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And the Greenie Goes To...

By: Jerry Yudelson, PE, LEED AP, Yudelson Associates - Monday, March 19, 2007
Source: Yudelson Associates, Inc.

Watching the Oscars recently and seeing a corpulent Al Gore accept the best documentary Oscar for the film, An Inconvenient Truth, I was inspired to think about awards in general and particularly about awards architects give each other for their projects.

A recently-completed science building at the University of Arizona (in Tucson, where I live) that is getting lots of favorable press (and will probably be submitted for multiple awards) also prompted me to think: it may be a great building perhaps, from an aesthetic and functional viewpoint, but what of its impact on the environment?  How do we know it’s going to be a healthy building for people to work in?  What do we know of its operating costs or planetary impact for the next 25 years?  This project did not seek LEED certification – primarily because it was budgeted before LEED was on the university’s radar screen.  But for other projects, and at this late date in the evolution of green buildings – with LEED version 2.x available now for seven years, shouldn't every building find the money for LEED certification?

As with most professions, architecture is incredibly self-referential.  Unless one is a bona fide architect, architecture professor or recognized critic, one is not supposed to comment on a project's architectural merit.  But think for a moment why the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building rating system even exist.

Wasn’t LEED created because the architectural profession wasn’t doing even a halfway good job of reducing the impact of buildings on energy demand, water use and habitat disturbance?  The USGBC was created in 1993 (nearly 15 years ago) to transform the marketplace for buildings toward healthier and more environmentally benign places; the fact that it has prospered during the past decade is an implied indictment of the work of the architectural profession, don’t you think?

Even today, isn't it a huge black eye for architects (and building engineers) that there are so few 'post occupancy evaluations" that seriously examine how buildings affect people?  Doesn’t anyone care how buildings actually perform, or does the profession just walk away once they’re built and they get paid?  (I know; there’s no money left in a project budget to pay for such things, but I’ve never once heard an architect – or engineer – suggest to a building owner or project manager they should include that activity in their fee.)

Don’t get me wrong; I love architects (and engineers).  I want to acknowledge here how many of them are pushing from within the profession to change old habits and design much better buildings.  But the leadership, both nationally and locally, needs to step up and draw a line in the sand on this issue of what constitutes an award-eligible building.

Didn’t we need LEED because buildings were basically unhealthy places to live, work, play and learn, even while architects were busy picking up awards for them?  (Think of Seventies schools designed without windows.)  Don’t 5,000 LEED-registered projects (and counting) indicate a tremendous market appetite for realistic building evaluations?  I remember incredulously how a lighting designer with whom I once worked told me that he couldn’t submit award photos for lighting competitions that had people in them – and I thought: for whom are we designing buildings – award juries or people?

Why should any building (or any architect) get an award in the future without subjecting itself to the scrutiny of a LEED certification process and receiving at least a LEED Silver award, as more than 60 percent of LEED certifications now do?  What could be award-worthy about a building that didn’t save at least 30 percent of the energy use of a conventional building or reduce water use by 30 percent, as the average basic LEED-certified building does?

The national AIA went on record in late 2005, supporting a policy to encourage a 50 percent reduction in new building energy use by 2010, compared with 2005 averages.  Wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that any future AIA Committee on the Environment "Top Ten" annual awards won’t acknowledge projects that don’t meet that goal and are already LEED certified?  (As a reviewer of award submittals for a national magazine, that’s my personal standard right now.)  Shouldn’t ASHRAE hold its award winners to the same standard?

Bringing this down to the local level, why should any AIA chapter (or ASHRAE chapter) give awards to projects that aren’t LEED certified and show at least 50 percent energy savings against the 2005 average building energy use for that particular project type?  Initially, that policy might cut down on the number of projects submitted for awards.  However, it would certainly send a message to architects, owners and building engineers that we are in a serious mess with respect to energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from building operations, and we are counting on them to lead the way toward cost-effective solutions.

A modest proposal, don’t you think?  Let’s hear from you.

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