ivory tower green


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.

WalMart Solar

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.

Screenshot 2014-05-14 09.05.50

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.

Screenshot 2014-05-14 08.37.36

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.

2030 Commitment

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.

Screenshot 2014-05-14 09.06.24

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.

Google search sustainability

Google search small project

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.

 WalMart Windmills

Top photo is from the Wikimedia Commons (used under the Creative Common License)

ivory tower green

17 thoughts on “ivory tower green

  1. Great post. Different areas of the US and Canada have different responses to “green architecture” and the rating systems that are intended to do good, but often consist of “buying points”. I went to a number of seminar lunches in Vancouver when I lived there, and was surprised at how long the life-cycle cost of these green initiatives took to make the added cost worthwhile. But they were also least desiring to make the changes where energy was subsidized the most, with the exception of a few places. Regionalism has the biggest effect on green architecture. Vancouver didn’t even do double-glazed windows until the last decade because it was so much warmer than the rest of the country, and yet their attitude towards green architecture is more pronounced than anywhere else in Canada, especially using local products. Every time I hear how sustainable bamboo and cork flooring is, I cringe. It’s renewable, yes. But not very sustainable if you have to ship it halfway across the world to get it to your building. We need to use the words in the correct application. Sustainable is not a catch-all.

    1. Thanks for the Canadian perspective. I’m tired of hearing green or sustainable; I just want to make architecture. Doing it well seems implied, but someone said it now has to be ___ or ___ or it’s not green, correct or whatever.

  2. Thanks for being the one to stick your neck out Lee. You’ve just said what I’ve been wanting to say, but usually stay zipped. I can’t tell you how many clients include the words ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ in their initial list of wants. Only to occupy the VE chopping block almost right away. But attempts to educate are seen as pro death to Mother Earth and the project opportunity is in jeopardy. But I’ve found that educating during budgeting seems to drive a more realistic conversation. One can only be as green as the wallet

    1. You’re correct – it has to be a priority, but we need to have ways to make it work at all levels. No one ever wants to admit that being green isn’t altruistic. Someone is getting rich off of saving the world.

      1. You’re right, Lee and T. The mere thought of having to bend to USGBC or any of the other organizations trying to jump on the gravy train infuriates me when all WE have to do is educate and specify what is to be done with the project. A simplified check list would benefit you and the client in order of preference and ROI. I’m all over that!

  3. Good morning Lee. I have never worked in an ivory tower but I can tell you that after 40 years of doing first commercial development, and then mostly civic and community facilities, there are as many in the public sector who can be as difficult as the most onerous private sector developer. The shortest response to your question is to show the client the extent of the green return on investment resulting from high thermal mass, use of alternative energy sources, direct energy savings, reduced O/M costs, revenues gained from higher user performance (increased test scores, retail sales, worker productivity, etc.) and strategic use of embodied energy. For the sake of brevity, I have tons of back-up sources for all these considerations, am presently writing a book related to this subject, and happy to share more.

    1. Larry, I appreciate your offer and also your feedback. The point of my post was not to critique the client side of it, but to critique the architect/professor/green expert side. Those who are designing these projects are clueless to us small practitioners in the trenches. We need brief simple methods to share how design can benefit the client first, and the earth in the process. I’m open to reading your book, but I need a “one-page” method.

      1. Lee, sorry I misunderstood your intent, nor do I want you to have to read a book. I just wanted you to know I have been doing a lot of work on the subject. Give me a few days so that I can put together a couple of one page “strategy” pages and then we can chat more. This is a good challenge for me.

      2. Larry, this is why I write and post honestly. I am reaching out to have this conversation. I may make sarcastic comments at times, but my intentions are sincere.

        Think about projects that are a few thousand square feet maximum or a project that is say $300K or $500K or maybe smaller. How can we help these people make smart decisions that are healthy?

  4. Ted Rusnak says:

    IF time were not so limited for me I would present my rant against those who have “discovered” energy efficiency, sustainability and, generally, being green.
    There is not a day that goes by that this Architect doesn’t think of the aforementioned subjects and how they might be implemented. And needless to say this is what I was taught. I wasn’t lectured on the touchy, feely, get certified or awarded reasons. It was the right way to build.
    And yes, I / we encourage efficient structures but everything has its’ limits.
    Seems those with larger budgets, or egos, who need to boast of their shiny metal awards have the floor.
    I build for the needs of my clients and their budgets and work as creatively as possible to increase their buildings efficiency.

  5. Michael Watts says:

    This is a great post and thread on the “green” issues that I have faced in design and implementation of smart buildings……..
    I was not one who immediately jumped on the USGBC “wagon” as the path to sustainable design……I saw first hand how the clients and developers here in So, California marketed the green leed aspect in wanting the plaque and certificate…….the one’s with unlimited (it seemed) budget and coveted the shining star in the public eye………
    It is a struggle to educate and somewhat convince the small project client to spend the extra funds and for them to understand the ROI of those expenditures……..
    Keep the comments and communication going/coming/flowing……this is good stuff!!!
    I would like to hear more from Larry Wolff and the book he is writing……along with his sources of information……..

    1. We need a way to be objective and measurable. However, we can’t lose our minds along the way. Balance is always difficult to achieve and the shiny badge distracts us from our real mission. I hope we can make this a larger useful conversation. I want to learn from this so when I sit in my office, I have the tools to do smart work efficiently.

  6. I’ve been waiting all day to comment! And now it’s the end of the day so I won’t take the time to go through all the comments because I’m lazy and have to get to work. This is a great post as usual, Lee. I’m not sure what the latest craze is over on the West Coast, but I imagine, in true California fashion, it’s something completely against rational thought.

    What I have to say is simply this:

    Regulation is not the answer to “green” anything, least of all architecture. The only key ingredient, or “secret” in the formula for architecture that is sustainable, affordable and environmentally friendly is a return to real Architecture. Architecture, with a capital A, that responds to the site, takes advantage of the solar path, prevailing winds and seasonal climate shifts to reduce the need for artificial lighting and mechanical air conditioning. A home that is well insulated from harsh temperature differences and that takes advantage of passive heating/cooling technologies can all but eliminate it’s dependence on mechanical heating and cooling. A home that is properly design and finished should, on any average partly cloudy day, need almost no artificial lighting during the daylight hours.

    It’s a return to common sense, low tech and low budget solutions that we need for our buildings to be truly sustainable, not more gadgets, gizmos and what not. A building that works WITH it’s environment instead of against it will last forever…or close enough not to matter. Enter the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Mesopotamians, Mayans, the friggin Cave Man….seriously…How much more sustainable can you get than making your house in a natural rock formation? Just sayin. 😛

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