Ecobuilding’s New Mortar

Ecobuilding’s New Mortar


The marching order to “leave nothing but footprints” enlisted an infantry of green builders this season, before our collective attention turned to security. While our man from the Midland Petroleum Club (a k a George W. Bush) dissed environmental causes and dismissed global warming, before his attention, too, was turned, a growing number of land-shapers and place-makers began to cast an ecological eye toward planning and construction. Whether labeled green building, sustainable architecture, organic architecture or what one inclusionist calls “The Whole Building,” this new constituency of ecologically attuned and everyday builders has begun to consider environmental values in building inside and out–from the materials in the making, to the siting of the structure, to the energy it consumes.

“Every architect wants to build green,” one would-be organic architect says longingly, listening to speakers at a conference on “Building Energy 200l.” Sponsored by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) at Tufts University, the assembly was one of two events pulling in record numbers of builders looking to tread more lightly on the land. The second, “Sustainable Communities by Design,” the Southface Energy Institute’s annual Greenprints meeting in Atlanta, likewise drew green-minded “carpenters”–sick-building doctors, clean-air experts, developers, engineers and construction firms–as well as professional architects, landscape architects and planners with a growing green agenda.

“What is starting to change a heretofore esoteric or niche market to make it more viable?” Peter Yost asks rhetorically. “People are starting to make a value connection between health, sustainability and the environment,” says Yost, senior editor of Environmental Building News. The biological impact of building has begun to enter their calculations, in other words.

Beyond these green gatherings and sentiments, or perhaps because of them, the political advocacy for environmental building legislation has also advanced. From state to state, activists are backing tax-credit legislation for conservation measures in building. Some have secured them in New York and Maryland, and others are sponsoring or organizing them in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Executive orders have issued forth for renewable energy in Chicago and for cleaner buildings in cities (Seattle), states (California) and even the federal government, at the State Department.

Campuses have also become new centers, particularly universities like Tufts and Oberlin, with the latter trying to create an environmental department building that will be climate-neutral, a net nonconsumer of energy, says David Orr, one of its generators. Along with the labors, inevitably, come the publications to instruct them in the nitty-gritty of the new art and the books of broader import on the impacted planet that impel them to the task.

In some ways, the new thinking is not startling, even in terms of self-interest. With fears of rolling blackouts, California dreaming for a time became the national nightmare, power-miser bulbs the new lingua franca. Concern about global warming, fed by the greenhouse gases that heat the planet, is shifting attention to alternatives in both power and production. Americans, chief among the world’s consumers (and contributors of one-fourth of the planet’s emissions), have begun to calculate the pennies and problems escaping through their single-glazed windows, their under-insulated attics, unwrapped water heaters and oversubsidized superhighways and sprawling buildings.

And, as the bills and hazards mount, the E and R ratings that describe the eco-efficiency of building materials become buzzwords for green-builders and -consumers. The urge for energy conservation accelerates–from so-called daylighting designs that admit natural light to homes turned southward, to renewable energy from harnessing the sun and wind. Turning down the thermostat and buying low-energy appliances moves up the household list, if not in the management of offices whose lights burn bright in the midnight sky of corporate apathy.

The statistics brought out by the pollsters show the idealistic as well as the financial side of this search for greener architecture. The numbers reveal that most Americans–70 percent, in fact–have green goals. For all the McMansions, bulging SUVs and sprawling big-box chain stores (a new Home Depot or Wal-Mart opens every other day, says activist Al Norman), many would like to move from an egocentric planet to an ecocentric one. Whether these green wannabes will correlate their way of life to these concerns is less clear. Statistics also show that more than half would decline to pay a quarter more at the gas pump to help the environment. And who, after all, is permitting and purchasing those 900,000-odd new homes a year, mostly promoting sprawl, indifferent to good land-use planning?

Still, if the medical axiom of “first do no harm” has yet to supplement the architectural credo of duritas, commoditas, felicitas–firmness, commodity and delight–it has become a new imperative. Whether for love or new money, environmentalists and eco-purveyors alike have become earth-conscious in their building. Even in high-style architecture, there are signs of a new concern for ecologically sound alternatives. Last winter International Design Magazine recognized eighteen architects for their ecological design, and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has begun to pay more attention to the subject as well.

The AIA’s honor award winner this year, the Condé Nast Building at 4 Times Square, for instance (labeled “Manhattan’s green giant” by one design publication), was lauded for its elements of new thinking and constructing. Designed by architects Fox and Fowle, the structure was touted by promoters for its built-in photovoltaic system to capture the sun; air delivery that sets new standards for interior air quality; and clean construction processes and materials. But the question still arises: Are the eco-statements affixed to this rather glitzy hodgepodge significant, or is the work merely building skin-deep? At the least, at forty-eight stories, this mother of all green skyscrapers carries rather conflicting messages to those bred on the last generation’s Small is Beautiful.

The AIA also gave out Earth Day prizes to earth-conscious architects. Among those who awarded the prizes was Joyce Lee, who sits on New York City’s Green Building task force and works on a $150 million program to advance energy efficiency in urban facilities. Another was William Reed, an architect at Natural Logic who tries to identify and regenerate natural systems like the rich and fecund landscape that covered the Arizona desert before cattle-raising came along. Contradiction can reign, though: The client list of committee chair Sandra Mendler mixes environmental agents like the Environmental Protection Agency and Nature Conservancy with the Pentagon (green guns?).

The question arises of whether lip service is louder than public service. Tensions between serving the client, serving the building and serving the art abound. In praising architect Richard Meier’s high-style glass courthouse for Phoenix as an energy-efficient showstopper, it is inevitably the last word–showstopper–i.e., the glamour aspect, that garners magazine space. “Green” scarcely heads the design alphabet for top-drawer architects like Frank Gehry, whose new building for MIT bears an ecological badge secured by hands other than the ace architect’s.

It is an old story, of course. Frank Lloyd Wright embodied the mix. On the one hand, there was his organic architecture that settled into the lay of the land; on the other, there was his doctrine of Broadacre City, the model for the highway-based developments spread across today’s landscape. The work of architects displays a “culpable image,” writes James Wines in Green Architecture. An imaginative creator himself, Wines provides a literate text and handsome images showing centuries-old, indigenous ecological structures, plus more recent ones.

There are veteran greeners, like Malcolm Wells, still creating burrow-down buildings and books on Cape Cod, and architect Emilio Ambasz and the radical 1960s Jersey Devil, to remind us of an earlier greening caused by the Arab oil embargo, bringing Jimmy Carter’s solar panels to the White House roof. Many of these eco-forebears worked with nature through folk habit; others adopted eco-principles through political necessity during that energy shortfall. Even if the hopes and urgencies of these early greeners were smashed when Ronald Reagan dismantled the sun-capturing symbol, writes Wines, many of the buildings and techniques in today’s environmental kit of parts have begun to try to balance green science and green art.

Should architecture be ecological oatmeal or eye candy, then? Both, of course, though clearly, the standard-bearers–the architecture magazines and building texts–prefer neon to whole-earth tints. The key professional journals, Architecture and Architectural Record, mostly back off from the environmental edges. Rare is the design firm that badgers them to do otherwise. Who wants to see the nuts and bolts behind the glamour shots? Who wants to read of the workings of ventilation when beauty beckons? Of access to public transport when aesthetic transport lures?

Architects discussing the use of materials in an article in Boston Architecture earlier this year simply skipped the subject of their sustainability. Not a word on whether the materials were healthy, long-lasting or kind to those who use them, make them and live on the planet they inhabit. Likewise, Architectural Record‘s “Material Affairs” interview with the talented Tod Williams and Billie Tsien made absolutely no reference to the materials’ ecological content or impact. More happily, of course, Landscape Architecture and landscape architects look to the earth by definition, and at least have a mandate to hold the high ground as stewards. For their pains, the profession of would-be earth guardians remains isolated, only a whit more powerful than it was in less ecological times.

Despite the eco-talk, then, the gap between high architecture and down-to-earth environmentalism remains; the language of material mastery still reflects the dominion-over-nature of an industrial age that deposits its wastes in land, sea and sky. For every Steve Strong, a longtime solar architect creating sun-holding structures, there are hundreds of energy profligates. For every William McDonough, the silver-tongued architect who uses his lyricism to lure the initiated and influence the apostate, there are developers who think capturing rainwater atop buildings with a habitat there for native species is strictly for the birds (and, more reasonably, those who remain skeptical of his link to the likes of Ford Motor Company).

So it is that even as the devoted talk of the off-gassing of toxic materials, pernicious VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in paints and earth-wracking construction, the design field mostly ignores the ‘e’ word in talk of byproducts. Whether or not it’s from fear that the poisonous possibilities might divert clients from the form of their work, the old notion of life-cycle costing–not just first-cost input–still struggles for a nod of recognition.

That nod comes mostly from the environmental edges, where eco-minded, hands-on builders have begun to ask the right questions. In industry parlance: Are the materials that we build with safe from cradle to gate (in the making); gate to grave (in the using) and even beyond, when they head back to waste, or heal, the earth?

Fortunately, a movement to define standards for those labors has in fact evolved to separate greenwash from green building. That rating method, created by the US Green Building Council, goes by the name LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Its aim is to create a common base to calculate environmental attainments–or “bragging rights,” in the words of Rob Watson, co-chairman of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The grades on environmental correctness offer standards of achievement from certified to bronze, silver, gold and platinum (the top), based on environmental achievements.

First and primary assessment goes to whether the site is sustainable, a good place to build: Is it dense and dirty or pristine and green? Second, is it water-efficient: Does the project save or recycle water, inside and out? The third assessment is of energy: Is the power source renewable, energy-efficient, a non-ozone-depleting gas? The fourth deals with materials: Are they made locally with low or no transport costs? Are they recycled, renewed and not wastefully applied? The fifth point addresses indoor environmental quality: Does the stuff on the chairs and floors and walls emit toxins? Do workers get daylighting, good ventilation and thermal comfort?

There is, says Watson, an inherent biophilia, a human need to have contact with the natural world. Documenting whether design accomplishes it reinforces the moral imperative that betters architecture. If it’s not green design, it’s not good design, he says. Where matters as much as what to sustainable architecture; Watson, like many others, thinks the place category should get more points as a source of good design. Clean brownfields instead of consuming greenfields; in-fill the wasted inner cities, not the exurbs; build a walkable world, not a paved one. “How can you build a cathedral if you’re destroying the cathedral of nature?” he asks.

Beyond doing nitty-gritty tallies, some builder-ecologists preach basic science and the laws of thermodynamics. If science tells us that substances never disappear, then we must stop producing toxic ones, clamor organizations like The Natural Step. In daylong sessions its directors show would-be green designers and builders how to build sustainably–to produce only what can be broken down and integrated back into the cycles of nature, or deposited into the earth’s crust and turned back into nature’s building blocks. (Originated by a Swedish doctor and a physicist and brought to American business by Paul Hawken, the Natural Step process, which attacks today’s buy/build/dump development, has become the instrument for those who would move from the market-first prototype of take/make/waste construction.)

The HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design, by Sandra Mendler and William Odell, is a useful collection of projects trying to follow those standards and make buildings friendly to the biosphere. Though pallid in presentation and language, the book’s projects chart the intricate, even excruciating, steps necessary to do the job right–using, say, formaldehyde-free biocomposite made from soybeans and recycled newspaper, as was done at the World Resource Institute building.

Despite the engaging and hard-wrought steps to tread softly, ambiguities bounce off these pages, too. For openers, the sponsorship by HOK, an architecture and engineering firm more noted for mega-sports stadiums than for acts of redeeming social value, sends an ambivalent message. Pages on buildings for Monsanto, the agents of genetically modified crops, and McDonald’s, those slicer-dicers of tons of beef (not to mention neighborhoods), can hardly be called models of whole earth enlightenment.

Light-years away from the conglomerate carriage trade, the meticulously green Environmental Building News is the beige bible of clean construction. A good-housekeeping handbook of green materials and methods, the advertisement-free publication was launched in 1992 by Alex Wilson, executive editor. Part engineers, part handymen, the publication’s trio of writer/editor/researchers offer not only the nuts and bolts of building (ceiling fans, insulation) but also their lively personal travails in trying out green materials at home. Whatever the charm of the hands-on high jinks shown at the conference on sustainability, this remains a movement in its infancy in America. As evidenced in “Ten Shades of Green,” the traveling exhibition dispatched by the Architectural League of New York last year, Americans would do better to look across the Atlantic for a mature movement. On the Continent, small spaces and diminutive energy budgets have defined design for decades, and the environmental work and artistry are correspondingly decades ahead in both science and design. From recirculating treated waste water, to harnessing the sun, to using nontoxic, recyclable materials in gracious interiors and exteriors, these projects blend sustainability and structure. With more stops on the horizon (Berkeley, Salt Lake City, Newport Beach and possibly others, through next year), “Ten Shades of Green” has helped raise consciousness and inspire US labors.

In dimming the lights and creating renewable sources, European models take the lead not only in sustainable building but renewable energy from photovoltaics on the German autobahn to windmills in Denmark. Long on social concerns but short on resource consumption, the Great Glasshouse in the National Botanic Garden of Wales stands as an exemplar. The project, by Sir Norman Foster, reinvents the glasshouse for the twenty-first century. In a mix of good design and whole-earth futurism, it features a thousand-plus plant species, and a computer-controlled light and biomass heating system that harvests energy from the plants on its 568-acre park.

Such ventures make US designers nostalgic for postwar America, when these shores attracted and dominated design. Architect Peter Land at the Illinois Institute of Technology, who immigrated to this country, speaks wistfully of the days when it was morning in America–when Europe’s finest flooded to these shores: Mies at Land’s IIT, Gropius at Harvard, José Luis Sert and others bringing fresh currents. A half-century later, the course of architecture’s biological and aesthetic destiny runs otherwise.

In the end, those who look to architects to control waste, reduce fossil-fuel consumption and build in a benign fashion might better look to themselves. In America’s port of consumption, the optimists in a skidding market cheerfully broadcast that spending will rebound. Consumer malaise might be a better wish. But whichever is the case, as Eric Davidson tells this 5 percent of the world’s population in denial, You Can’t Eat GNP.

Davidson, a scientist who helps battle global warming at the Woods Hole Research Center, has written a slim but readable and persuasive primer on the economic folly of environmental waste. It should be memorized for LEED certification by a nation whose energy consumption is scheduled to grow by 32 percent over the next twenty years and that would do well to reckon Economics as if Ecology Mattered, as the book’s subtitle puts it. A platinum designation should require a quiz on this work, and supplement it with J.R. McNeill’s eloquent and compelling Something New Under the Sun. McNeill’s historic overview of the immense alterations of the natural landscape is a captivating and engagingly written tale, all the more so for its chilling recounting of the human-made trauma we are still a-building but could, in his view, reverse.

The notion of simple living, designed to start a revolution of appropriate technology, is further from us than Walden now, even a full generation after Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue. As we drink our shade-grown, bird-friendly coffee and recycle our trash, the tear-downs fall for McMansions and sprawling subdivisions in an architecture of excess, consuming 70,00-90,000 acres of wetland and destroying l.2 million acres of farmland a year. In America, of course, sprawl is the law of the land, notes Henry Richmond, a reform-seeker, in Reflections on Regionalism, edited by Bruce Katz. The latest census confirms that the land mass covered by our building is expanding at ten to fifteen times the rate of our population.

By spinning off the power to control land from the center to the surrounds, by neglecting zoning and by subsidizing the automobile to the neglect of walkable transportation and communities, we have swallowed that landscape. This book’s diverse writers on business, planning and racial issues offer various solutions, from the bland to the pointed. Some think we will hang separately unless we cling together in more regional modes of planning to stop random development. Others posit that zoning, community by community, is simultaneously the problem and the solution. Both camps seek planning and good land-use practices to stop today’s unsustainable free-for-all.

Books that translate that opinion into the nuts and bolts of building such spaces are scarce. Unfortunately, those that do often alternate between the clear but self-serving and the helpful but statistics-heavy. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, for example, has its points and its clarity, but the special pleading of the well-publicized New Urbanist authors is obvious. For all their yea-saying on the need for dense, transit-oriented, walkable communities, too much of their own work slots and shapes the exurban spaces whose location on the fringes destroys such principles. Like the developer co-opted projects that bear the name “smart growth,” single-family sprawl subverts larger goals.

Those looking to preserve our planet from such depredations suffered a major loss this spring with the death of Ian McHarg, an ecological hero of twentieth-century landscape architecture. McHarg’s Design With Nature taught two generations to plant their spades where ecology ordered, following natural systems too often ignored or obliterated in the post-Olmsted era. In a New York Times obituary, landscape architect Edmund Hollander called McHarg “an apostle for the planet,” and indeed he was: the patron saint of the one profession that is required by license to speak for the earth.

By training and instinct, the first-do-no-harm injunction at least compels landscape architects to this holistic, earth-grounded work, and Sustainable Landscape Construction: A Guide to Green Building Outdoors affirms the possibility. Written by Landscape Architecture magazine editor J. William Thompson and landscape architect Kim Sorvig, this book offers comprehensive instruction to the profession. Its authors unabashedly care about environmental health (healthy sites, healing sites). They show us how to practice respect (for places, materials, water and energy costs), with no sense of the saccharine and lots of sense. This is a deep-breath, even deep-ecology, look at the world. Again, anything but a picture book, its mandates and headings are, nonetheless, a Baedeker of the specifics and generalities of environmental do-goodism: Preserve Healthy Topsoil, Save Every Possible Existing Tree. It instructs landscape architects to be healers to a nature stretched and abused by builders who, by and large, remain servants to myopic buyers.

To get a final back-to-basics view of the nuts and bolts of a society torn between greening and consuming, a visit to the Home Depot Expo is instructive. This dispenser of household goods, which managed to capture Greenprints’ environmental award, offers the final commentary on America’s environmental schizophrenia. And its very sight–and site–says it all. Just off the highway north of Boston, the household purveyor’s vast sea of asphalt parking, sprinkled with the requisite SUVs-on-steroids, fronts the megastore’s Egyptoid facade, the emporium logo rising like a Steven Spielberg billboard. Inside, the store is more stage set than Home; more Depot than resting place. The smell of wood, fake and true, and the sight of materials boasting no single origin known to nature, issue forth from an enormous sea of appliances. Room after room-setting is bedecked with period chambers of appliances. No sleek, Corbusian Modernist house-as-a-machine-for-living here; today’s mechanical servants hide behind ye olde postmodern bric-a-brac to fit the postmodern family hearth.

The green that won the prize and the greenwash that swabbed it away exist side by side: The EnergyStar tags on appliances and cabinetry boasting of the conservation of water, power and other measures of sustainability sit side by side with the swollen artifacts of excess. A $l,200 Humpty-Dumpty-adorned sink for junior rests not far from a Jacuzzi seating four, and hence requiring structural support to survive a slow descent into the cellar. Overstuffed stoves open up to hold three trays of cookies stacked top to bottom on separate shelves. Refrigerators flourish space for forty bottles of wine upright.

Alas, the green hype is not only here. As America, the giant sucking-and-spending machine, goes on to so-called “green buying,” even conservation and national security are couched in consuming terms: Buy a new clean car. Purchase compact fluorescent bulbs. Build new clean electric plants. Construct new energy-efficient housing. So much for even personal virtue. Obviously nature approves, chirps an advertisement to buy a new clean Toyota Prius. Can more be truly clean?

In the end, this chorus of to-market, to-market is the downside of the environmental movement, as it is of green building. For, as supposed renewers sign on to their three “R”s–reuse, reduce, recycle–they have yet to add still one more word: reject. Reject the taking, making, wasting. Leave nothing but footprints, goes the saying. But can any footprint be really green in this age of reaping our excess?

Yes, exceptions do exist. Most eco-builders try to take the earth in for repairs. Environmentalism was becoming the cause du jour before the events of September 11, and the promise is there. Some architects speaking at the green conferences had done designs to transform a ravaged campsite into an ecologically sound ashram in upstate New York, or rehabilitate a handsome, classical McKim, Mead and White building into a daycare center in Manhattan. Greenpeace not only worked with a pollutant-free menu (certified wood, recycled carpet, good glues, flooring of recycled tires, counters of recycled yogurt containers), but chose a vintage building in Washington, DC, as a site. The National Trust for Historic Preservation coaches us to retain and restrain. The list grows. But what can stop what the World Resources Institute calls our “Fraying Web of Life?” Enough!, the Center for a New American Dream labels its periodical, questioning the basics.

Such brink-of-extinction talk wouldn’t faze my Home Depot salesman, to be sure. In fact, he suggests compensating for a small, water-saving European dishwasher by buying two. Green notions are no match for the manufacturers of industrial-strength crockery and igloo-sized refrigeration. In America’s bigger-faster-better-more environment, can a true ecological commitment contend–or even coexist? Can conservation–the Click and Clack mentality, as Greg Watson, director of renewable energy at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative calls it–compete? Snap off the lights, batten down the hatches, switch off the computers nightly. Buy less, dump less. With the ever-rising US consumption spree, will escalating environmental ethics persuade the pedal-pushers of a now-idling economy toward conservation?

Thoreau, that original ethicist of nature, asked: What’s the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on? A new generation of green-builders gropes for answers. Professionals design projects and clients demand them, but many on both sides of that divide now recognize a new reality beyond style, toward sustainability. The question, of course, is not simply what’s the use of a house for humankind without a viable planet but whether that house, and its occupants, will even survive. In the end, the deeper issue is whether we can adopt conserving and mending–and nay-saying–in our architecture, our artifacts and our landscape, to heal this embattled

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