Page E4.2 . 09 September 2009                     
ArchitectureWeek - Environment Department
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Making Buildings Good


Making Buildings Less Bad

The U.S. Green Building Council states that there are well over 2,000 LEED-certified buildings around the world as of early 2009 (and many, many more in the process of achieving certification).

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building rating system in its current form, as a family of green building rating systems, breaks down the green building technologies into five basic, quantifiable categories of credits, and for each achieved credit a project team can get a point toward making a building more green. These green improvements effectively make a building "less bad" from an environmental perspective than a comparable non-LEED building or what would otherwise be a code-compliant project, typically known as a least-first-cost project.

The transformation of the green building market began to take hold in late 2006, with new construction from major developers on both coasts, including Tishman Speyer, Beacon Capitol, AMB, and Shorenstein. These developers were motivated by tax incentives like those offered by the State of New York or San Francisco's Priority Gold Permitting Process. Tangible indoor air quality and operations-cost benefits are a requirement for maintaining a marketing advantage, because in 2008 major tenants started to ask if a project would have a LEED rating.

These buildings are much more effective at conserving resources and increasing efficiencies and thereby reducing their overall environmental footprint — but they still have a footprint. Even when the higher-level Gold or Platinum LEED certification is achieved, many practitioners, such as Bill McDonough, believe that such buildings remain in the realm of the "less bad."

Less bad is much better than maintaining the status quo of typical code compliant construction, and all those who own, operate, lease space in, or work in a LEED-certified building have bragging rights. But technologies that are considered current and of the moment, worthy of accolades today, generally trend toward the mainstream very quickly and become easily attainable earlier.

The LEED building rating system could potentially be headed in a similar direction, toward mainstream acceptance and use. Today green building consultants across the United States are fielding requests for assistance from developers, land-use attorneys, building owners, and brokers about getting their projects and portfolio buildings LEED-certified.

However, industry adoption of new technologies is sometimes hampered by the success of these new technologies.

For example, the State of California's Building Code and Energy Code (Title 24) are updated on a standard three-year cycle. This means that, on a regular cycle, what constitutes a "least-bad" building in terms of the state's minimum codes for permittable building in construction and energy performance is enhanced.

So the State of California continues to raise the requirements on acceptable building efficiencies, while green building developments driven by the commercial real estate market's desire to always "out build" your competition far outpace the legal engagement of such green building codes and mandated construction practices.

In early 2008, the State of California Energy Commission, significantly influenced by the passage of Assembly Bill 32 (California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006), issued the 2007 Integrated Energy Policy Report (IEPR) that advanced policies enabling the state to meet its energy needs in a carbon-constrained world and embracing many of the goals of Architecture 2030. In fall 2007, the state also issued its first set of proposed green building amendments to the state building code.

In July 2008 California became the first state in the nation to adopt green building standards as part of its building code. In December 2008 the California legislature passed the Climate Change Proposed Scoping Plan, defining strategies California will use to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause climate change.

Making Buildings Good

As state code and energy policy move toward the goal of green building, the definitions of green building, and as well permittable building, will coalesce, and it will not be possible to build a nongreen code-minimum building. The concept of green building being "less bad" will transform into the second concept and be defined as "sustainable design and construction."

Simply put, if green building is about making buildings less bad, then the goal behind sustainable design is about making "good" buildings. The resulting trend will push sustainable design past the simple cost-benefit metrics of building components toward a broader definition of the built environment, integrating the principles of economic, social, and ecological sustainability.

Sustainable design and construction (restorative and living buildings) promotes and uses systems with minimal to zero environmental footprints. These systems can clean the water they use and generate power, as well as a host of other integrated design concepts. In addition, sustainable design and construction is a fundamental shift in thinking based on the idea that traditional technologies often work naturally; it fundamentally changes the ground rules about how to build a building through today's design-build, low bid, and bid-build process in favor of integrated design and project delivery.

Sustainable design takes buildings beyond a rating system scorecard and makes integrated design a fundamental requirement. Collaboration of the most effective systems with less impact, together with regenerative building systems — like building-integrated photovoltaics and vertical-access wind turbines — start to make sense in the light of regional climatic differences.

In effect, current green building is raising the standard of care and performance; but with very few exceptions, green building has yet to evolve to a state of true sustainability. The goal is to convert buildings and operations into carbon-neutral architecture, to develop the capacity to produce at minimum as much energy as they use, to clean and produce as much potable water as they consume, and to provide healthy, safe, and nontoxic environments for their occupants, all while making the energy used in their design and operations a sum net-zero gain.

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Marian Keeler, Associate AIA, LEED AP, is a San Francisco-based green building consultant with Simon & Associates and a writer on sustainable buildings. She specialized in green building consulting at SMWM and as an independent consultant.

Bill Burke, AIA, is the architectural program coordinator at the Pacific Energy Center in San Francisco. He is also on the board of directors of AIA San Francisco.

This article is excerpted from Fundamentals of Integrated Design for Sustainable Building by Marian Keeler and Bill Burke, copyright © 2009, with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons.



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