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David Cook — No, Not the American Idol — Explains What Green Architecture Really Means

As architects, we recognize that any undertaking as substantial as the construction and subsequent operation of buildings naturally consumes considerable natural resources. The questions are, how can we, as leaders of the design team, create buildings which are better integrated in our world, and how we can place less strain on our environment through the process of building?

These goals seem contradictory at their very essence. We believe that we are charged with making a balanced, considered response to resolving the respectful tempering of the natural environment — based on local cultural and climatic conditions — with the basic necessity of providing shelter. We are convinced that stimulating, high-quality built environments can be realized whilst handling natural resources in a more economical and responsible manner. Our design process approach is characterized by the curiosity, commodity, and delight in discovering and responding to new issues and technologies and the desire to improve upon what has already been achieved.

Increasingly misused in architecture, the term sustainability is in danger of becoming a mere label. In man’s relatively short occupation of the Earth, we have succeeded in acutely threatening its future and our habitat. However, we now appear to be gaining a common understanding of the urgency of these matters. Perhaps, for whatever reason, we have finally reached a “tipping point,” where we cannot remain in denial. For us sustainability is less a political issue than a humanistic issue; for qualities are just as important as quantities and a “sustainable,” or indeed “green,” architecture must not solely focus on environmental constraints or pre-defined performance criteria, but also celebrate the wealth and diversity of nature.

Buildings can only be spoken of in sustainable terms if they suit their purpose and are efficient to operate. Otherwise they consume unnecessary resources, are a burden to the owners and risk premature replacement. The process of design requires the consideration of the whole life cycle cost of a building, both in terms of economics and environmental impact; for buildings with a design life of 60 years, the cost of ownership and operation actually far exceeds the cost of construction. Therefore the design approach for any new construction should seek to maximize the efficiency of the building fabric in order to conserve resources in future operation. For us, sustainability in architecture is really about acknowledging the diversity of patterns of use and promoting the wide range of quite subtle, often conflicting, qualities in our built environment. In each project we seek to adopt design strategies which recognize that the building’s occupants and their response to their immediate environment as an integral part of these systems.

As we continue to make extreme demands on nature, it is essential that we acknowledge the finite nature of resources and carefully review our behavioral patterns. Unfortunately people don’t change their habits easily unless there are good reasons for doing so and we cannot rely upon morals alone. Perhaps the real reason that people don’t change is that they don’t see any immediate benefit. Climate Change is undoubtedly upon us, but its worst effects will not be truly felt in the short term, unless there is leadership then everyone will largely continue to live in a manner which is clearly unsustainable. Rewards are what are needed, not the opposite. We must therefore ensure that a comprehensive range of correct incentives are identified and put firmly in place, whilst avoiding restrictions which could be seen to unduly compromise opportunities and the quality of life. However the issue of political will still remains: some reluctant parties continue to insist that economically and ecologically sound behaviors are unrelated, however in other enlightened economic circles, the protection of our environment is seen as an absolute necessity, and as an opportunity for potential growth, social development and economic progress. If governments continue to subsidize the oil industry at the expense of those developing technologies based upon renewables then the uptake will naturally be slowed.

Given the complexity of any “sustainable” design approach it often becomes difficult to comprehend the broad range of issues and identify a balanced way forward. In management terms there is often insufficient time to consider all the issues and from that make informed decisions for investment and project priorities. Such is the range of issues which require addressing that there are few, if any people who have both the depth and width of specialist knowledge to advise on how such a balance may be achieved and maintained.

All is certainly not “doom and gloom” for with many projects we are undoubtedly experiencing a change in attitude toward building, as many clients expect us to design, develop, and deliver environmentally responsible buildings. The driving forces however are not always clear or necessarily the same. Led by various not-for-profit organizations, business too has recognized the value of a healthy indoor and outdoor environment. Many building occupiers, particularly large corporates, are committed to corporate social responsibility and environmental policies which require them to take active steps to reduce their carbon footprint. Other organizations are increasingly adopting such policies not only to “do the right thing” but also to differentiate themselves from their competitors for recruitment, staff retention and market-facing purposes. We are also experiencing both developers and occupiers seeking a standard of energy efficiency in their buildings well above what is required by law by way of protection against future tighter legislative requirements, volatility in energy prices and the increased awareness of the physical effects that global warming will have on our cities.

Although previous attempts to define and nurture a widespread green architecture have been aborted let us hope that the potent combination of rising energy prices and the potential impact upon national security, the current financial crisis and a myriad of environmental concerns provides the catalyst for a lasting shift in the mindset adopted in the development of all projects, no matter at which scale.

- David Cook

David Cook is a partner in Behnisch Architekten. Stefan Behnisch will be in New York tomorrow night to discuss his work for Harvard as part of “What is Green Architecture?” with Andres Lepik.

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