Hyland Fisher

photo by christine g.k. lapado

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Hyland Fisher can be reached by calling 263-8666 or emailing Go to to learn more.

Green architect Hyland Fisher originally went to school in Detroit—the Motor City—to study transportation design. “I thought I wanted to design cars,” said Fisher. “Turns out, I don’t really like cars that much. I found out you could be stuck just designing door handles. And I wasn’t passionate enough about cars to just be designing door handles.”

Fisher, who is also a mountain-bike racer, currently drives “the least car-like car there is—a Prius,” which fits right in with his commitment to sustainability.

The friendly 38-year-old Fisher got his architect license two years ago, after working in the architecture industry doing drafting and drawing for 12 years after leaving Michigan. Three years ago, he and his wife moved to Chico from Nevada City, where he worked under three architects who practiced sustainable architecture.

Fisher discovered the field of sustainable architecture while completing a bachelor’s degree, post-Detroit, in 2000 in applied design with a minor in architecture at Portland State University. While in Portland, Fisher interned with the Portland Energy Office (now the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability), and helped design a house constructed from cob, an eco-friendly building material that is similar to adobe.

He has done a number of residential and business green-building designs and “redesigns"—remodels—such as the work he did on a home in the foothills near Auburn. One of the welcome features he incorporated into the house was a roof for shade over a previously unusable west-facing porch and a trellis shade-structure over the south-facing windows. Fisher’s use of 3D computer renderings of his projects allows him to “confirm what a place looks like at, say, 3 p.m. during the summer equinox.”

Here in Chico, Fisher recently worked on a green home remodel, adding cost-efficient elements such as reflective-backed roof sheeting—"plywood on trusses"—to “reflect back some of the heat so that the attic doesn’t heat up as much” in the hot Chico-summer months.

“In a ‘normal’ house, at night, the attic continues to heat up after the sun goes down,” Fisher pointed out. “And it heats up during the day as the sun beats down. If you can limit the attic from heating up, then you can make the house more comfortable and reduce your energy use.”

A 3D computer rendering of the shading features Fisher incorporated into a Sierra Nevada foothills remodel.

Fisher is also a big fan of passive ventilation, especially in two-story homes. “There’s nothing magical about it,” he said. “If you open doors on the bottom floor of the house, and open windows on the second floor, the warm air [in the house] rises and escapes out the top floor. It creates a vacuum and brings in cool air from [the open doors] down below.”

Add an energy-efficient whole-house fan, which mounts to the ceiling in a central location inside a home, and you’re really in business. “A whole-house fan is great because as it gets cooler outside than it is inside, you turn on the fan and it quickly evacuates the hot air from inside the house,” said Fisher. “It brings in cold air from the outside through the house, pushes it into the attic and pushes the hot air out of the attic.”

Most conventional air-conditioning systems “draw air from inside the house and pump it back into the house, cold,” said Fisher. “You’re recycling the same air.” That might be all right if it’s, say, 100 degrees outside and 75 degrees inside, he said. “But, say it’s 80 degrees inside and only 70 degrees outside—it’s not efficient to cool the air inside your house. Bring the cooler air in from outside—it’s a lot more energy-efficient than cooling air and pumping it back into your house!”

Of late, Fisher—who is a LEED-accredited Green Associate—has been collaborating with local green-building contractor Robin Trenda, owner of Chico Green Builders. He and Trenda currently are at work designing an eco-friendly home in Butte Creek Canyon.

“I am doing the construction documents right now,” said Fisher. The canyon site “can’t take advantage of passive-solar design in terms of heating,” so Trenda and Fisher are instead “using techniques to reduce the cooling load, such as shading windows and doors with roof overhangs and shading devices.” The pair is also employing advanced framing—a “higher-evolved framing method that uses less resources and allows more room for insulation” and the house will be “earth-bermed.” Berming a house involves building a section of it into a hillside in order to reduce heat loss and keep the house cool and at a consistent temperature without air-conditioning.

“At a certain depth, the ground stays at a certain temperature, which is in the 50s,” Fisher said. “But you have to be careful to waterproof everything—the walls, the floor.”

“The biggest thing you can do [when building a new green home] is site your house considering the orientation of the sun,” offered Fisher. “You don’t want any big, west-facing windows that will let in too much late-afternoon sun, and you want limited windows on the north side, because you’re only getting reflective light from the north—no solar gain.” A limited amount of north-facing windows also allows for less heat-escape in the wintertime, he said. On the contrary, “a big window facing south heats up the house in winter,” as the sun, which is low in the sky at that time passes by the window for much of the day and shines in plenty of warmth and light; “properly calculated” protective overhangs on south-facing windows shield that side of the house from scorching heat when the summer sun is higher in the sky.

Fisher pointed out that he does not simply design a conventional building and then add green features to it; rather, a completed green building “starts from the very kernel of the design. And that not only includes the sustainable elements, but also the ‘regular’ things as well.

“The critical thing about sustainability is you want to incorporate … passive solar and energy efficiency, for example, but it has to be low-maintenance, last a long time and perform well, just like any other building.” For instance, it cannot leak. If it does not perform up to the level of a conventionally designed building, “you’d have a dysfunctional green home,” Fisher said.