ivory tower green
15 May 2014
I need to share some thoughts about the state of green – honestly and freely.
It may sound like a rant, and I may draw criticism, but, I am seeking awareness more than solutions.
What is the perception of green or sustainability in architecture and construction outside of the circles of architects, namely large(r) firms and large public/university projects? Where are we on this issue for the majority of projects, the majority of firms and the majority of people?
What about the small project, the small firm and the small business owner? Remember, I’m dealing with perception.
If you develop your frame of reference solely from glossy magazines or if you are bound by the ivory tower of academic sustainability and environmental performance modeling or if you are an architect working solely on (large) LEED projects you might have a narrow perspective.
Am I playing with matches? Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
To be clear, I am a huge advocate for design that is smart, sustainable and makes sense economically as well as environmentally. If I might digress for just a moment, the best statement on this issue can be found here on BuildLLC’s website. I haven’t met an architect yet who doesn’t believe or think in sustainability. I’m a believer; perhaps for different reasons, so don’t waste effort convincing me. I grew up in an era when it was a sin to waste or throw away food, it was wrong to litter and “only YOU can prevent forest fires.” Now that politics are involved and the potential for legislation, it somehow spoils it. I just read about this green certification requirement in California and I’m outraged.
Building owners, developers, and clients need to be convinced by more than a sermon or doomsday message. The term green or sustainability is in every architectural journal, trade magazine and on every bit of architectural or construction media. However, the message is working to proselytize based on a narrow set of values – ones that might not be shared by all, or to the same degree.
Let me tell you a secret. Not every project and not every architect is privileged at designing projects that would meet some type of certification or have budgets that permit it. Every client is interested in accomplishing something with their project – being green (officially) isn’t always at the top of the list. Some of them just want to be able to open their own business and live independently. A small startup barely has the cash to pay for a sign let alone anything else.
Not all clients are cooperative or demanding of incorporating any type of improvements beyond the strict reading of the building code. Many clients would love to be more “green”, but the costs of renovations are simply too high to fit anything else into the proverbial “five-pound bag.” “Does it really cost more” cannot be answered objectively.
If you haven’t noticed, there are zealots who practice sustainability as a religion. My experience has been that they often demonstrate a lack of understanding for those of us working desperately hard to at a different level striving to promote any type of healthy architecture.
I recently completed a year-long series of classes that were focused on the 2030 Challenge and the AIA’s 2030 Commitment intended to illuminate us to the primary issues one ought to consider as an architect for carbon neutrality and ultimately net zero energy – all by the year 2030. It was ten classes in twelve months. I don’t think there’s a person on this planet that would take objection to that idea at face value. Yet, I found most of the classes to be indoctrinating sermons and unique mega-project case studies more than useful information. Fortunately, the online source 2030 Palette, is a step in the right direction. I could have saved my money.
The teachers we had are innovators leading the way in this part of our profession. They are inspiring architects, professors and experts in this arena winning awards for their efforts and results. Despite my respect for these leaders, my perception is that a large part of our profession and a large part of the construction projects occurring each year is being overlooked. That has to change.
The projects getting attention (and accolades) are typically large public projects with clients that may have good intentions, but are also motivated by peer pressure to put a badge on their buildings. Let’s not kid ourselves here. The smaller projects are rare and typically have a client or other leader (other than the architect) who has a direct interest in incorporating sustainable concepts above the code minimum. My guess is that it comes back to the core set of values.
Small practitioners often work with small projects (usually additions and renovations) and independent clients who are not swayed (or able) to compete with others in their industry. We find it exceptionally difficult to encourage let alone implement strategies that would be considered sustainable beyond code (energy) requirements. There is generally no fee or budget to pursue a recognized process like LEED or Energy Star, let alone increase the insulation, add non-conventional building systems, water saving methods, renewable energy sources or anything that has a higher first cost. Every piece in our projects must serve multiple duties of function, aesthetics and building systems.
Back to my class discussion…after one class, I was asked one night by a presenter “what difference I was making with respect to these issues” (expecting some noble response). I told him my efforts (in a small town) are more heroic and that some of my challenges are often to get clients to put adequate insulation in the walls let alone adopt these high-level concepts. He seemed truly surprised and rather speechless – that’s my point – he has no response. Do these people not know?
Now I am not judging him specifically but it seems to be a common misunderstanding that not everyone is going to easily or quickly adopt these strategies – even after all of these years. They must wake up to this reality. Several other architects who took classes with me shared their own struggles.
My clients and your clients are good people and they are trying to solve their own needs while trying to create a facility for their business or for their organization – and the bottom line is money. Don’t tell me these systems cost the same – that the first cost is the same. I don’t want to hear it. It takes more design and engineering, (a.k.a. more fees) and the initial upfront cost is higher. An offset of one upgraded component or system for a reduced system elsewhere doesn’t occur at my level. When you have projects under $1M or often under $500K, there is no room in the budget for anything but the bare minimum – unless the client says otherwise.
Now I do believe we need to work harder at demonstrating life-cycle cost, future maintenance costs and operational costs as significant factors. Yet, so many building owners and tenants are only interested in the initial cost. There has to be an easier way besides expensive energy modeling to quickly and clearly demonstrate the offset costs between system trade-offs, the payoff for increased insulation and a better envelope or any other earth-saving method of construction – for a project that has a fee in $1,000’s not $10,000’s or $100,000 or more. Simply sticking on renewables onto a bad envelope isn’t a smart answer.
I used to believe that education was the answer to everything. Somehow, if we were all educated about whatever subject, somehow the world would be a better place. I suppose my feelings about that are fading with my belief in unicorns and leprechauns. I do think when it comes to the education process we have to become less preachy about sustainability and less about touchy-feely-green-hippie-kind-of-stuff (nothing wrong with hippies) and become more focused on finding ways to easily demonstrate energy efficiency and be sensitive to things like return on investment.
We have to see things from another point of view and a different set of values.
I strongly believe that architecture far exceeds the initial client, the initial user and the one writing the check. However, if we are going to get this accomplished we have to see things from their point of view and develop a method to guide them in their decision-making, with their limitations and find solutions that are healthy for the environment yet don’t break the bank. Then we need to celebrate the small victories as much as the large ones and not be condescending to those without a badge.
So what is the answer – just do nothing?
No, I’m not saying that. My point today is not one of trying to find a solution necessarily. I don’t have one. I would like to see some acknowledgment from these enthusiasts that they need to help us find ways to address the lowest common denominator and not just show us case study after case study of projects where the client has led the charge on sustainability or the client has demanded a certification. I have heard them belittle going for the low hanging fruit. Sometimes that is the only fruit you’ll ever get.
Show me how to get the most difficult client to find the budget to incorporate smart, energy-saving, sustainable technologies and I’m all ears. Don’t force me to cull through documents several hundred pages long or ask me to learn an expensive energy program that takes years to master.
I am a sole-practitioner as are most architectural firms in this country and we understand it is our responsibility to demonstrate value to our clients. But we don’t have the resources of a large 100+ person firm.
Please come down from your ivory tower, come alongside me and let’s get this done.
Top photo is from the Wikimedia Commons (used under the Creative Common License)