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:
"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."
RESPONDING TO SURROUNDINGS
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":
"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:
More from the Intelligent Infrastructure conference:
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com