Architecture of Sustainability

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday reports by John Morris Dixon, FAIA

National Conservation Training Center

The afternoon of Day 3, the conferees arrived at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia – a radical change of scene, a wooded campus set in a bucolic landscape – although suburban tracts are popping up along the nearby highway. Designed by SmithGroup and built of local stone and natural-finished wood, the buildings scattered on the NCTC campus look somehow ageless, maybe recycled. But in fact, they date from the late 1990s.
Mark Maves of SmithGroup’s Washington office briefed arriving attendees on the background of the complex. The place belongs to the national Fish and Wildlife Service, which needed a meeting/training place for people scattered in 700 field offices.

Conceived before there was LEED, the project was designed to “tread lightly on the land.” It also reflects the realization that an environmentally appealing campus would be an attractive conference site for other organizations that share environmental concerns. Meetings held here have included even Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

Panel: How Environmental Concerns Shape Design Philosophy

Gregory Mella of the SmithGroup launched the panel with the provocative title, Sustainable Design: An Oxymoron? He spoke of the widespread perception of sustainable design as being (1) more expensive and (2) ugly. Some of the energy-conscious design from period around 1980 must have supported this perception, with its strange geometries, dark glazing, and banks of photovoltaic cells.

Politicians reinforced this idea. Jimmy Carter, while advocating energy conservation (remember his cardigans, to compensate for lowered thermostats?) warned the public that energy conservation would involve sacrifices, including higher costs and inconveniences. Ronald Reagan reinforced the same perceptions, but told Americans that such sacrifices weren’t needed and that energy conservation could smother creativity.

Since that earlier wave of energy-conscious design, technology has reduced or eliminated some design obstacles. Glass can now provide excellent energy control without looking black; mechanical systems have become far more efficient.

How about the idea, heard repeatedly at this conference, that sustainability enables better design? Maves pointed out that many Pritzker-prize-winning architects of recent years are known for their energy-conserving design: Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, Thom Mayne, Herzog & DeMeuron, and Glenn Murcutt.

Panelist Peter Bohlin

Bohlin presented a visual survey Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s work over several decades. A Girl Scout Camp in Pennsylvania – one of the last of the solar demonstration projects from the Carter administration – from around 1980 featured 20-foot-high Trombe walls in a design that did not suffer for its environmental devices. A more recent building in California includes hay-bail walls and columns made from cylinders that are the by-products of pealing logs for plywood layers. The underground garage for a wealthy Northwesterner, while a lavish amenity, had a green roof and a cistern under its vast floor. On this same residential site, timber from a demolished mill was used for framing, and an old lakefront bulkhead was replaced by restored wetlands.

The firm was also architect for the Intelligent Workplace laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, where aspects of office design including environmental controls, lighting, and social interaction are studied. At the Pocono Environmental Education Center in Pennsylvania the north wall is made of recycled tires collected from the site and nearby places.

At the Seattle City Hall, the firm aimed for a LEED silver and actually earned Gold, using different shading strategies on different exposures and light shelves for daylight distribution. The Ballard Library, also in Seattle, was a 2006 Top Ten winner (see early blog entry). These two buildings have the first city-owned green roofs in Seattle.

Ralph Johnson of Perkins & Will

Johnson spoke about his firm’s focus on Integrated sustainable design, with the proposed Los Angeles Federal Courthouse as an example. He finds it effective to work with engineers who think like architects. The building has an active solar south side, a passive north side. The scheme is predicated on getting daylight into all of the courtrooms. A curved screen shading most of the south wall maximizes sun on solar collectors. It is set apart from the building wall, with the space between acting as a chimney to carry warmed air away from the wall. The biggest energy saving in the design came from the underfloor air supply system, an especially effective device in a building with many high-ceilinged spaces.

The firm’s plan for the University in Angola in Africa is meant to guide development over a long period. Based on climatic and solar conditions, the scheme lays out buildings to enhance natural air flow through narrow wings
Roofs are shaped to enhance natural air flow.

Mark Reddington of LMN Architects

Reddington’s example is a project now under construction on the Vancouver waterfront. The program calls for 1 million sq ft, enclosed , and 9 acres of open space. Included are an exhibit hall, a ballroom, meeting rooms, retail, and parking. The list of collaborating professionals on the job runs to about 50.

To be built on a former industrial site, the project has to eliminate or seal in much contamination. It’s required to provide an extension for a shoreline park and preserve view corridors to the harbor along major streets. An exhibit hall will extend over much of the site, with a layer of parking, and above these will be public open space and a planted roof – some of it accessible, all of it seen from nearby highrises. The roof is also folded and slotted so that its greenery can be viewed from the interior below.

Sea water will be used for cooling. The roof guttering system will make some areas wetter than others, and plants will be allowed to migrate and adjust to moister and light, yielding distribution patterns that reflect conditions. Irrigation for planted areas – needed only occasionally in summer – will be drawn from the black-water treatment system. Tidal growth will be restored to the water’s edge.

In making the building respond to circumstances, Reddington said, the design team “had to force themselves not to tweak forms just to please themselves.” (There’s a message for the fans of star-chitecture.) To him, making strong architecture is inseparable from making sustainable architecture.

The project is likely to earn LEED Gold. That goal emerged only late in the project’s design, but didn’t change what the team had done.

Joe Valerio of Valerio Dewalt Train

Valerio led us through the design of the Kresge Foundation Headquarters in Troy, Michigan. The Foundation, which provides vital aid to nonprofits nationwide – often so they can build – has operated from an old farmstead here for 20 years. For miles all around are suburban lawns and their “alter ego,” the asphalt parking lot. An early design decision was to reinvent a prairie landscape on the site. (You don’t have to be contextual if the context is bad.) The new two-story construction is embedded in this landscape, one story below grade and one above.

Sustainable strategies were discussed with the owners from the outset. The client wanted to know for each strategy what its impact would be on LEED rating and what it would cost. Valerio had to convinced them that environmental design isn’t that simple.

In response to sun, the long sides of the building face north and south. Water is managed so there is no runoff from the site. Water from the roofs replenishes on-site wetlands. Most plant materials are native and need minimal care. Retaining walls use a gambion system, mesh armatures filled with crushed debris from the site – plus donations of broken pavement and other waste materials from nearby properties.

Large areas of planted roof have an insulating and cooling effect. The source for 100 percent of mechanical heating and cooling is a grid of 40 geothermal wells, designed so that the subsurface heat they withdraw is balance by heat returned over the course of a year. Arup – a firm cited repeatedly at this conference – was consultant on the geothermal.

Inside, there are areas such as the staff entry where indoor conditions are only tempered, not held to office standards. Raised floors allow for efficient cooling and heating. The interiors have all custom-designed furniture, except for seating. They include lots of recycled material, only certified woods, and only milk-based paint. Some interior partitions have floor-to-ceiling glass, and some don’t, depending on circumstances. Although LEED calculations discourage floor-to-ceiling glass partitions, Arup’s calculations showed their actual effect to be minuscule.

Daniel Sibert, Foster & Partners

English perspectives on sustainable design were provided by the day’s final two speakers. Sibert opened with a view of Foster’s London studio, where almost 700 people work, mainly in a high undivided space overlooking the Thames. Here, he says, they design things ranging in size from the new Beijing Airport to a door handle – operating in 53 countries, with people from 50 countries working with them.

Quoting Foster himself as saying, “A sustainable future becomes a necessity, not a choice,” Sibert showed some green accomplishments: the Reichstag in Berlin, where geothermal produces energy not only for that building, but for others in the parliamentary district; the Thames footbridge, which enables pedestrian circulation where it wasn’t previously possible; the Canary Wharf underground station; the redesign of Trafalgar Square to favor pedestrians over cars.

He showed a chart comparing typical US buildings with typical European ones – operable sash vs. fixed glazing, shallow floor with daylight and views vs. deep floor plates, etc. – saying British practice was somewhere between the two. Sustainability is determined in part by legislation (strict in Germany and some other European countries) and culture (customary thermal comfort, daylight and views).

Commerzbank in Frankfurt (1997) was the firm’s first sustainable tower, a highrise with a radically reconsidered floor plan: triangular, with vertical cores at the outer corners and a full-height atrium at its core. Multistory “sky gardens” are distributed through the tower. The building is 80 percent naturally ventilated and uses only 50 percent of the energy of comparable buildings.

The Hearst Tower nearing completion in New York is the firm’s first green tower in the U.S. It is expected to be the first LEED Gold office tower in the city. Its triangulated frame greatly reduced the amount of structural steel. Natural ventilation is expected to be used 70 percent of the year. The small floor plate admits daylight to much of the interior. Sophisticated control systems will further reduce energy demand.

Andrew Whalley of Grimshaw

The Grimshaw firm, with offices in London, Melbourne, and New York, chose to present one remarkable work, the Eden Project in Cornwall. Starting with an old quarry, this botanical experimental garden has been proceeding in two phases, with an ultimate cost of $18-19 million. The initial proposal looked like a traditional greenhouse, but the demand for a more economical solution led to a unique design – using materials and techniques not available before. The design is based on two natural structures, the bubble and the honeycomb. The overall form is of spherical volumes, intersecting like adjoining bubbles. The membrane of the spheres is a hexagonal system, making possible a span of 300 feet using 1/8-inch tubes, covered with a translucent skin – an extraordinarily efficient system in terms of weight, embedded energy, and cost. Under the bubble shapes is a sunken space – using the quarry excavation. The mechanical system (worked out with Arup) shoots air into the space with hardly any ducts.

A similar facility in Northern England represents another stage of sophistication. Taking a cue from Victorian “pineapple sheds,” the project is designed to tap the heat of decomposition of organic waste to provide energy, while yielding useful compost. It is carbon-neutral.


A question from the floor: What is the sustainable solution turns out to be ugly? Bohlin responded that a change in perception might be in order. That is, maybe the solution the questioner finds ugly is not really ugly. Reddington set a criterion: whether the solution produces a rich experience (and if so is not ugly). Johnson cited the vernacular buildings from throughout history that have been shaped by environment and are, by broad consensus, not ugly. Bohlin elaborated on this, saying we all admire fully integrated “so-called primitive” buildings, and the problem of modern times is that “we’re able to do almost anything.” Thus the risk is that we can “keep cheating,” environmentally. The implication was that ugliness could be the result of cheating.

Sibert’s chart of European vs. American design features set off further discussion. Valerio cited the recent book, Sprawl, by Robert Bruegmann, which he says debunks the conventional wisdom about the superiority of European development vs American, saying for instance that Los Angeles has greater density than Hamburg. Whatever the value of this claim, panelists and audience members agreed that Europe in general has more stringent environmental laws (though by no means consistent from country to country). Many Europeans don’t like these rules, but understand they must be followed. Similarly, noted Valerio, California has comparatively stringent regulations; Chicago is now requiring green roofs on government buildings; towers are slimmer in Vancouver because the size of floor plates is tightly limited. People don’t stop building when codes get tighter.

Another question from the floor involved dreaded value engineering. Why are the best ideas often VE’ed out early on? Valerio, acknowledging the problem, proposed a strategy: show them first the no-cost environmental steps (building configuration, orientation, etc.), then the very low-cost steps, and so on, and ask where the client will draw the line. Advice from Johnson: If they don’t want a LEED rating, work on it anyway without telling them.

Why are clients so focused on first cost, anyway? What has happened, asked someone from the floor, to the concept of life-cycle costing, so much discussed in earlier years? And can’t we shift the horizon beyond 3-5-year payback? The panelist contended that they were in fact dealing with life-cycle cost, although the term hadn’t been used here. Valerio reported that the geothermal system used at Kresge – a 100 percent geothermal source – will have a 22-year payback, which the client accepts.

The variety of design strategies and design process strategies discussed during this panel session – running almost three uninterrupted hours – gave attendees much to think about – and much to do when they return to their firms.

Saturday morning: Integrated design at different scales

Urban concepts in China

Design studies for five places in China were presented by Russell Perry of the SmithGroup, Washington office. Each study applied integrated design concepts to whole cities or regions, in commissions that Perry characterized as “like sketch problems.” Perry developed his expertise in green design in part through his previous work with William McDonough.

The scale of these proposals reflects the vast scale of China and the prospects it faces. China will need to house some 400 million additional people in the next decade. If it continues to use development patterns of the 1950s and 1960s U.S., the environmental damage will be huge.

The places varied widely geographically, with climates ranging from subtropical to virtually Siberian. The planning studies were based on preservation of biodiversity and use of natural landmarks and resources (in at least one case geothermal resources of a warm springs area). Control of storm water and reduction in flood threat were major objectives; some parks were conceived as detention ponds when needed. Overtaxing of potable water supplies was another concern – a serious threat in parts of China.

Chemists played important roles in the design teams. The need to rebuild depleted soils was addressed by unusual proposals to recapture the abundant nitrogen and phosphorus in urine for use in liquid fertilizer, while turning solid waste – as is more commonly done – into methane and compost. At the same time, the cost of waste treatment may be reduced, compared to traditional methods.

Other, non-chemical approaches have been proposed to capture the blowing dust so common in much of China to enrich the soil. The use of roofs for agriculture is also being studied.

Planning is based on enhancing natural wind patterns, as needed. In some parts of China, wind is a very promising energy source. Placing wind generators in highway rights-of-way could make the noise they generate a moot issue. Solar energy sources can be more efficient in northern areas, where the atmosphere is often clear, than in the often hazy southern regions. The heat generated by industrial processes can be harnessed, rather than countered by expensive cooling devices.

Urban transportation proposals are based on half-kilometer walking distances. The standard residential pattern in China, a reasonable one to maintain in many areas, is the seven-story walk-up (with duplexes occupying the top two floors, sun access for all), so densities suitable for rail transit are not always attainable. Bus rapid transit on the model of Curitiba, Brazil, appears promising. A major objective of planning is preservation of arable land outside the cities.

In terms of professional practice, the process has some interesting twists. The client for such planning is the government in some form, whether an industrial development authority or a local government. They usually expect U.S. professionals to visit, quickly produce a plan, then communicate by e-mail. In fact, in the planning teams involving many professionals, most never visit the site except virtually. Those who visit the site must do thorough documentation for other team members.

Local clients often expect a plan comparable to the worst U.S. examples. Lessons from Europe on planning for energy conservation are more applicable to the process.

The objective of these studies is a “road map” for those who do the detailed planning and design. Economically, most of this – except for very high-profile projects – must be done in China itself.

One Exemplary Building in Massachusetts

Design team members – Christof Jantzen of Behnisch Architects, Los Angeles; Greg Otto and Byron Stigge of Buro Happold, New York -- presented a detailed case study of the Genzyme Center in Cambridge, MA, a previous Top Ten winner.

Jantzen described the origin of the project in a design competition, on which Behnisch collaborated with Buro Happold early on. The team built upon experience from Europe, but that alone isn’t enough. European practice focuses on energy savings, while the U.S. Green Council takes a more holistic approach, emphasizing as well site design, water management, etc.

In fact, “soft issues” such as pride of place and a healthful work environment, can be very important. Jantzen told an anecdote about a newly occupied project where employees in one department reported serious discomfort, while others were satisfied. No technical reasons could be found. It was decided to switch the location of this department with another, and the discomfort moved with the users.

Unusual projects sometimes call for non-technical, horse-sense solutions. For instance, Behnisch’s concept for a theme park in Las Vegas features huge, treelike shade structures to fend off the hot sun.

The Gemzyme Center was Behnisch’s first US building, and the developer, Hines, allowed three weeks to develop a concept. The schedule was three years to move-in date.

The 345,000-sq-ft structure stands on a constricted brownfield site. The program called for building to the sidewalk line – for a district being transformed from industrial to urban mixed use – and suitability for single-tenant occupancy. The building necessarily became essentially a cube, but its distinction is in what happens within that cubic volume. The interior is conceived as a city, say the architects. The ground floor is all an indoor plaza, with retail and water features. Corporate occupancy starts on the mezzanine. Seventeen gardens are distributed throughout the structure as spaces for meeting and informal gathering.

The strong green agenda included giving individuals control over their workspace environment and giving all of them ample daylight. Genzyme reports that increase productivity, a drop in absentee rates, etc., will probably pay off premium costs in two years.

The central atrium acts as both a generous daylight shaft and a return air chamber. Angled mirrors and prismatic louvers above the roof enhance the daylighting, Chandelier-like mobiles hanging in the atrium move slowly with the return air, casting reflections and rainbows. Overall, the workspaces are 80 percent daylighted.

Some portions of the façade are double-walled, with walkable spaces between the two glazing layers. Some are not, depending on orientation and occupancy. The distinctions enliven the exterior.

The building as a whole reportedly seems more European than American, with its strong focus on occupant comfort. But, say the architects, the occupants must learn how to inhabit a green building (to manage thermal systems and windows, to dress appropriately), and the building must be adaptable to future changes in functions and technologies.

Byron Stigge of Buro Happold talked further about the mechanical engineering aspects of Genzyme. It was obvious early on that the European ideal of the naturally ventilated interior, with no a/c, could not work with Boston’s hot, humid summers. Systems had to be designed to counter excessive moister, mold, etc. On the other hand, the American ideal of 72F all the time is wasteful; a range of 68-78F is workable. The system includes forced ventilation, with no cooling, much of the time. The atrium air return is a great asset, but requires fire shutters under local codes.

A double façade was originally intended for the entire envelope, but was value engineered down to about one third of the facades.

Displacement ventilation, using raised floors, was given up. It would have increased cost by about $2 million. Much of this cost can be chalked to the novelty of this system in Boston at the time, hence a very high price tag. Air is now supplied through the ceilings – conventional acoustic ceilings.

Daylighting was calculated to add $3 million to building cost, but it was retained as essential to the building’s concept. Reflective blinds and reflective ceilings direct light deep into workspace.

Greg Otto of Buro Happold spoke about structural engineering. The concrete framing provides thermal mass, which plays a vital role in the system by moderating temperature swings. On the brownfield site, however, it was essential to drive the fewest possible piles and not to overly complicate the vapor barrier that seals in underground contamination.

The way to have a concrete structure but reduce weight by about one third was to use filigree plank floor slabs (with voids at the cores, where stress isn’t an issue). The team took a system more common to parking garages and customized it for less regular column spacing, double- and triple-height spaces, and cantilevers at the perimeter. Structurally, the building is in effect three separate ones, connected by bridges. Concrete shear walls provide needed bracing.

When the Genzyme presentation was over, moderator Lance Hosey this collaborative effort to the all-too-common practice, where the engineers are brought in “the last day before the proposal is due.”

Jantzen mentioned that there was consultant involvement not yet mentioned: for instance, lighting consultants were brought in early and worked on the reflective qualities of surfaces. Stigge commented that it helps greatly that Behnisch knows a lot about engineering, and Buro Happold knows a lot about architecture. So their conversation could be very productive.

When Perry asked if there were any additional consultants they should have had at the table early one, the answer was experts on the cost of construction locally. They now know that the overhead duct and ceiling system cost more than expected locally, so there was not much saving compared to under-floor. Some of the team weren’t adequately prepared for the strong role of the contractor vs. the architect in the U.S. in costing and scheduling the work. Stigge said if the two firms were to collaborate on another U.S. project, they would benefit both from their rapport and from greater familiarity with the territory.

If this project were to be undertaken now, rather than five years ago, there would be new technical possibilities such as structural carbon fiber. Otto observed that this scheme would still have a need for thermal mass and noted that use of carbon fiber has progressed further in bridges, where thermal mass is less significant and the risk of corrosion in conventional reinforced concrete is much greater. In answer to a question from the floor about whether post-tensioned concrete was considered, the engineers answered that it is still uncommon in the Northeast – would definitely be used if building in California – and the floor slabs were in fact pre-tensioned.

There were questions from the floor involving the building’s users, since they now have more individual control. One answer is that Behnisch was also responsible for interiors, with Duffy as a consultant. A question about who controls window openings, for instance (employee, boss, etc.), the answer seemed to be that can’t be predicted. Psychologically, the fact that you can see out and can open the windows may count more than actually opening them.

When asked why they didn’t lose more environmental strategies to value engineering, the team answered that they put in so many green features that their wasn’t time to attack them all.

Saturday Afternoon: Further exploration of Integrated Design

Lance Hosey: What About Architectural Form?

In a talk titled “Re:Form,” Lance Hosey of ATMO/AtelierModern, questioned the conventional distinction between the art of architecture and the science of building. As an example of the kind of integration we need now, he cited the mini-IPod, where concept, technology, and image are inseparable.

He also reminded us that sustainability isn’t just about buildings, but about all human activities. As an example of the further connection to nature, he cited a neighborhood where the mocking birds reportedly imitate car alarms.

So far sustainable design, he said, has focused more effectively on natural sustainability, less so on cultural. It still seems radical to maintain that culture can support nature, rather than conflict with it.

Our sustainable actions have tended to focus on innovations in energy sources and building envelope. We haven’t dwelt much on structural innovations, such as the system that reduced the building weight – hence material and labor demands – at Genzyme.

Some dandy inventions have come along, such as the pollution-absorbing paint and slitted-plywood accordion cores for partitions and such. Fabric formwork, now emerging, is very light in weight and can produce a beam shaped according to load.

Aesthetics has a role: if it’s not beautiful, it’s not sustainable. We only save what inspires us.

He described four strategies for incorporating aesthetics into sustainable design:
1 Ignore aesthetics
2 Treat the two independently, as not related
3 Simply apply sustainable elements, such as green roofs
4 Integrate aesthetics and sustainability

He then listed four vocabularies – saying architects don’t like the word “style”:
1 Personal expression
2 Epochal expression, i.e. appropriate to the times
3 Regional, illustrated with a Greene & Greene house
4 Circumstantial, illustrated with famous Casa Malaparte in Capri (which would make so sense on a different site)

He then asserted – saying he knew it was provocative – that the first two vocabularies are just not applicable to sustainable design.

Sustainable design is able to evolve positively over time, after their architects – and their architects’ times – are gone.

As examples of sustainable design that synthesizes concept and technique, he cited the igloo, Jefferson’s c. 1800 serpentine garden walls at U.VA, Dieste’s mid-20th-century brick structures in Uruguay, Gaudi’s c. 1900 vaults, and the contemporary engineer Guy Nordenson’s tower concepts.

Jeanne Gang: Sustainability and the Public Imagination

Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang focused on two of her firm’s projects, but first showed briefly the marble curtain she installed at a recent masonry show at the National Building Museum in DC. By making a structural shell out of 3/8-inch-thick marble, suspended from ceiling to floor, Studio Gang revealed the tensile potential of a material usually used only in compression (also producing a handsome form, if photos are to be trusted). The concept was inspired in part by the constraints of the museum, whose floors would not support heavy masonry installations.

She then showed how research on existing baseball parks could inform a radical design proposal. Chicago’s two major-league ballparks exhibit radically different urban relationships and patterns of use. Wrigley Field, the older one, has much more consistent attendance (even thought the Cubs rarely win). It is smaller and integrated into its neighborhood in part by widely dispersed parking locations, which are shared with other uses when there are no games. U.S. Cellular Field (where the champion White Sox play), is modern, with no columns blocking views and corporate boxes crowning its grandstands. But it is surrounded by parking areas used only for ball games, thus creating a vast void most of the time.

Studio Gang was commissioned to propose a new kind of stadium for the Venice Biennale and came up with a stadium elevated on existing structures, with some of the grandstands on roofs of surrounding buildings, overlooking the action across public streets.

A Studio Gang project that will be built is the Ford/Calument Environmental Center in a vast tract of largely abandoned heavy industry south of Chicago. The area has long been an important bird habitat, and the objective is to enhance it and provide an exceptional bird-viewing environment. Studio Gang’s competition-winning design is not about form, but about process, says Gang. It is inspired by the bower bird’s nest, in which the male bird incorporates colorful objects to entice the female. The structure uses salvage products that are offered for sale in the area. Bundled columns also serve as piles. Glass is screened and divided so that birds to not fly into it (the cause of millions of bird deaths per year). Some of it is angled, so that it reflects the ground, rather than the sky. Energy sources will include biomass and geothermal. As a public facility, the project can help change public perceptions.

James Timberlake: Merging Design and Sustainability

The partners of the Kieran Timberlake firm have recently published the book Refabricating Architecture: How Manufacturing Methodologies Are Poised to Transform Building Construction – the result of studies funded in part by a Latrobe Fellowship from the AIA.

The fundamental question, says Timberlake, is how to get back to environmental equilibrium – and how architecture can address that goal. LEED has led to often merely to what he calls “LEED bling,” elements that are partially integrated in building, but mainly expressive.

We have to consider nature’s strategies, as explained in classic books: D’Arcy Thompson’s Growth and Form (first published 1917) and Peter Pearce’s Structure in Nature is a Strategy for Design (1978). (Both of these are still in available.) We need to lose the words “sustainability” and “green” and merge these ideas with all our design.

Most of our clients now are asking for sustainability – while asking for better quality generally and expanded scope, in no more time and at no greater cost than a decade ago.

In Stewart Brand’s book How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They Are Built? (1995) he notes that different components have different life spans. We must no think of buildings as finished, static objects.

In our design process, we must break down some traditional divisions. We have to revise the linear process where a napkin sketch is handed off to others to work out in detail. We must break down the traditional division between the architect, responsible for building, and the manufacturer, responsible for materials and components. AIA contracts, in their present form, institutionalize these divisions.

Nearly 30 percent of materials that arrive at typical construction site end up in the dump. The commuting of construction workers to geographically dispersed sites involves vast waste of time and fuel. To reduce such kinds of waste, we have to use more off-site fabrication. Materials brought to the site should be local and/or recycled ones. We now plan to reuse storm water, gray and black water. How about designing building envelopes for recycling?

Timberlake showed two of his firm’s recent works. The Loblolly House under construction is a vacation house on the Southeast coast. Where the living area is required to be raised off the ground, nine creosoted piles support the living floor above a carport. Except for the piles, everything is being built off-site. The frame will be exactly cut to fit and bar-coded to guide assembly. Bath modules and other elements are being delivered finished to the site.It is vitally important in such a strategy not to simply hand off the design to the contractor.

For the residential complex recently completed at Middlebury College, the client handed the firm an environmental agenda and an existing campus master plan.
The architects were able to challenge the plan, redeploying the buildings to optimize daylighting and natural air flow. The students are housed in suites with through ventilation, no air conditioning. Exterior walls are clad in granite (good for thermal mass) that is in fact recycled headstones cut nearby (this is Vermont) for military cemeteries. The dining hall, roughly circular, is sited so that campus pathways go through it. Its glazed envelope is pleated in plan, with closely spaced verticals, so that birds will not mistake it for sky.

Discussion: Gender thing?

In the brief discussion period after these talks. Hosey said the overriding message was that architects must listen to other professionals and to the public. To a question from the floor on why architects are traditionally poor listeners, Jeanne Gang quickly responded, “Maybe it’s a gender thing.” She got a hearty laugh, as she intended, but clearly most of those present recognized the substantial truth behind it.

This exchange set off further discussion about architectural education, which has not entirely shaken off the Beaux-Art pattern or the inclination toward hero worship. Increasing numbers of women may have contributed to some increase in collaborative work at schools – better preparation for productive professional life. One speaker said that – aside from learning to listen and work collaboratively -- we need to instill students with intellectual curiosity. (Is there a tendency for architecture schools to narrow their intellectual attention?)

An audience member who teaches mechanical engineering at Princeton observed (in relation to education and intellectual curiosity) that he spends half his course teaching remedial physics. He then compared building design to the natural selection process. We don’t talk, he said, about the Inuits who perished when their square igloos collapsed. When we talk of sustainability, we are talking about remorseless processed that can lead to death.

Timberlake responded that design studios are still too often exercises in pure form. We need to expand the purview of architecture. The two committees meeting jointly here (Design and the Environment) could merge. We still throw away many buildings. But we now rarely use the term “adaptive reuse,” because it’s just assumed to happen. Perceptions do change.

Gang observed that innovation is now coming from architectural practice, rather than from academia. That’s a change from 20 years ago.

Susan Szenasy: What the Next Generation Can Do

Long-time editor of Metropolis magazine, Susan Szenasy has also taught design history and ethics. She has seen the extent of students’ social and environmental concern. The magazine has stressed these concerns in the Next Generation program, a new kind of design competition it has held since 2004.

She did not want to hold just another “beauty contest.” Architecture and design, she said, are experiential creations that can’t be judged from pictures. The competition asks for a business plan – how the designers plan to carry their proposals forward. To support those efforts, one winner gets $10,000; the runners-up get support in the form of publication. The internet helps draw submissions from all over the world – about 100 per year. Architects have been winning more than other designers. Is it because they have a better education?

Szenasy showed a variety of designs selected by New Generation juries:
a proposal to reuse components of Boston’s demolished elevated Central Artery for construction of housing;
a proposal to “upcycle” used drinking straws in a flexible, translucent enclosing material. (The submitters arranged to collect used straws at campus dining halls.)
a thin photovoltaic film to spread on water, which would glow red if it is polluted, green if it’s safe.
a precast, permeable, biodegradable paving system, the 2005 winner;
the 2006 winner, Hydrowall, which captures and stores rainwater in flexible sacs, providing it for reuse as needed, proposed to be installed first in a fire station, using the rainwater to fill fire truck water tanks;
highway dividers incorporating wind turbines, which would harness air streams generated by opposing traffic;
a proposal by fellow-speaker Lance Hosey for a smart shading device made of two metals with different expansion properties, which would open and close depending on thermal conditions;
the 2004 winner, solar modules that would track the sun, which had already gotten grants from RPI;
a proposal by MIT students for an LED-embedded fabric as a light source;
an inflatable, biodegradable septic system for emergency situations;
and others.

She observed that social justice is as important as environmental sensitivity. She noted that architect Michael Graves has been paralyzed from the chest down for the past three years and showed an inexpensive, lightweight, collapsible aircraft seating system that could serve as well as a wheelchair, thus eliminating the painful reseating that now takes place at the beginning and end of air trips.

Szenasy said she, like other speakers, chafes at the words “sustainable” and “green,” which should not be needed. She hopes we can eventually “call design design.”

One lesson of the Next Generation program is that one of those young people in your firm may have an idea that will take your work to another level.

Design Competition Winners: House for an Ecologist

Following up on Szenasy’s suggestion about what young people may be able to do, the next event on the agenda was the discussion of winning schemes in the House for an Ecologist competition, organized by the two committees holding the conference. Szenasy was one of the jurors, along with Peter Bohlin, Timberlake, and Allison Ewing, all taking part in the panel discussion.

Ewing described the competition, pointing out that the Fish and Wildlife Service invites a different scientist each year to be in residence here at their training center. The competition drew about 80 entries, the jury was instructed to designate up to four winners and chose three winners plus six mentions. The three winning teams were present.

One winning proposal by three from the Boston’s Shepley Bulfinch Richardson Abbott firm (Andre Kamili, Jesse Taylor, Cindy Lee) incorporated a Trombe wall with water-filled cells that would provide thermal storage and be easy to build on this remote site.

The second winner, by Raphaelle Maul of Spain, was a very direct design of shelter using prefabricated elements. Photovoltaic cells and other green elements were clearly and effectively integrated into the design.

The third winning solution violated the program, but the jurors felt this was a commendable violation. Instead of providing a 1500-sq-ft house, called for in the program, it provided a 150-sq-ft personal space – justifiable on a campus with generous shared amenities. And instead of locating it on the designated clearing of its own, it is to be suspended from the bridge that links two parts of the campus across a ravine. This suspended pod would be manufactured off site.

The six mentions were chosen mainly as the best illustrations of other possible strategies.

The designers of the three winning entries clearly went home from this conference with more than award certificates. They had benefited from participating in the competition, learning from the jury commentary, and the education the conference provided for us all. Their roles in the sustainability effort have been changed for good.

Corporate, Green, and Gleaming

On the final day of the conference, a nearly two-hour bus ride took us back from the West Virginia woods to the DC metropolitan agglomeration. Our destination was the Gannett/USA Today building in suburban McLean, Virginia. Here, we got a solid briefing on this large-scaled corporate exemplar of green design, a building tour, and a wrap-up panel discussion on sustainability.

A well-organized summary of Gannett/USA Today’s design highlighted what made it exceptional (and a 2005 AIA Honor Award winner). Christopher Stoddard of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, architects, Douglas Hays of Michael Vergason, landscape architects, and Richard Bilski of Lehman-Smith + McLeish & Associates, interior architects, oriented the conferees and led the tours.

This 700,000-sq-ft corporate facility for some 1,500 employees benefited from an enlightened, unconventional design process. As they outgrew rental space in two highrise buildings in Rosslyn, Virginia, they first consulted Hines as developers, then brought in architects Lehman-Smith + McLeish to study functional needs and help select the 30-acre site – at the intersection of two major highways, but undeveloped and presenting environmental challenges. (It’s a long story, and I helped KPF partners Gene Kohn and Paul Katz write it up for their book Building Type Basics for Office Buildings.) After site selection, KPF was chosen from among several well-known firms for the master plan and shell building; the Lehman-Smith + McLeish remained a key member of the design team, responsible for programming and interiors.

The initial concept was an office tower rising from a low-rise podium housing the newsrooms, which work best on large, uninterrupted floors. This morphed into, programmatically, two separate buildings linked by a podium of shared facilities, a 12-story tower for the corporation, Gannett, a 9-story tower for one of its publishing components, USA Today. They form a roughly horseshoe-shaped complex around a south-facing entry court, looking out on a picturesque pond, required for storm-water runoff – for this 5-acre property plus some 20 acres beyond its boundaries. A wooded rise beyond the pond, long considered the prime building location because of its elevation, is now reserved for playing fields, picnic areas, and woods. During the design process the team realized that the building belonged where it is, on land already spoiled by excavated material from adjoining sites, rather than displacing the best existing growth on the site.

Elevator towers, one for each of the two office towers, have been pulled out of the working floors, and punctuate the massing of angular, glass-clad building envelopes. Most of the rooftops of the complex’s broad lower floors are planted. Landscaping is designed for natural drainage into the central pond. Parking is in a garage hugging the northwest side of the complex.

How a Firm Can Become a Green Leader

Stoddard of KPF, which has an active London office, revisited the fact that Europe is far ahead of the U.S. on sustainability – and much of the London office’s work is on the Continent. Spurring Europe on are higher energy costs, (unevenly) higher environmental standards, generally more temperate climates, and social norms that are more environmentally responsible (valuing daylight, accepting a greater range of temperatures, using more public transportation, etc.)

One of the examples he cited was KPF Endesa building near Madrid, which has an atrium with a natural chimney effect, air floors, etc. (not mentioned were the vehicular demands of its edge-city location; other KPF European office buildings are sited in center cities.)

A U.S. example of KPF’s green efforts is the Baruch College building in Midtown Manhattan, where daylight is reflected down to the base of a highrise atrium and all offices have operable windows.

How does an established firm become a sustainability leader? His answers: develop staff resources by having in-house education, encouraging LEED accreditation (KPF now has 34 accredited staff), establishing a data base, making green skills part of the recruiting policy. Most important (as we had also heard before), building closer relationships with consultants. Subscribing to Making sustainability prominent in your marketing and in web site policy statements. Holding deeper discussions of the subject with clients. His firm started KPF Research, establishing relationships with academic experts.

Technical innovations the firm is looking into include alternatives to glass for transparent envelopes, intelligent building skins, new kinds of joints, and elevators that can recapture the energy of movement.

Sustainable projects now in the office include design of an entire city adjoining Incheon, Korea, and a tower in the heart of London, which will have services massed on the south side, an atrium facing north – apparently the optimum orientation. (What about some recent high-visibility office towers by star architects – not mentioned by Stoddard, but easily recalled – that are circular and apparently indifferent to orientation?)

Wrapping Up – and What’s Next.

The announced theme of the final conference panel was “Where Do We Go from Here?” Moderated by Committee on Design chair David Brems, the group included Julie Eakin of Architecture magazine, Kira Gould of the Committee on the Environment, Jeffrey Levine, AIA’s Resource Architect for Sustainability, Henry Reeder of the Design committee, Henry Siegel of the Environment committee, and RK Stewart, AIA national president-elect.

What had they learned at this conference?

Siegel led off, saying that we must include performance in any future talk about design, if we are to reach Mazria’s and the AIA’s target of 50 percent reduction in energy requirements of buildings.

Eakins maintained that a valid definition of sustainability must include social justice. She also cited the importance of learning from past examples, such as Jefferson’s serpentine walls and Victorian pineapple sheds, cited during the conference. She also noted the questions, raised in many informal discussions, about the layout of the National Conservation Training Center (too dispersed? too much land disturbed?) and where workers were situated at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (why control rooms in the office tower, where no windows are wanted, and office workers in the quasi underground spaces?)

Reeder noted that there green topics had been hot in the past. In his 1960s architecture class, a whole semester was given to orientation, sun angles, and air movement. In 1993, AIA President Susan Maxman’s theme was the environment. Today, it seems that the universities are lagging in this area. We didn’t talk enough at this at this conference, in his view, about codes. We must work harder to persuade those who write and update codes. Finally, we must fight the NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitude which – in one conspicuous instance – has caused the Massachusetts Congressional delegation to kill off a wind energy farm in Nantucket Sound because it might be distantly visible from the waterfront estates owned by them and their supporters. (Democrats, too, can obstruct sustainability out of narrow interests.)

Kira Gould spoke of the great intellectual opportunity this subject offers the profession. Working with other consultants involved, we must communicate better with the public, overturning long-held assumptions.

Stewart, in his AIA leadership position, announced that there would be an AIA summit meeting on public sustainability positions in December. At this conference, it would have been good to include contractors and owners, who need to be heard and enlisted for sustainability. There are also rich opportunities to collaborate with public health professionals. AIA has established a Sustainability Task Force (including Gould) and has hire Levine as resource architect at AIA Headquarters. The Institute is co-sponsoring the Green House exhibit at the National Building Museum and is working to persuade the financial community to increase access to capital for green projects. The 2007 San Antonio Convention will be about Green. But ultimately, sustainability depends on what people like the conferees here do, day-to-day.

Jeffrey Levine mentioned an additional past advocate of sustainability, landscape guru Ian McHarg, whose environmental advocacy was powerful in the 1960s. Ed Mazria, whom we heard earlier in the conference, is speaking as well to the National Conference of Mayors. The scope of our challenges is indicated by the additional 10 million people expected in the D.C. area in the next 10 years. The AIA Sustainability Task Group is already having an effect: the Environmental Protection Agency has said it will adopt the AIA’s 50 percent energy reduction policy. AIA is also working with USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council) and ASHRAE (the heating and air conditioning code-writers) on new guidelines – also working with organizations of illuminating engineers, interior designers, and educators. There have to be common definitions of sustainability. Yes, it should become an integral part of design, but we need a base line. Working with all these groups, we must make sustainability sexy. We must break the fixation of owners – and bankers – on first cost.

A paradigm shift, studies show, is usually sudden and holistic, and with effective collaboration, says Levine, we can bring one about.

Posted by John Morris Dixon, FAIA


At 2:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, nice post. I hope you will be doing more on mini green house . Please come and check out my blog at Greenhouse Resource .
Keep up the good work!

At 6:08 AM, Blogger Pulit4 said...

Great post!
Design Lovers, get inspired!!
Check out Boca do Lobo
and Delightfull

At 7:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for great information you write it very clean. I am very lucky to get this tips from you

kit house self build


Post a Comment

<< Home