Less Than Zero


Forget simply cutting a building's footprint. A new wave or architectural thinkers wants to create buildings that help regenerate the environment like living organisms. Structures that give back: Is that future so far off?


By Lisa Selin Davis



Illustration courtesy of June Key Delta house

The first green buildings were the first buildings, period. Mud brick huts, a kind of early adobe, were built in Hierakonpolis, Egypt, almost 5,000 years ago. They were built with local materials, near where people farmed or hunted, in sizes that made sense—maybe just big enough to dry out your goatskins. And these early dwellings were built in concert with the weather: Homes in hot, dry climates were ventilated to push air through, and those in cold ones were sealed with thick, heavily insulated walls, oriented toward the sun for natural heat. Architecture didn’t have much of a carbon footprint, and it was local.

Flash forward to the mid-twentieth century, and you can see how buildings lost their green sheen. In the 1930s, technological innovations like structural steel, air-conditioning, vinyl siding, reflective glass, and panelized, prefab construction allowed for more buildings, faster. The Federal Housing Administration, created in 1934, provided mortgages for middle-class Americans, making the dream of single-family home ownership both realistic and ubiquitous. And the Federal-Aid Highway Act initiated the construction of 40,000 miles of highways, allowing people’s homes to be far from their workplaces. In part a miniature history of sprawl, these events also tell the story of how buildings got de-greened; how we no longer had to build in a vernacular manner. Homes got bigger and farther away and more toxic, and the tract homes in the sprawling suburbs of heat-soaked Phoenix appeared in the icy environs of Minneapolis.

“The building sector is really the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the country and the world,” says Edward Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions produced by new construction. Today, buildings consume up to 76 percent of the United States’ total electricity and emit 43 percent of our greenhouse gases. And the same mistakes are repeated in the 5 billion square feet of built space created nationwide every year.

But now, the next phase in the history of green building is underway. A band of visionary architects, designers, engineers, and builders have recognized how far we’ve strayed from the principles that informed our earliest architecture. They’re harnessing both advanced and ancient technologies to dream up structures that make even the current standard of responsible building—the US Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system—pale in comparison. While LEED certification measures and rewards a reduction in energy use, for instance, the architects behind the next-
generation, beyond-LEED structures, called “carbon neutral” or “regenerative,” are aiming for designs that use no energy at all—to be energy positive or net-zero. The green building of the future doesn’t just do less harm to the environment; it improves it. It won’t just use less water; it will collect and treat it. It won’t just force air; it will filter it. And it won’t just save energy; it will create it. Buildings are not only about to breathe like people—they’ll also give back like good Samaritans.

Green building as we know it today didn’t take hold until 2000, when the USGBC, which was formed in 1993, released its LEED rating system. The LEED program established national guidelines for green building and presented them as a checklist that any architect, designer, or building owner could follow. From there, sustainable practice leapt forward from the fringe. Suddenly our images of green homes transformed from yurts or cob-earth hippie hideouts to glass skyscrapers with wind turbines humming away on living roofs. Nearly 1,500 LEED-certified projects stand today.  There are more than 11,000 under construction and awaiting the silver, gold, or platinum imprimatur, plaques received on earning up to 69 credits for everything from outdoor air–delivery monitoring to water-efficient landscaping.

But even buildings that are LEED Platinum—the highest rating in the system—can use 80 to 100 kilowatts of energy per square meter, and some say the bar is set far too low. “LEED Gold is kind of a C right now,” says James Brew, principal architect with Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI) Built Environment Team. “Maybe LEED Platinum is a B or an A-minus.”

What would an A-plus look like? RMI’s team—a group of Boulder, Colorado–based architects, analysts, and consultants that function as a green think tank—spend their days reimagining structures as what they call “high-performance buildings” that actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, rather than just stabilizing them. They call the initiative “Cooling the Warming.” Under their tutelage, buildings will become giant air or water filters in which people happen to live or work. Extra energy will be produced through concepts like RMI’s Next-Generation Utility—smart meters and programmable controls allowing homeowners to automate their own home energy use—or the Smart Garage, where electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles (another of RMI’s favorite research topics) can tap in to the power grid, either for charging batteries or supplying energy to the grid if they’ve saved more than they need.

One structure on which RMI consulted that has not yet broken ground looks like a long lost hanzi, or Chinese character. Dubbed Energy Plus and planned for the occasionally dreary Gennevilliers area of Paris, the structure’s arms jut out at awkward angles, maximizing exposure to the sun. It will hold 10,800 square meters of photovoltaic cells on the roof—the largest building-integrated solar array in the world—and the Seine River’s water will be used for cooling purposes; no air conditioner needed. Energy Plus is set to consume only 16 kilowatts of energy per square meter, a whole lot less than the 80 to 250 so common among traditional office buildings. In fact, it could produce up to 20 percent more energy than it consumes—hence the building’s name—which the French government will buy back. Its architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, describe it as “a revolution in a glass box.”

Energy Plus is an example of what could be the next step beyond LEED, just one of many projects Brew and the RMI team have been conjuring. And while RMI has been instrumental in shaping LEED, among other rating systems, they don’t offer such a blueprint themselves. “It’s not a rating system,” Brew says of RMI’s approach, “but a way of applied thinking.”     

If RMI favors radical reimagining over ratings systems, the Cascadia Region Green Building Council (CRGBC), a regional equivalent to the USGBC that focuses on the Pacific Northwest, prefers tough love. In January 2006, it created the Living Building Challenge (LBC), which implores designers to create buildings that meet sixteen prerequisites. “It’s all or nothing,” says Thor Peterson, research director for CRGBC. “You achieve all the requirements, or you don’t have a Living Building.”

Living Buildings must generate their own energy with renewable resources; capture and treat their own water; operate efficiently; and, believe it or not, make some effort to be beautiful. They may only be sited on previously developed lands, like grayfields (parking lots or abandoned commercial spaces) or brownfields (formerly contaminated land); and they must be more than 50 feet from wetlands and far from sensitive ecological spots.

The structures must also be net-zero energy, use all FSC-approved wood, and incorporate habitat exchange (which involves setting aside an equal amount of land for every acre developed). A materials “red list” denotes forbidden substances like lead, neoprene, or anything with formaldehyde. “It’s extremely difficult to get the Living Building designation,” Peterson admits. Living Building is not intended to be a competitor to LEED, but to raise the bar higher than Platinum and focus on what LEED is missing. That includes bioregionalism—advocating different buildings for different ecosystems. “A building built in the Pacific Northwest will respond one way, and one in Tucson, Arizona, will respond another way,” says Peterson. It’s like growing “a cactus versus a Douglas fir.”

No Living Buildings exist yet to hold up as a hallmark—they must be in operation for a year before they can earn the rating—but there are seven announced winners of the 2007 Living Building competition, both in operational and blueprint stage. One of the winners under construction, the Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, New York, features a water filtration system that uses plants, bacteria, algae, snails, and fungi to treat approximately 5 million gallons of wastewater a year, which is then funneled into an aquifer on site. For this reason, among others, it’s the closest thing we’ll have to a building that’s alive—and it’s LEED Platinum, too.

But greener buildings aren’t necessarily dependent on complex LEED checklists or high-tech equipment. Architecture 2030’s Mazria maintains that the revolution can be as simple as altering building codes and tweaking public policy. “We don’t give out plaques and gold stars,” he says.  “We try to affect policy.” The state of California has already amended its building code, a change inspired by Mazria’s call for all new buildings to cut fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2010 and be carbon neutral by 2030. Since launching in January 2006, Architecture 2030’s goals have been adopted by nearly 1,000 individuals and groups, including the American Solar Energy Society, the US Conference of Mayors, and the state of New Mexico.

The know-how and the will clearly exist to transform the building sector—one holdup is money. Energy Plus is still waiting on a tenant willing to pay the premium for its office space (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill won’t say exactly how much that is), despite the potential for substantial utility savings. Thomas Behr, an associate with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and one of the architects working on the Energy Plus project, says the French government has agreed to buy back the building’s excess energy at five times the going rate. That’s the only way that energy positive buildings can make financial sense at the moment, Behr says. You must have a customer for your excess energy, and “you need to be subsidized by your government to do it.”

Other barriers exist as well. Though twisting a building to face the sun will do wonders for energy efficiency, most developers won’t do it. “For hotels or condos, you orient toward the views, not the sun,” Behr says. Maybe supermarkets and big-box stores could make that shift, but those who want to look at the mountains or the sea will have to find another way.

While he applauds the work done by LBC and RMI, Scot Horst, chair of the LEED Steering Committee, thinks LEED’s more populist approach is still the best way forward. “We need to engage all of society at a common level,” he says. “If we’re only focused on moving to the very top, we know it won’t work.” That said, a new set of LEED guidelines, Version 3.0, is set for release in November, and it will look a lot more like the Living Building Challenge and RMI’s Cooling the Warming. LEED’s governing body is reassigning the value of credits for the carbon-neutral era, with energy reduction earning more points than, say, bamboo floors. Regional concerns have also been integrated into the guidelines. The combined changes, Horst believes, means that “we’re going to see another level that’s beyond zero” carbon.

For all the building codes enlightened, milestone policies passed, and high-tech solutions proffered by think tanks, the most innovative methods of greening the construction industry are almost embarrassingly simple. Twenty-first-century green buildings will also feature a good dose of the past. “You don’t need any new technology,” Behr says. “Everything is there.”  Green building first took shape in the 1970s, part of that decade’s nascent environmental movement. Two groundbreaking books were published: Victor Olgyay’s Design with Climate introduced the concept of designing in harmony with the climate; and Ralph Knowles’ Form and Stability detailed how buildings affect the environment and vice versa.

Rising oil prices led to the formation of national groups like the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on Energy and the Solar Energy Research Institute. The pressure was on to create buildings that both saved energy and embraced nature.But the route to creating those buildings was and still is surprisingly low-tech. The effectiveness of passive-solar technology is largely determined by how a building is situated—orient it toward the sun and the bulk of your work is done. Catching rainwater to use for irrigation is also far less technologically demanding than treating water and pumping it from a distant reservoir.

Some architects brought these nature-loving building techniques to the mainstream. Norman Foster, for instance, created his first grass-roofed building, the Willis Faber and Dumas Headquarters, in England. William McDonough built the country’s first solar-powered house in 1977. But many experiments in sustainable architecture were conducted by fringe types like Michael Reynolds, who uses recycled bottles, tires, and cans to build dwellings in New Mexico called Earthships, which generate their own off-the-grid electricity while collecting and treating their own water and waste.

The Earthship sounds a lot like a Living Building—perhaps an early cousin of Energy Plus or the Omega Center—and it would probably qualify for LEED Platinum. But until now, the second wave of green building that started with the USGBC’s formation has been largely divorced from the first, a shunning of what might have been seen as out-there hippie building, irrelevant to the production building sector or the masses sprawling into suburbia. “There might have been a gut reaction away from that stuff in the 1990s, to define green building as this forward-thinking, technically-oriented approach,” says CRGBC’s Peterson. In the second wave, eco-structures were high tech and high-rise, many of them camouflaged so as not to draw attention to their green attributes—and that, of course, is what allowed green building to become mainstream.

Tomorrow’s green buildings will benefit from advanced structure codes, policy, and technology, but they’ll also have Earthship-like living walls of greenery inside that clean air and filter water. Buildings that strike a balance between the first and second wave will shy away from the sun in desert climates or hug it in colder regions. Passive solar technology will be found just as readily in some off-the-grid mountain cabin as in a skyscraper. The emerging third wave of green building, then, might be most likely to succeed when it borrows from the past to shape the future. “Look at the natural world to inform design decisions,” Peterson says.

“We’ve got millions of years of R & D out there.”

Issue 25



Sign up for Plenty's Weekly Newsletter