Green Building Blues

The Olympic Village in Vancouver will be a marvel of the 21st century once it is complete. Currently under construction for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the 1.4-million-square-foot, 16-building Village will be outfitted with passive solar panels and green roofs and heated by a recycling apparatus that captures the heat emitted by sewage and redirects it back to the residences. Every building in the complex is designed to outlast its temporary use, and every building is made with its long-term carbon footprint in mind. For its efforts to leave no good turn unrecycled, the Olympic Village is hauling home enough Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold and platinum medals to make an Olympic contender green with envy.

Yet for all its lauded environmental ingenuity, Vancouver's Olympic Village has limited ambitions when it comes to design innovation. Despite assurances from Village project manager Hank Jasper that "you don't need sod walls and 30-foot trees on the roof to make it sustainable," the project's higher-ups rejected ambitious architectural designs for fear that they did not look green enough. Renowned postmodernist architect Robert A.M. Stern was originally chosen to lead the project, but his proposed design for the waterfront community center and other sites met with significant resistance from Vancouver. The city's senior urban designer, Scot Hein, declared to The Vancouver Sun that Stern's design was "not expressive of sustainability." Stern, the dean of architecture at Yale University, was asked to leave the project, and a locally based architecture firm, Arthur Erickson Corporation, was hired in his place. But Erickson, too, was given neither the time nor the mandate to pursue lofty design goals. "There's not much play there," Erickson partner Nick Milkovich told The Globe and Mail in January 2007.

With function prized above all else, the Olympic Village building designs have a default "green" look to them: blocky, all glass, covered in matted foliage. It looks as though the developers simply forgot to design the place.

The field of architecture is experiencing a design crisis, with clients ranging from private owners to cities demanding that architects prioritize sustainability above all else -- as if design itself were an obnoxious carbon-emitter. This is partly because high designers and the so-called "starchitects," who fear that new methods and materials might not comport with long-established styles, are not taking the lead on sustainability issues, leaving green innovation to younger firms with fewer resources. Both well-known firms and up-and-comers lack experience in working with new, often expensive green materials, which has forced many designers to depend greatly on singular and design-restrictive tactics such as "passive design" -- essentially, lots of space and windows -- to achieve sustainability goals.

As a result, much green architecture reflects a quality that Ford's Edsel possessed: It looks like the future, but it doesn't look good.

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One reason that emerging green architects and their clients have come to see design as part of the problem is that the most lauded design projects in recent history have made virtually no attempt at sustainability. "Look at the architecture of the last 15 years," says James Wines, a professor of architecture at Penn State University and the author of Green Architecture. "It's been more flamboyant and more wasteful than it's ever been before. To build any of these buildings by Frank Gehry, it takes, what, 60 to 80 percent more metal and steel and construction than it would to enclose that space in a normal way. So you're talking about incredible waste. Mind-boggling waste."

As "green" becomes an increasingly valuable term to associate with any new building, architectural projects are claiming the label, whether or not they have paid attention to sustainability. "They say, 'Oh, the Getty Museum, Richard Meier, environmental,'" Wines says. But the Getty "carved out half a mountain and flew in all that travertine. Can you imagine the amount of trees and gallons of fossil fuels it took to fly in all that marble? It's insane."

So-called "green washing" has contributed to both the hype and the shoddy design standards associated with green building. Though the advent of formal certification processes like LEED has cut back instances of out-and-out fraud, green-washing has no doubt devalued the currency of the term "green" and often obscures more complex conceptual problems. Developers in Florida, for example, have taken to recycling shipping containers to create affordable homes, only to plop them into carbon-inefficient suburban communities without retrofitting them in a way that is energy efficient. Shuhei Endo's Slowtecture M arena in Japan is similarly problematic. Its natural lighting and trendy sod exterior may make up for the energy-inefficient steel in the skeleton, but insulation can't offset the carbon emissions of sports fans driving to its isolated location outside the Kobe suburbs.

Architects are divided on what constitutes a truly sustainable building. Transporting efficient materials long distances to build green is a problem in the eyes of architects like Wines, who thinks about materials in the way that Alice Waters does about food. "It's better to build with what you have in Pittsburgh" -- that is, steel -- "than to import the wood from Seattle," Wines says. This approach emphasizes a regional, integrated standard for sustainability that might not adhere to the materials-based focus of LEED certification -- a ribbon that green architects know they need to pin to their projects. Confounding the matter is the nature of new materials and strategies, which call for study and experimentation beyond the means of many firms, no matter how enthusiastic they may be. Established architects -- those with the most resources -- often prefer to let their brand drive their work, green materials be damned.

Stefan Behnisch is a German architect whose firm, Behnisch, Behnisch & Partner, is best known in the United States for the Cambridge, Massachusetts, headquarters of the biotech firm Genzyme -- a dazzling, LEED-platinum-certified building with 12 light-filled stories of open atrium. He is critical of other big-name architects who resist going green. "Established firms like to do stuff the way they always have done it. They are not flexible. They are corporate quality plans, and they don't allow innovation. It took them very long to catch on."

But those name-brand firms still exclusively focused on formalist innovation look increasingly isolated on their fake islands in Dubai. The field's high stylists prefer materials like titanium -- an environmental abomination. Further, they often use quite immodest amounts of these materials to enclose a space. The architectural style that persists among the very top performers is Baroque and epic at a time when the rest of the field -- the rest of the world -- is turning to questions of content (in other words, a building's purpose). Those questions are largely about sustainability, an issue on which architectural leaders refuse to lead. "Architecture has so many bad habits that it can't change easily," Wines says. "I think most architects are terribly threatened by the green movement. Because God forbid they have to change the style. What if any one of us leading stylists had to change their style simply because you can't build with that material any more?"

In recent projects, Behnisch has managed to deviate from the orthogonal unit that drives green architecture, allowing for curved, organic features and other ornamental elements. This is no mean feat: Thermal glass, which keeps in heat more efficiently, does not curve readily. Behnisch says that information about new materials represents the biggest lag on design progress within the field. "In the early '90s, when we first started out, we had to do a lot of research," he says. Today, many of Behnisch's clients -- including the Catholic Church, which he describes as the most demanding green client in the world -- arrive at the table well versed in new materials and building methods. One of Behnisch's frequent haunts is a meta-architectural research firm in Stuttgart that focuses exclusively on studying new materials.

Wines, for one, has faith in architects' ability to adapt. "There's a lot of materials that are very, very good from an ecological perspective," he says. "You learn to invent with those."

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Behnisch thinks it is inevitable that green architecture will grow out of its awkward stage. "[Green building] will inform the architectural development," he says. "It's still content-driven. We have a new topic -- a new and very interesting topic -- to inform the architecture. Once we marshal the subject to its own formalistic approach, the design will move architecture further, but it is still developing."

What might finally bridge the gap between design and environmentalism is the realization that good design is also good for the environment. "If it isn't art, it's not sustainable, because who's going to keep ugly buildings around?" Wines asks. Sustainability could be considered the broader architectural framework into which green architecture fits. As Behnisch told Metropolis magazine in December, "I never saw a discrepancy between design and sustainability. I always felt that sustainability could drive architectural form."

When sustainable architecture coalesces into something more like art, it will likely be more in keeping with a world teetering on the brink of economic and environmental collapse than with the architectural modes that preceded it. Further, the sustainable school may well dial back the lessons of globalization, preferring instead to adopt a new regionalism and to find virtue in the frugal rather than in the profligate, expressing these preferences through design. Wines sees the very real potential for a fundamental re-imagining of what architecture means, the sort of revolutionary revision that took place when Le Corbusier introduced the International Style. "The idea of a building as a piece of sculpture is 100 years old now," Wines says. "It's been done over and over and over. It's not very progressive as a premise."

These questions are finding an audience beyond the world of architecture, as President Barack Obama has signaled a moment for action unrivaled since Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration.

"What I've seen thus far and have been excited about is the recognition of the role that the built environment plays in issues such as climate change, issues such as energy security," says Tom Hicks, vice president of international policy and programs for the U.S. Green Building Council. He tickets the built environment (primarily buildings, but all man-made surroundings) for 39 percent of the nation's carbon emissions. "There's a huge opportunity for us to turn that back."

While the starchitect class has all but entrenched itself in an opulent style out of sync with the rather serious issues facing humans and our environment, emerging architects are taking solace in green architecture. Determining just what sustainability in architecture means is bound to yield the same innovation in design that the Industrial Revolution did for the modernist style.

From the academy to the builder, green architecture -- and the long-term promise of sustainability -- is an opportunity for workers to profit and for designers to make a name. In the long term, it dares to marry the built and natural environments, the standoff at the heart of the architectural dialogue between man and nature. And perhaps sooner rather than later, it will produce some buildings we can grow to love.

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