better side of green

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I’m an architect and by definition that means that I believe in the better when it comes to our built environment and quite frankly in all aspects of our lives. This has to extend not only in the what, but how we discuss, practice and portray architecture. Sometimes, we let our frustrations show in an unpleasant manner.

I take that charge passionately with me every day and I work hard to guide clients, contractors and others around me to engage in an ideal of which I feel strongly. I have strong opinions and I’m not afraid to voice them nor am I offended to read strong opinions from others regardless of whether they align with mine. I read constantly in an effort to learn and improve the way I design spaces and practice architecture (for all types of people).

As an architect desperately interested in seeing our profession thrive and undergo positive perceptual change, I occasionally sense a negative, snobbish attitude from architects and others in the A/E/C community towards those who have a different set of ideals when it comes to the environment. How we address the needs of the environment or sustainability or green has to be done carefully especially when we reveal it in the media and most importantly to our clients. I wrote about this in a similar post back in July 2014.

Yes it is imperative to share with them how their building will use energy and how their building will be affected by the climate regardless of your position or belief on climate change. We have to design smart, however I’m not convinced yet that building to the ultimate performance level preached by the pundits is an equal first cost endeavor. It might be the best solution in the long term, it might make the most sense in a lifecycle cost analysis, but when you are on the other side of the table looking at your pot of money, whether you are a homeowner or that coffee shop owner down the street, there is only so much money to spend at the beginning. The dynamics for this in small projects can be quite different than with a hospital or university building, although they might face similar challenges. Small projects are my life and in some ways can be most difficult.

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It doesn’t help this issue to make snarky comments or denigrate any one particular person, project or industry because they don’t align with one’s ideology. Chastising people on any social media platform or within journals for using seemingly archaic building materials and methods is not useful to our perception. It’s why people hate architects.

Yes, I have my own set of opinions on these subjects and at times I too have been guilty of negative rants. I think we can demonstrate through more objective (not political) means why certain decisions are better than others. But depending on where you live or practice or build, these technologies or methods of construction may not have been adopted in the mindset of the construction professionals or the client base of that area. Therefore, at a particular time and moment a building could cost tremendously more to improve the envelope or integrate active systems or other building systems that are different than the run-of-the-mill solutions. Many wish to pursue these options, but simply cannot.

In order to convince your client to make a better decision we have to find simple quick ways to clearly show them how it will make their life better or save them money or fit into the budget. Simple means in less words than this post. They also have to be willing to compensate us for our research and demonstrations. If they say no (for whatever reason) and they choose to build to the code minimum, then as an architect or engineer you either have to follow through with that or you need to make a hard decision and walk away. It’s that simple, let them alone.

I don’t think it’s useful to show arrogance in the media because people are making free decisions that differ from our ideology. This is the USA after all. We have to watch that this remains as a science and doesn’t become a religion or a political platform. If you don’t think it is, I can introduce you to people or point you in directions where this is the religion of certain individuals or organizations. If you don’t think it’s political, you’re kidding yourself.

As we partner with the AIA and other organizations by educating the public to make buildings that will last longer, perform better, provide cleaner indoor air, use less energy and less materials, our attitude behind our presentation it is absolutely critical. There’s no room for condescending attitudes.

Face it. Some people are not going to choose the same thing you choose. Does taking that choice away make anything better – for the environment or for our profession?

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better side of green

11 thoughts on “better side of green

  1. Lee, while i agree generally with the tone of the post, i am not sure i can whole heartedly get behind your final statement.

    Maybe i am making unfair comparisons, but sometimes taking peoples individual choice away is better on a whole. To text while driving or not. To provide accessible restrooms in a building or not. To rob the corner store for a few bucks or not. Etc…

    And while i do agree that persuasion through education is the more noble route. I am not sure it is the most practicable.

    Regardless, i appreciate your thoughts on the subject and enjoyed reading it as usual.

    1. Matt, I get where you’re going and I have to say I it’s not an easy answer. When public safety is involved (i.e. texting while driving) it becomes easier. I might be criticized for being contradictory in my thinking because I am on a HARB in my city. With a HARB, ARB, HRC or any other board that “decides” items that are visual and not safety related, that could be taking away someone’s choice. I just don’t think adding another code is a good move right now in PA. It needs to be prefaced with a period of explanation of how this type of thinking and building is better for the individual as well as the earth. Is it practical, is it reasonable or is it fair? These are the difficult things that you and I deal with lately that I want to talk about more. Perhaps I’ll change my position upon thinking about it.

      1. I can certainly appreciate that adding another code may not be the best answer. And for me, i tend to think about environmental issues as public safety issues. Maybe not immediate safety, but certainly long term safety.

        It is always difficult to draw the line demarcating where individual choice stops and the greater good starts. We had an incident a couple of blocks from our house yesterday that, i think, really highlights this dilemma. The short story is someone was walking in the road because the sidewalks were not clear. Two people ended up being struck by cars, one died. Who’s to blame? The people who exercised their individual choice to not abide by the unenforced city ordinance and clear the snow off their sidewalk? The person walking in the street because there was no where else for them to walk? The drivers of cars who choose to continue driving as though there were no special conditions around them that would warranted extra caution?

        I know i have my opinion. And the situation is more complex than stated above. But in the end each exercised their personal right to choose and somebody died.

        Surely there must be a better way. And while i think i have a good idea of what that would be, i will be the first to admit i am not sure how we as a society can get there.

  2. “Yes it is imperative to share with them how their building will use energy and how their building will be affected by the climate regardless of your position or belief on climate change.” – Of course it is! For architects, the design and execution are only a part of the bigger scheme of things they change. If not us, who will educate the clients, and who will help them make better decisions?

    In CA, the cities have already adapted a lot of green codes/ requirements. Makes it easier, and when that alone doesn’t work, I try the projected savings method.. it’s easier to convince the client of a certain means/method/material by associating a dollar cost to it than anything else.

    Condescending attitude towards the clients probably only helped starchitects? 🙂

    1. But what happens if they say no and there are no codes or other regulations to “force” them into making that decision? What if they say no despite your attempts to show them the projected cost savings method. What if they just can’t afford to upgrade the building with more insulation or a more elaborate HVAC system or other features?

      1. Those are all problematic questions. And ones we certainly need to be having a conversation around. Pricing small business owners out of building / renovating will do nothing to help struggling economies. And some people certainly have no concern for the long term sustainability of the planet.

        So what if there is no code and all your persuasion attempts fail?

        I think at that point, it is still our responsibility to do what we can as Architects. Little things that are imperceptible to the owners wallet. Local sourcing. Low VOC. Recycled content. Etc… It may not be the better solution, but it at least is the best you can do given the circumstances.

      2. Matt, I am totally with you. It is an extremely difficult issue, especially for small practitioners like us. Personally I feel that all large buildings should have to comply with the highest or near the highest of standards since they use up a larger amount of energy. They should be the leaders too. We could go on about that. However, you and I both face the client that is either in the middle or not sympathetic to these issues. They say they want energy efficiency, but when it’s time to pay for it, they’d rather have the granite countertops. I typically design as smart as I can and have the discussion later in the mix. I typically don’t ask “would you like sustainability with that?” What really got me was a few things I read where an architect was snotty and arrogant about a project that may not have been the highest of standards, but had a story to it. It was a nice project. To chide or worse chastise people for their decision in a public forum really bugs me. I don’t think it helps. We will have green codes come through and maybe that will help. But I hope people can embrace it before that. I really like how you’ve illustrated the line between personal choice and regulation. I suppose every law takes away some degree of choice. I guess we can “choose” to comply and “choose” not to hurt or harm.

  3. I believe climate change is real and overwhelmingly documented by evidence contributed by over 98% of the scientific community who have studied the facts. I understand many do not, but I believe architects are professionally responsible to suggest sustainable design features in every project they encounter. When I tell my clients I do not believe in waste, extravagance, or the wanton use of resources—whether human, material, or environmental—they tell me they don’t either. From that point on, we have foundational agreement on how we will use their resources to design the project, and that’s been without exception for over 40 years on any size project.

    Whether basic site orientation, materials use, energy efficiency, or daylighting, sustainable practices are part of any true design process. Consequently, I do not believe sustainable design is a separate or specialized branch of architecture—it’s nothing more than what we were all taught in design school. As far as LEED, Green Globes, Architecture 2030, the Living Building Challenge, and others: these all offer great design guidelines and represent valuable sources for using sustainable design practices. These sources create an awesome knowledge base which we need to understand and know when to apply. The two main problems with most of the rating systems are the amount of cost and effort required to obtain certification, and the way they are used as another form of elitism, which helps breed condescending attitudes. Instead of encouraging the rank and file, too many “green experts” practice a religion of self-serving, environmental dogma. From experience, the best sustainable design practice is common sense. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

    As an example, one of my more recent small projects was a $350,000.00 partial renovation of an 80-year old Christian Reformed Church. Reformed Christians greatly believe in God’s election and predestination, and this group cared more about a new kitchen and fellowship space than they did climate change. After a 10-year funding effort, I was told in no uncertain words that not one cent would be spent on anything other than the kitchen and fellowship space. Ultimately we found the existing kitchen to be too small and too expensive for renovation, so we gutted the old kitchen to increase the existing fellowship space which was renewed, and then built a new 300 sf kitchen and a separate 200 sf accessible restroom addition. Does this sound like a sustainable design project?

    Let me finish. During design, we showed the Church how to purchase and use green-sourced power; invest in solar energy farms instead of CD’s or 401K’s (a $5,000/5 year investment can easily earn 15%); replace existing windows with triple-pane glazing; save water and energy use with a tankless hot-water unit; decrease air-conditioning with ceiling fans; use recycled and renewable materials; leverage energy-star appliances and high-efficiency lighting; and increase building insulation and energy efficiency by 25%. This may not seem like that much, but it can make a huge difference when these practices are multiplied across the vast domain of existing buildings in the world.

    Lastly, remember the greenest building is a renovated building. The old saw “think globally act locally” still prevails—especially for small renovation projects. The most important sustainable strategies are: optimize embodied energy, local trades, suppliers, sources, and manufacturers; build community; and make places better for people and the environment. At least as architects, that’s what I believe we should do. Many ivory green towers wish they could say they same. I hope this helps.

    1. Larry, thanks – that is encouraging and does get at my overall point. We need to read more stories like yours and the church. I too find that many in my circles of Christians don’t know how to find balance with this issue as many move away as a reaction to the religious zealots of environmentalism since they tend to have a different set of priorities.

      That being said, no one should be wasteful and wouldn’t do it intentionally if they knew their options. I’d love to learn more about the things you mentioned in that church (for small projects) than about whiz-bang gadgets and systems and programs reserved for those that can invest in the badge. I just want to be smart and regardless of one’s opinion of the climate or environment, we all know it’s wrong to be wasteful. How we come to that conclusion is a whole other conversation.

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