14 May 2009

Pressed into a green mold: a LEED example

On a recent incursion to the Gulf of Mexico,we turned up unannounced to the opening of the new office headquarters of a local contractor. It was being billed as the first LEED Gold facility in the state built by and for a construction management firm. The credentials of the certification had not yet come in, but we were told they expected to exceed the points needed by a large margin. What had happened that we would get here, with the Green (LEED) stamp of approval, with the resulting building as innocuous and uninspiring as any building type in any suburban sprawl - whether in Florida or in "Kogai" (the suburban "newtowns" in Japan) ?

Guided tours of the facility were given by staff members with breast pins that read “Ask me about LEED”, sharing euphemistic metaphors, with visible enthusiasm, hitched to what was once a truly sustainable, environmentally sensitive design script.

The discourse offered was reinforced by by figures that would mean most to the lay person - the amount of water saved; the amount of energy bills reduced; the general good moral of the staff seen in longer hours worked, free from any VOC's in their new cubicles. Yet despite all the good intentions - and at no fault of their own in implementing them - the project was a tepid and stale example of what LEED brings us in terms of current building.

Institutionalized directives as LEED, BREEAM, HQE, tend to stifle the proactive and creative strategies that should be part of all design or built projects today. They should be the minimum to expect from any new or conversion project – the standard practice of the design field and the notably the reluctant building industry and not an expensive benchmark brand. With the inescapable proof of the hugely negative impact of new building on the world’s eco-system, not to mention the overused term global warming, the current format of green directives are not in an impetus for intuitive or proactive problem-solving.

It is deeply counterintuitive that our field has espoused so readily the point system/benchmark system, like formulas to design to, when in the most skillful hands the specific results are often mediocre.

What concerns us is when building performance is taken as a telic and fixed result, rather then an atelic process, on-going both in design and in the building’s assumed life-span (as in C2C, or Cradle-to-Cradle design, as theorized by Swiss architect William Stahela, a far more ambitious vision championed by William McDonough and the Swiss engineer Michael Braungart). The science and chemistry behind life-cycle and carbon neutral approaches are frequently factored into the best parametric design practices - Arup, Elioth, Transplan, B&G - using more tools for more ingenious results: CFD (computative fluid dynamics) or ASK (Artificial Sky visualization, radiance/illuminance and optimized natural daylighting studies) or more simply, Canadian Wells (Geo-thermal heat exchange) to name just a few.

The gulf coast headquarters is a telltale example of a meager ambition that coops the benchmark script of many green building today. Despite the very best of intentions, LEED and its equivalent, validate small steps (and miserable architectural results) or worse, stand-in for product placement. From the outside the industry, it would appear as if they are colluding with marketing strategies rather then fostering improved visionary design. Profit will be made by those least implicated in the end results.

Instead of efficient "Canadian Wells", here on the Gulf of Mexico, we get a building with no operable windows; no natural air dynamics of a stacked interior volume in a hot climate; interior, rather exterior sunshading; and slightly narrower asphalt parking with modicum of gray-water irrigated shrubbery; not to mention the absence of a coherent autonomous energy source (sun, wind, earth). The flashpoint, is that these credit failings are countered by creating a bike room; and this in a corporate industrial park on former marshlands, where it is commonly 90 degrees, reached on four lane highways where few would dare bike. The project still reaches gold.

The hopeful wish is that the current benchmark formats and their offshoots will evolve and eventually become obsolete and the next generation of engineers and architects will realize we have been looking in the wrong place to do good for global climate change.

This generation will have to tap a new mindset, not at the service of abstruse point equations, to bring about real carbon neutral environments in unforeseeable ways. Despite peer pressure to state the contrary, we are still far from creating such built projects, whether in the deserts of the Emirates by Foster, Snohetta or OMA - as widely and erroneously billed today - to soft infill projects here at home. The place to start is not only in the physical and engineering fields - or in nature itself - but in the arts, in social theory, from Archigram to Acconci, from Botanski to Badiou, from Rodney Graham to Grcic; Buckminster's late interviews and Olafur Eliasson's work may spark a sensitive architect to look in new directions. As may the more robust imagery of Archigram or SuperStudio. The confines of the current green rating system and the resulting design is ours to break. For the sake of the planet.