What is Green Architecture?
Neary: Give me a sense of how a green architect would approach a job differently from what's typical.
Mella: I think a green architect realizes that a building is like an ecosystem and that each component in a green building affects its overall performance. So you start asking yourself questions that typical architects may not. You ask: where does that material come from? What raw materials do you use to make it? Ultimately, how long will that material last, and what will happen to the material when its life is over?
Schneider: Thinking in terms of a material's life cycle is often called "cradle to grave" or "cradle to cradle." It means looking at a material in terms of the energy required to extract, treat, manufacture, and even to transport it to a job site. And then looking at the maintenance of it, and what happens to it once its useful life is finished.
Neary: So what are the best materials?
Mendler: My emphasis is that it always depends. And I think that's a big issue for green architecture in general. The modern movement in architecture tended to create a model building in a standard design that would be used everywhere. With green architecture, there's much more of an evaluation of what's appropriate for a particular place and a particular solution.
Neary: Do you ever encounter resistance to the ideas of green architecture?
Mendler: I think the major resistance we see is not to the idea of green architecture — because it's an attractive, common sense idea in a lot of ways.
The resistance has to do with the fact that everybody is under so much time pressure. So there's a reticence about adding yet another concern to what people already have to do.
Now that we've seen more and more successful projects, people are a little more familiar with the issues, and that reticence is eroding. But I think that's where it comes from: not that doing a green building is a bad idea, but just concern about being able to address that issue with all the others. There is also some concern about costs.
Neary: Greg, you were involved in the design of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's new headquarters. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Mella: What's unique about the design of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation project is its focus on a broad range of environmental issues. We see a lot of green buildings that focus on energy efficiency or material selection. What really makes this building stand out is its ambitious goal of preserving the land, restoring its site, conserving water, conserving energy, and using environmentally friendly materials. All at the same time as creating a really productive and healthy indoor environment.
It's been an incredible success so far. The building actually uses only a tenth of the water and half the energy of a typical office building.
Neary: How did you do that?
Mella: We collect all the rainwater off the roof. By using rainwater for things like hand washing and mechanical functions, we accomplish two things: we reduce storm water runoff into the bay, and, at the same time, we reduce the building's demand for water.
The other water savings come from composting toilets. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is an incredible environmental organization. Composting toilets are probably not for every office building, but they're willing to go the extra mile for their building.
Some of the energy strategies include using daylight, instead of artificial light, to light the building. We use the natural breezes that come off Chesapeake Bay to cool the building, rather than relying on air conditioning all the time.
Neary: Was it more expensive to build this building than it would have been if you had not taken all these things into account?
Mella: This building received the United States Green Building Council's platinum rating, making it the highest rated certified building. To do something that ambitious and that broad does cost a bit more. But the energy bills for the building are half what the foundation used to pay, so they'll see that money again over the life of the building.
Neary: How is the performance of environmental design measured? How do you measure what works? What doesn't?
Mendler: One exciting thing that's been occurring over the past couple of years is the development of the LEED green building rating system. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It was created by the U.S. Green Building Council to help people measure the environmental performance of buildings.
Mella: What's really great about LEED is you can actually quantify the green results. And that means you can start to require that public buildings meet a certain LEED rating.
Mendler: The federal government has begun mandating it, and they insist that their architects earn at least a bronze rating. In some cases, the General Services Administration is requesting a silver rating. Green building tax credits are being created around this system and other incentives by local governments around the country. LEED is remarkable in how it has enabled programs to be built around it.
Neary: Most of what we've talked about so far relates to new buildings. How might green architecture apply to retrofitting existing buildings?
Schneider: Rehabilitation is a great green building practice. Mainly because it saves the energy costs involved in tearing down, and disposing of, existing building materials — and then coming in with new materials after that.
That's particularly important in the urban realm, where we have a lot of buildings that were built pretty solidly, and we don't necessary need to tear them down.
Neary: I'm wondering if there's any connection between green architecture and those architects who are helping people bring spirituality into their homes through architecture.
Mella: I think it's not necessarily an obvious connection, but a building's relationship with nature and the natural elements has a spiritual quality to it. Often architecture creates a barrier between the inhabitants of the building and nature. A lot of times sustainable architecture is really about creating a connection to nature.
Mendler: There's the personal element of spirituality, and there's also the community element. Green architecture attempts to create connectivity to communities as well, building community, and fostering an awareness about what occurs beyond the limits of a particular building or site.
Mella: We've been talking about how green architecture is energy efficient, but these buildings also enhance productivity and well being.
Neary: What do you think is the future of green architecture? A good one?
Schneider: That it becomes so mainstream that we don't even refer to it as "green" architecture. A common term that's often applied to now to sustainable design is "smart design," because, really, what we're talking about is just building and designing smart.
This interview was originally broadcast on National Public Radio's Diane Rehm Show May 4, 2001, produced by WAMU 88.5 FM in Washington, DC. A Real Audio archive is available.
American University Radio (WAMU) and The Diane Rehm Show are not responsible for this excerpt, which was edited for ArchitectureWeek by Katharine Logan.