Getting Past Green

Getting Past Green

This spring, the twin calamities of an erupting Icelandic volcano and a busted oil well in the Gulf of Mexico served as spectacular reminders of the fragility of modern life and of our profound dependence upon a complex natural world. Another powerful reminder came this May when the National Academy of Sciences released a series of reports calling for immediate action to address global climate change. Strongly emphasizing that the time for “business as usual” is over, the academy’s report stated, “The U.S. should act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop a national strategy to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change.”

Meanwhile, scientists report that glaciers are melting faster than earlier predictions and the world is in the grip of the “sixth great extinction” of species, driven by the destruction of natural habitats, hunting, and climate change. It’s an overwhelming barrage of distressing news that makes many of us want to “stick our heads in the ever-warming sand,” as one observer put it. Surely no one can rationally deny that we live on a planet in serious distress.

And yet when it comes to taking immediate action on energy and climate change, mass denial appears to be in full blossom this spring. The disappointing failure of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December was followed in March by an equally disturbing Gallup poll. It reported a significant increase in skepticism about climate change among American voters, with 48 percent now believing that the seriousness of climate change is “generally exaggerated”—up from 31 percent in 1997. In the face of overwhelming international scientific consensus that climate change is real and largely caused by human activities, the national conversation about our shared future has deteriorated into a politically charged argument between “believers” and “non-believers.”

Surprisingly, it’s not much different among architects, where climate change denial and “green fatigue” appear to be almost as prevalent. Indeed, we have our own “believers” and “non-believers” in the relative importance of deeply sustainable design and the role architects can play in helping to combat climate change. Despite thousands of articles, conferences, and position papers on sustainable design over the past 20 years, an October 2009 Architect magazine poll reported that only 46 percent of responding architects agreed that “It’s vital that we design and build sustainably, in order to conserve scarce resources and prevent further global warming.”

Whether due to the overexposure of all things sustainable, misconceptions about the true costs of resource-efficient buildings, or an unwillingness to reconsider long-held design values, we are still a divided profession on this issue. There are separate journals for architecture and green building; separate awards programs for design excellence and energy-efficient design; separate studios for design and sustainable design in many of our architecture schools. In fact, the popular conception of architecture itself remains divided into separate categories: great design and sustainable design.

The tepid interest expressed toward resource-efficient design by many of our most celebrated architects—the thought leaders of our profession—contributes further to this division. Their ambivalence is manifested in well-published projects that display stunning formal and material invention, but offer only cursory nods to resource efficiency. Occasionally, a more direct opinion is expressed, as Frank Gehry did famously this April at a public appearance in Chicago. When asked about climate change and sustainable design, Gehry responded in part that the costs of making a green building are “enormous,” and “they don’t pay back in your lifetime.” The blogospheric dust-up that followed is one of the most striking public displays yet of the gulf that remains within our profession between our notions of design excellence and sustainable design.

The rapidly mounting evidence demonstrates that we can no longer afford this false distinction. Five years ago, the AIA published its “Sustainable Architectural Practice Position Statement,” which echoed Ed Mazria’s Architecture by calling for the profession to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels used to construct and operate new and renovated buildings to zero by 2030. Needless to say, this is no small task to achieve in a mere 20 years, and adding a few “green” features to our buildings clearly isn’t going to get us there.

To come even close, we will need to get past our current conceptions of “green” design and fully integrate the pursuit of high-performance, net-zero energy building within our overarching concepts of design excellence. We will need to rethink our fundamental design aspirations—many of which are firmly rooted in the energy-rich oil age—and find new architectural languages that express and celebrate the pressing realities of a post-carbon world. But the first and perhaps biggest challenge is to convince every architect and every client that this effort is worthy of our collective, undivided attention, and not just a boring, trendy distraction as some still claim.

Voluntarily broadening the long-held core design values of our profession focused on form, material innovation, and function, while critical to long-term success, will likely be a very slow process. The significance is in getting past “green” as an alternative, thus exclusive, approach. Already underway, this process requires the active support of every practicing architect across all spectrums.

Zero-energy building should be required by law. While California’s landmark Green Building Code and the upcoming International Green Construction Code (IGCC) are important first steps, our building codes should be pushed further to require radical resource efficiency in architecture, including net-zero energy and carbon-neutral construction.

When this occurs, three very important results will follow: First, these measures will no longer be seen as voluntary or “alternative” by building owners, and every building will be required to meet rigorous energy performance criteria. Second, the integration of these measures will become a matter of course for every architect, and the full creativity of the profession will be brought to bear on addressing its challenges. Finally, entrepreneurial innovation will be unleashed across the nation, helping to accelerate the development of new, low-cost carbon-neutral technologies.

It is equally important to integrate design thinking into our schools. Universities have been leaders in research and education surrounding resource-efficient design since the early 1970s. However, deeply sustainable design is still not fully engaged in the design studios of many architecture schools, thus reinforcing the artificial divisions that already exist between the ideals of design excellence and resource-efficiency. More work needs to be done to fully integrate design thinking and appropriately prepare young architects for a challenging future.

The need for advanced, low-energy buildings is outpacing the capacity of our digital tools to design them, and the need for better energy-modeling software is becoming critical. Today, this software is mainly managed by outside consultants, and the accuracy of the data can be problematic. But since many of the earliest design decisions are the most important, particularly in high-performance building design, architects need simple, accurate energy modeling tools that we can use directly in our design process.

The time has come to eliminate energy efficiency design award programs. These award programs served an important purpose in the early days of the environmental design movement when these measures were widely viewed as optional. Today, however, when every building should be designed for aggressive resource efficiency, separate energy efficiency award programs tend to reinforce the balkanization of design and weaken the design culture of our profession.

The efforts of AIA National, AIA California Council, and an increasing number of local chapters to require energy efficiency metrics in their architectural design awards programs are laudable steps in the right direction. But these are often still optional judging criteria that juries might be tempted to ignore. The AIA should accelerate and rigorously enforce efforts to make every design awards program require advanced resource-efficiency as a prerequisite for design excellence.

Let’s get past our paler notions of “green design” and stop fussing over arcane LEED points to get to the real business of fully integrating radical resource- efficiency within our concepts of design excellence. Only then can we whole-heartedly focus the transformative power of design on the greatest challenge of our generation: helping to lead our society to a prosperous, carbon-neutral future. We can afford to do nothing less.