Can green building save the planet?

At The Economist's Intelligent Infrastructure conference in New York, top architects weigh in on green building: what it means, why it's important and how it makes business sense.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

NEW YORK -- Can green architecture save the planet?

That's the question experts sought to answer at The Economist's Intelligent Infrastructure conference held at Pace University, where principals of major architecture firms gathered to define green building and how it relates to their own urban designs.

"It's not what makes a green building or how is it green, but it's about the why," said Richard Cook of Cook + Fox Architects.


Cook, a partner at the firm responsible for the new Bank of America tower at One Bryant Park in New York City, said green architecture is a way of thinking about "how to deal with the paradise that we were left" -- that is, nature.

He rattled off several statistics in short order:

  • Eighty percent of carbon dioxide in the city of New York is from the built environment.
  • Power plants waste two-thirds of their energy as heat through the smokestack.
  • Another 7 percent of generated energy is lost during transmission.
  • Americans use just 27 percent of the actual energy generated by a power plant.
  • Americans are 4.5 percent of the world's population but consume 25 percent of its resources and produce 25 percent of its carbon emissions.

"What happens if the climate scientists are right?" Cook asked the audience provocatively. "We are set on an unsustainable path."

But it's not all about numbers. Using his firm's headquarters in Manhattan as an example, Cook noted that the best feature of a green building could be the view.

"You need to feel connected to the environment," he said. "Ultimately, we need to make things that are beautiful, that make us feel good -- feel connected to nature."


But how can we better incorporate nature so that it's not a zero-sum game?

That's what Elizabeth Diller attempted to answer in her presentation on New York's High Line, an abandoned elevated railroad line that her firm "reclaimed," so to speak, for both nature and human enjoyment by turning it into a park.

Founding principal atDiller Scofidio + Renfro, Diller explained that city residents defied an order by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani to demolish it. The reason: stark photos of the elevated platform captivated neighborhood activists.

"The amazing political power of photography worked," she said, adding that New Yorkers fell in love with it "as a ruin."

"We wanted to bring this back in a different way," she said. "The question is, how do you work off the industrial character of the site without sentimentalizing it, and preserve a delicate ecosystem?"

Her solution: what she called "agritecture," or the incorporation of micro-environments with flora and fauna dispersed along the old rails, blending human pathways and planting areas.

"Nature forces its way out of built stuff," she said. "First, culture took over nature, which then fell into ruin, which was then taken over and perverted by nature as a dance of obsolescence."


If humans can build and minimize environmental impact, Tristan d'Estree Sterk has another solution altogether: build to respond to the environment.

Why? Because the U.S. generates 2,969.486 trillion BTUs and produces 368.5 million lbs. of carbon emissions each year -- and according to d'Estree Sterk, responsive systems can save more than 2,969 trillion BTUs annually in residential heating and cooling.

"Our infrastructure and our buildings need to become more responsive to the environment," he said. "An architecture that can respond to local conditions."

In other words: no more construction using "dumb" materials. Encourage density. Consider soft, lightweight buildings that can change color, permeability and shape and encourage density.

"All of this is achievable if we take a different view of what architecture can be," he said. "Systems that rely on control and sensor input and actuators."


Morphosis Architects founder Thom Mayne said architects have three "territories" to develop an idea for a sustainable building -- its shape, its relationship to the ground and its mechanical systems.

"As architects we operate at two scales: the building scale and the urban scale," he said. "Sustainability is not a singular subject. It's highly intricative."

Blazing through a summary of his recent major projects -- everything from the Cooper Union's new building at 41 Cooper Square in New York, the first platinum LEED building in the city, to the San Francisco Federal Building, the first large building in the U.S. built without air conditioning, and even the Phare Tower in Paris, whose shape changes depending on the movement of the sun, via 4,000 sunscreens -- Mayne said the hurdles are not the technology but the will.

"With the systems we have today, we have huge abilities to develop a complex [skin]," he said. "It's not a technical problem. It's a perception problem."

One recent focus: green roofs.

"We're bringing the farm -- the agrarian world -- into the city," he said. "Building and landscape are now singular."


But is a green building really green if it's merely efficient?

No, said Llewelyn Davies Yeang chairman Ken Yeang.

Yeang insisted that true green building is "a seamless integration of four eco-infrastructures":

  • "Gray" -- engineering infrastructure. Energy, smart grid, IT, recycling, waste, transport.
  • "Blue" -- water infrastructure: "We need to close the loop as much as possible."
  • "Red" -- human infrastructure. "We have to change as people. Our lifestyle has to change."
  • "Green" -- green infrastructure. "We cannot see this because it's invisible." Nature's utilities, habitats, biodiversity, ecological corridors.

"If green architecture doesn't have the green infrastructure, it's not to me green architecture," he said.

The biggest problem: the current approach that criss-crosses these systems without actually integrating them.

"When you overlay the green over the gray, they're cut," he said, showing a picture of a highway dividing a forest. "We chop up the land into pieces."

The solution, at least for his example: an "eco bridge" with vegetation growing over it, enabling species and resources to move across the gap made by the highway.

Yeang called it a "composite infrastructure."

"It is much more stable," he said.


More notable points from the discussion:

  • Cook on getting traction: "Engage people so they feel excellent about what they do. You've transformed the way people do things. Human nature is to be competitive."
  • Yeang on facilities management: "If you want to have a garden, you've got to tend it. You have to look after it."
  • Yeang on why green building is worth it: "In some ways you have to tell the client, you can make your money back over five years on your investment. A green building doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg, provided you start with the right way from day one."
  • Mayne on LEED: "LEED is a transition program. It doesn't really deal with the main problem: the building's shape."
  • Diller on justifying sustainable architecture: "The constant thing we all go through as architects is arguing the operating costs over several years versus the capital expenditure. People don't like to change their lifestyle."
  • Cook on the financial benefit of motivating people: "The High Line was a catalyst for human behavioral change -- and then you have real money."
  • Mayne on mission: "When you're really doing your job, it has to do with changing behavior. There's a resistance. It goes back to a more simple, primitive idea."
  • d'Estree Sterk on smart building: "We have buildings. They are an integral part of our society. They are causing us many problems. When we design, we need to think about the building as a yacht -- if we're sailing it, we need to be constantly aware of what's going on around us and make decisions on how to catch the wind to move forward. We could have the best yacht in the world, but if we don't know how to steer it, we could be sitting flat in the water."
  • d'Estree Sterk on non-green buildings: "There are certain natural intelligence to the way we've constructed things. But the nature of how we build currently is quite slow. We don't make huge changes to things. If we rely on just these things, we're patching an existing methodology or paradigm."
  • Mayne on sustainability: "In the long term, it's both ethically proper, politically proper and it makes business sense."
  • Cook on the bottom line: "The planet's going to be fine. It's a big rock floating around in space. It's our quality of life on it that's an issue."

More from the Intelligent Infrastructure conference:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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