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Green Building: It Will Take a Lot of Green Villages
Ted Rose, 24 Nov 06
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As someone who actually set foot inside the Colorado Convention Center during last week’s Green Build Conference and Expo, I can attest that Joel Makower’s post-in-absentia accurately captured the Denver zeitgeist: The green building community seemed absorbed in a collective version of Sally Field’s Oscar acceptance moment.

The grand-poobah of green builders, William McDonough, couldn’t contain his pride, bragging twice in one keynote about how his clients’ combined revenue totaled more than one trillion dollars. “We’re mainstream,? he announced.

The conference itself seemed fat and happy. Twelve thousand attendees shuttled from ballrooms to expo hall, a number that will be dwarfed next year by the twenty-five thousand expected in Los Angeles.

The reason for all the attention was as obvious and as it was sobering: The world’s carbon footprint is deepening and our building construction continues to fuel its expansion. The people in Denver had that very special worldchanging combination of qualities: a basic awareness of our precarious environmental situation and technical skills to transform it.

But it came obvious to me that the Denver cadre represented just one clique in a very large crowd. The number of licensed architects in the US dwarfs the number of GreenBuild attendees by a factor of eight.

The enormity of the challenge facing this select group was underscored by the appearance of Ira Magaziner on the stage at Green Build. Magaziner, the Clinton-era White House advisor and a lifelong Friend of Bill, is heading up Clinton’s Climate Change Initiative announced back in August.

Magaziner told Denver that the Clinton’s group aimed to do for climate change what it had done for AIDS. That is, mobilize a large group of stakeholders to tackle a giant problem.

Unlike AIDS, Magaziner told the crowd, climate change has yet to start killing millions of people. (He added that the former President doesn’t expect that to last much longer, about ten years or, as Magaziner chillingly put it, 3,650 days.) That’s why the Clinton crew is focused on reducing carbon emissions by 70 to 80 percent beneath current levels. They want to do it by bringing a laundry list of energy efficiencies to the world’s largest forty cities from Dakaha to San Paulo to Seoul. While Clinton can mobilize the political capital (“he usually gets his calls returned,? Magaziner observed) it takes experts to actually do the work. In short, it takes the people in this room. Magaziner wasn’t just giving a briefing in Denver, I realized, he was pleading for help.

It was a plea well-received. When Magaziner finished, the green builders gave him a standing ovation. They even coaxed him out for a curtain call.

I left imagining these green architects and planners racing out of the convention center and fanning out across the world in pursuit of Clinton’s mission. But who stays behind to do all the green building that’s necessary here? And how do the skills that are so abundant amongst this crowd find their way onto the ground in the parts of the world Clinton's initiative targets?

There’s no question that this is a crucial moment to be a green builder everywhere in the world; but building sustainably means different things in different places. Hopefully we'll soon see the skills (and the conferences) distributing themselves more globally, such that locally appropriate sustainability strategies can be developed and exchanged with the same kind of fervor that was present at Green Build this year.

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I did not attend Greenbuild, but as a designer in a large Sacramento firm, I know many who did. Some were happy about the focus on CO2, some were skeptical. I have been watching the climate change story for a while, and since it has picked up some mass with the adoption by the AIA of the Architecture 2030 Challege sponsored by Ed Mazria, the recent passing in the CA state legislature and signing by our governor of greenhouse gas reduction mandates, and the partnership between the Clinton Climate group and the USGBC, I'm curious as to how this will play out in the trenches. As an organization, the AIA is quite conservative and I have yet to see, beyond the press releases of it's Sustainable positions and it's developing a "Toolkit" to help US Mayors as they, too, address climate change, how it will address the membership in this effort. I am also curious about USBGC,s response, the last in line, so to speak. While hugely successful - as evidenced by the increase in attendance at Greenbuild as well as the numbers of design professionals obtaining LEED Accredited status - it is already under scrutiny from competing forces - Homebuilder and material trade organizations mainly - that to add another big effort might be more a symbolic statement than one they can marshall any forces to address.

Posted by: Shelly Dildey on 25 Nov 06

Ted, thanks for the writeup. I'm not sure your skepticism regarding the percentage of architects attending GreenBuild is warranted. Most of the employees at my firm (WM+P) did not go to Denver for various reasons. I think we still count as green. My view is that green architecture is disappearing and becoming architecture.
My continuing concern is that the vast majority of buildings are not designed by architects (can't find this figure, perhaps it's changed?) I recall it as being around five percent of buildings are designed by architects. The rest come from pattern books and are scattered across the landscape regardless of solar, wind, and water flows on the site. Which isn't going so well for us. And, I would submit that the big exciting design projects like corporate office buildings already have an edge in efficiency by virtue of their scale, that our suburban mess does not enjoy.
My interest has been in shifting planning priorities and urban systems to make the design tent larger and get at some of these problems. So far, the best strategies I've found include the Tax Shift, rail transit, and the form-based code. The Tax Shift is where taxes are taken off of goods like buildings and designers and instead placed on bads like pollution and waste. Rail transit is delightful and supportive of green urban development. Form-based code is empowering to a community and saves time and money for builders (which could potentially be plowed into better design or more projects). There are some other nice tools out there. I'm a big fan of Tax Increment Financing to fund rail transit (dedicating future tax gains in the area to pay the debt for the project that causes the tax gains). I should point out that the sprawl tax piece of a tax shift eliminates the building tax, making urban solar, green roofs, and other investments much more attractive.
If the communities of the world put proposals like these through, we'd need to train a whole lot more architects. And if this global warming and peak oil business is true (as I am convinced), that's exactly what needs to happen.

Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 26 Nov 06

Lyle, I found your comment about liking form-based codes interesting. I live in a community that has established one, on Columbia Pike in Arlington Virginia, which is an old and reasonably dense suburb directly across the Potomac from Washington DC. The FBC was adopted two or three years ago. I wasn't around for the process of developing it, but we are now engaged in a controversy over whether to allow slightly higher density than was initially permitted (allowing multi-family in a building envelope that was previously only single-family, with no change in envelope). In this context I have read the code and accompanying documents rather carefully.

My impression is that the code does little to allow greater density, and has little chance of being implemented. It is definitely prescriptive, specifying where on the Pike different kinds of density are permitted, without regard for which properties are likely to come up for redevelopment, and no economic discussion of whether the density permitted will support the kind of retail they hope to have in their "main street" vision.

Moreover, the community is practically up in arms against the proposed increases in density (which I think are fairly moderate and entirely appropriate). The only people who bother to engage in the discussion are those who oppose greater density, more cars, more on-street parking, etc. No one seems motivated by environmental concerns; everyone is explicitly motivated by "what do I get out of it." Or more accurately "I get nothing out of it, why should I support it?"

I have engaged in some of the discussions on the various community listservs. When people post scary warnings about terrible things happening if this amendment passes, they get support and heated discussion. When people (me, that is) try to analyze the issues and identify what the real implications of the proposed changes might be, and how to clarify and respond to the objections, no one is interested in following up on the discussion.

It makes me skeptical not only about form based codes, but more broadly about the role of community participation in decisions of this type.

And a footnote - on the number of architects attending the conference on green building - the number sounded wonderfully high to me! It shows incredible growth over the past ten years. Next step is establishing USGBC certification for single-family residential developments and working on large developers to get certified.

Posted by: Joy Hecht on 26 Nov 06

Nice photo, Ted. :)

Posted by: jw on 26 Nov 06

Joy, fascinating. The Columbia Pike project is what initially got me interested in FBCs. Having been involved in numerous public processes, I share your concerns. I have yet to be involved in a process where stakeholders are adequately informed and empowered to make the right decisions. Regarding density, I'm reminded of a quote from noted green architect Nicolo Machiavelli: “There is nothing more difficult to carry out, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For those who would institute change have enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and they have only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order.?
I believe that the way to short circuit Machiavelli's point is to ensure that discussions are dominated by facts rather than knee-jerk reactions. Which is exactly what it sounds like you're trying to do. Do you have any support for getting the facts out from local environmental organizations or government? Also, framing new innovations as an obvious and natural progression of the existing order is essential. "Denser" not "dense".
Regarding Form-Based Code, do you think the tool itself is problematic, or the implementation?
Thank you for bringing this up, and the good work you're doing.
P.S. Those are some great pictures on your site!

Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 26 Nov 06

I'm thrilled that awareness of green building has reached the mainstream. But as a new architect-in-training educated specifically on sustainability, my concern is not that only 1 in 8 (admittedly a rough approximation) of architects attended Greenbuild; it is rather than architects interested in green building doesn't necessarily translate in truly sustainable buildings. LEED buildings currently don't have to exceed basic energy code; all but the most enlightened developer/clients are nor interested in sustainability if it increases their cost. Surely this conference is a milestone, but this is a journey of a 1000 miles. We need the initiatives like Clinton's/Magaziner's; without sound policy and mandates, green building can supply all the feel-good news we need, while the climate situation gets steadily worse.

Posted by: Chris Flint Chatto on 6 Dec 06

It isn't the number of attending architects that matters,it is the number of attending firms. A green firm would consider the impact of sending multiple attendees: plane seats, hotel rooms, rental cars, restaurant meals, etc as having negative impact and antithetical to green principles. Better to send a delegate, who can bring back the news.

Posted by: Mike Golden on 9 Dec 06



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