When it comes to ‘green’ architecture bigger is better
Fifteen years ago, the term green building was almost unknown. In recent years, however, architects and designers notably those working on large structures have begun to rediscover many green techniques learned in the early 20th century and for good reason.When done green, big projects exponentially multiply the benefits that green buildings typically produce, which was the topic of a recent lecture in Rocky Mountain Institutes Quest for Solutions lecture series.From schools to factories to offices to institutional facilities, studies have shown that properly designed and crafted big buildings can reinvigorate dying neighborhoods, help even the least inquisitive students in their studies, and heal mental and physical ailments.Better yet, big green buildings can incur smaller utility costs and keep investments firm. Its somewhat disconcerting, in fact, to think that architects learned all this during the 20th century, then promptly forgot what they knew. A little backgroundBefore the invention of big-building mechanical systems, access to light and air were among the most important design considerations for large structures. While the big buildings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were often heated with steam, they were just as often passively cooled and illuminated, using deep-set windows, retractable canvas awnings, thermally absorbent stone and other, now-forgotten passive-comfort tricks.After World War II, however, as buildings mechanical systems evolved and the International Style came to dominate architecture, access to light and air became end-of-design afterthoughts. With unlimited ducts, fans, pumps and electricity, any buildings light, temperature, and humidity could be dragged into a habitable range.As Bill McDonough observes in Big & Green: Toward Sustainable Architecture in the 21st Century, As the twentieth century came to a close, most new buildings had become so divorced from their surroundings that the Wall Street Journal devoted an entire front page feature to a new office building designed by my firm because it had windows that could actually be opened. When operable windows make news for setting a design standard, we have reached an astonishingly low point in architecture.Green elements, such as daylighting, natural ventilation, and alternative energy and wastewater systems, meanwhile found their niche in small structures, and it was here that designers crafted personalized and very livable spaces. As anyone who grew up with Mother Earth News can recall, funky homes with solar collectors, wind turbines and water recycling systems were commonplace in the early 1970s.In 1973, the environmental movement of the late 1960s and 70s crashed headlong into the Arab oil embargo and America suddenly had an energy crisis. The energy crisis was most noticeable in the way it affected transportation energy, but it also made an impression on the building industry, and the notion that fossil fuels could indefinitely power large space-conditioning systems was suddenly challenged.In Europe, where the price of energy was even higher, governments encouraged architects, engineers, and builders to develop strategies to naturally illuminate, ventilate, and supply power to buildings, wrote David Gissen, a curator for the Big & Green show, a recent exhibit about such buildings at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.In the United States, the general environmental movement of the 1970s didnt catch on with designers immediately, and floundered well into the 1980s. As James Wines noted in Green Architecture, exploitative politics of supply side economics and its recklessly self-serving environmental policies dominated social and political life, and it took several environmental disasters in the late 1980s and early 1990s to bring resource issues back to center stage. As many citizens of the world are now witnessing environmental calamity on at least an annual basis, how humans treat the world will probably remain a prominent topic.Since the journey into space, the fragility of the world has both shocked and challenged, wrote Brenda and Robert Vale in their 1991 book Green Architecture. It has become apparent how dependent each person is on the planet, for all belong to the same whole. The single shared experience is that of living on the same, very small, earth. The way in which one person makes an alteration to the planet must have an effect on the other 4,999,999,999 inhabitants.Today, a billion and a half people after the Vales wrote those words, large architecture is becoming often out of necessity green architecture. How is bigger better? To the casual observer, big buildings seem the antithesis of energy- and resource-efficient design, but that is not necessarily the case. First, because of the concentration of users, the per-capita energy and resource efficiency of big buildings, during both construction and operation, is much higher than in most other types of structures.Second, the urban location of most big architectural projects is important. These buildings are in places where most occupants will arrive by mass transit or on foot.Third, and less obvious, is the simple fact that large buildings have big budgets, and big budgets often allow developers, architects, and engineers to push their creativity and try things that wouldnt dare be considered with smaller projects on smaller budgets photovoltaics (PVs) in the buildings skin, for example, or wind turbines on the roof, or fuel cells near the electricitys users.Such big buildings are important economic engines in two important ways. First, they can enlarge demand for green technologies, thereby expanding production capabilities and lowering the price of PVs, turbines, special glazings and other items. One large green building project, currently on hold, would have required the construction of a small industrial facility to manufacture these devices. Second, although this is not necessarily a quality of green buildings only, they will have huge impacts on their cities economies.For example, when the World Trade Center was attacked and destroyed, Manhattan lost 13 million square feet of office space, an area equal to roughly two-thirds the total office space in downtown San Francisco.Certainly big buildings, green and otherwise, can cast huge shadows and create strange wind patterns two things the WTC did but there are some compelling reasons to push these buildings as far as possible toward sustainable design.Rocky Mountain Institute has long advocated smaller, decentralized systems notably with energy and water devices and systems but when it comes to green buildings, bigger does not always mean worse. William D. Browning is founder and principal with Rocky Mountain Institutes Green Development Services. For more information on the Rocky Mountain Institute, see http://www.rmi.org
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