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Needed: Leadership From Architects and Designers
Julia Levitt, 5 May 09
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We need new leadership from architects, planners and designers.

Yes, we need them to design better buildings, streets and public spaces. But what we may need most from them has little to do with the act of design itself. That's because we need a massive change in the very way buildings and places are planned, regulated and seen by the public. We urgently need people to re-imagine their cities in very directly political ways, and no one else is as prepared for that job as the talented few who've been trained to understand form and space and place.

When Ed Mazria first started getting vocal about buildings and climate change in 2003, his message became a rallying cry that professional groups, politicians, designers and journalists could stand behind: If we want to fight emissions, we must fundamentally change the building sector, the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Mazria and his non-profit research organization, Architecture 2030, posed the famous 2030 Challenge: make all new buildings carbon neutral by the year 2030.

The tools and knowledge we needed to build carbon-neutral buildings already existed in 2003. Mazria called on architects and developers to use those innovative design strategies, building practices and on-site renewable power (as well as a small amount of purchased renewable energy and/or certified offsets, if needed), in order to achieve a net fossil fuel-based/GHG-emitting energy usage of zero.

People everywhere jumped on board. The American Institute of Architects, the leading professional association in its industry, adopted the Challenge on behalf of its now 85,000 members. In November 2006, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously passed a resolution adopting the 2030 Challenge. And so on.

But such adoptions have been largely aspirational, with little enforcement. Now we're nine months from Architecture 2030's first incremental goal: by 2010, the Challenge expected all new buildings and major renovations to meet a 60 percent fossil fuel reduction standard, with an equal number of buildings retrofitted to the same standard as those built new.

Look around. We're not going to be celebrating in 2010. Green buildings are breaking into mainstream culture – in fact, a film about Boston's first LEED project is now touring indie and environmental film festivals. But green buildings are still a novelty to nearly everyone, still the stuff of awards ceremonies.

Awards are good motivation, but a handful of award-winners at the head of the movement won't be enough to reinvent the industry in a generation. As Worldchanging ally Dan Bertolet of design firm GGLO wrote Monday on his urban planning blog, HugeAssCity:

Like most in the endless parade of green lectures and meetings in Seattle, the AIA event this Tuesday will be overflowing with big-brained folks who possess piles of knowledge, skills, and desire to make green development happen. But the vast a majority never get the opportunity to implement all their great ideas in real projects. And that is our integral predicament: we know what to do, but we’re not doing it. Green building is not a design problem or an engineering problem, it is a people problem — institutional, political, economic, cultural.

Part of the solution will be to get regulators -- and voters -- on board. Outdated zoning codes can stop designers from incorporating new technologies. One story making the rounds has a team of city employees in a Washington town designing a theoretical dream green development, and then seeing how well it met local code -- they found, so the story goes, more than 50 rules that would prevent the project from moving forward before they stopped counting.

"Our land use code, and the building codes to some extent, are an accretion of 75 years of reactions against things, as opposed to a vision for how we want to live," says architect and former Seattle City Council President Peter Steinbrueck. "Those sets of problems don't apply anymore. So now what we need to do is rethink all that, and that's a really hard thing. We need to go to performance-based codes, and form-based codes, that recognize the place and its uniqueness and character and authenticity, and quality of life, and the values of compact, walkable communities. Our codes work against that right now. And people are still very fearful. If they remove parking requirements or allow retail with the housing project, or allow a slightly taller housing project, people freak out."

Policy change, particularly energy policy, also has potential to open new doors with lenders. As Richard Conniff wrote for Yale360, the final stretch can be the most discouraging for designers who would reach the farthest. "There’s actually a sweet spot, said Bill Browning, a partner in the sustainable design firm Terrapin Bright Green, where going aggressively green gets to be cheaper than a more modest approach…But that sweet spot fades away, Browning added, as you get beyond an 80 percent improvement in energy efficiency." The costs of equipping a building with all of the technology to generate its own renewable power is still the deal-breaker for most developers behind these would-be neutral projects.

"The technologies that allow you to produce energy onsite are still not competitive with fossil fuel," says Robert Peña, associate professor of architecture at the University of Washington. "That would change overnight if we had some kind of carbon tax and some predictable sense that energy isn't going to be as cheap as it is now. The world is the way it is because we've had breathtakingly cheap energy for so long. And we know that's not going to be the case in the future, but markets need clear signals. It's an incredibly risk-averse profession, from the design profession to the construction profession, because the margins are relatively small and the risks are relatively large."

The solution begins with education. Later this month, AIA Seattle will launch its AIA + 2030 Professional Series, a 40-hour continuing education program that will address strategies like integrated design, passive lighting/heating/cooling, and even staff training and post-occupancy performance monitoring, to help designers reach a 50 percent reduction in fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions. It's the first course in the nation specifically addressing the 2030 Challenge goals. If it is successful in Seattle, the program may roll out in other states or nationwide.

But architects must educate others as well as themselves. Steinbrueck believes strongly that architects must lead at the policymaking level, and with good reason. In his years on the Seattle City Council, he helped raise standards for green building with legislation including Seattle's Sustainable Building Policy, passed in 2000, which requires all new City-funded projects and renovations involving more than 5,000 square feet of occupied space to achieve LEED Silver accreditation or higher. LEED standards were still largely untested at the time, but in retrospect, Steinbrueck says that the policy has had a significant positive impact on Seattle's building program.

(Many expected Steinbrueck would challenge Seattle's incumbent Mayor Greg Nickels in 2009, but he has chosen to sit back from politics this year and instead will join Harvard University as a Loeb Fellow to conduct independent research on U.S. best practices for sustainability. When we talked, however, he hinted that he is considering a run for national office in the future.)

Policy could also encourage architects to veer into new territory when appropriate, rather than adhere to checklists for certifications such as LEED or Built Green. The standards have unquestionably raised the bar for green building since their introduction, and the USGBC works diligently to keep pushing the envelope further (you can help them by commenting on the new LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system in this forum, which opened today). But because LEED standards are based on a set of known strategies, they can become an anchor that encourages a baseline, instead of a propeller driving new innovation toward the goal of carbon neutrality. And because many LEED points address issues separate from energy efficiency, simply building to accreditation standards won't ensure we do the job. New dynamic policies can help spur innovation where certifications and building codes fall short. In a recent Worldchanging Interview, Amory Lovins described green building codes as "obsolete before the ink is dry," and suggested feebates as a means of rewarding energy efficiency and encouraging designers and developers to continue pushing the standards higher.

Many practicing architects are already taking paths of civic engagement. In 2008, the AIA Board of Directors issued a resolution in support of "Citizen Architects" who participate by joining boards and commissions, writing and publishing, and holding elected office. The organization's national office surveyed its chapters around the country earlier this year, and reported that at least 850 AIA members hold elected and appointed office at the local level, from mayors and city council members, to county supervisors and planning commissioners.

The importance of what those engaged professionals will do with their public platforms cannot be overstated. As Worldchanging contributor Patrick Rollens wrote in 2007, the United States has the opportunity to remake the built environment by 2030, when about half the nation's buildings will have been built or substantially renovated in 2000 or later. On a global scale, the opportunity is even larger. And so however it happens, it is important that effective leadership from architects and designers change green building from a novelty to a standard.

There are many ways to begin making a difference beyond the drafting table. Here are a few of them:

1. Join your colleagues, and push them further. Ask your local chapter of the AIA, APA, ASLA or other professional organizations what they're doing to further sustainability in your region and beyond. You can also network with local visionaries through professional outreach organizations like Architecture for Humanity, or Architects Without Borders.

2. Join a cross-disciplinary conversation. Alicia Daniels Uhlig, an associate and co-chair of the Sustainable Design Group at GGLO in Seattle, is active with the Cascadia Region Green Building Council (a local branch of the USGBC), which spans building-related professions from construction and engineering to architecture and development and beyond. "That's really where it's strength is, because you're broadening your horizons, you're talking to people with different opinions," says Uhlig. "You have the ability to ask, for example, what are the hot-button issues from the commercial developers? How can we address that? And you learn how to improve your storytelling [to a client or colleague]." (The CRGBC in particular has been aggressive about finding out where barriers to living buildings still remain, and making that information available to its network.) At the very local level, Portland's Coalition for a Livable Future and the Seattle Great City Initiative come to mind.

3. Support good candidates, or run for office. Taking up the mantle of politics can seem like an intimidating proposition to someone outside City Hall. But, as Steinbrueck says, if architects and designers don’t lend their expertise to legislative bodies, it's hard to expect much to change. Steinbrueck and colleagues are working with AIA to build resources for its Citizen Architects, including a forthcoming directory that will allow members to network and support one another in the political arena.

4. Become a politically engaged citizen. If you want to remain firmly in the design profession, take a seat on a planning commission or design review board. These institutions have been in place a long time, and can get mired in conventional or even outdated ways of thinking and doing things. Bring your knowledge of sustainable building practices to the table and refresh the process for your neighborhood, city or region. Even if you can't commit to serving, you can still make a valuable contribution by attending meetings and speaking from a citizen's perspective.

5. Write about it. Writing and publishing in industry journals is important, but getting the designer's perspective into the mainstream can open up a whole different conversation. Though we're biased, we believe in the power of blogging, which has the advantage of real-time flexibility and audience interactivity. Dan Bertolet has successfully built HugeAssCity into a widely read public debate on the best and worst in planning and architecture in Seattle. Another Seattle-based site, the Columbia Citizens neighborhood wiki, attracts regular input from planners and designers that helps raise public awareness of neighborhood projects.

6. Talk about it ... unconventionally. Unconferences, unconventions, webinars and similarly informal forums are increasingly the go-to events for those seeking cutting-edge innovations and ideas. Some of the leaders in this arena include Pop!Tech, Design Indaba, PICNIC, Foo Camp and BarCamp. (The CRGBC's Living Future forum in Portland, Ore. is coming up next week, and Worldchanging's Sarah Kuck will be there reporting.)

7. Get behind an issue. In 2004, a multidisciplinary team of designers led by landscape architect Cary Moon won second prize in Metropolis magazine's national Next Generation: Big Idea competition with their highway-less vision for Seattle's downtown waterfront, which is currently blocked off by the elevated strip of I-99. Moon went on to found the People's Waterfront Coalition to mobilize local groups around the issue of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and used national data on highway deconstruction and to back up her compelling argument for not rebuilding the highway. Her efforts gained attention in local politics and national debate. Though Washington state ultimately did not choose the surface/transit alternative that the PWC supported (they are instead planning an underground tunnel, though costs are drawing controversy), many are happy that the Viaduct will not be replaced by another elevated highway. The lesson: if you're passionate about it, go after it.

8. Get engaged in open-source government. Citizens often understand the needs of their communities more deeply than policy makers. Working collaboratively, it's likely they could develop policies that enable holistic solutions at the local level. On Tuesday, Open Government NYC, hosted a Collaborative Policy Building Workshop to figure out how just such a process might work. The NYC group's slogan is "people helping government help people," and it's possibly the most proactive form of protest we've ever heard of.

Photo credit: flickr/Daniele Pesaresi, Creative Commons license.

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In addition to the City of Seattle's requirement for LEED silver, all state building projects in WA (with a few minor exceptions) are required to be LEED silver and have been for a few years now. The exceptions include affordable housing projects which must meet the 'Evergreen Standards', unconditioned spaces, really small projects, and some specialized research facilities.

That being said, it's much easier for institutional developers who will experience the life-cycle costs/savings of green building to move forward, it's much more difficult for a commerical speculative builder who plans on owning the property for less than 7 years. . . or for a homeowner who may only be living in their home for less than the payback period of a specific improvement.

To the degree that we can continue to reqire institutional investors to build green and find ways to convince the 'short time' property owners that a carbon diet is in thier interests we can affect change.

Posted by: Max on 1 May 09

In this article, Levitt does a great job articulating many of the reasons why the "green architecture revolution" has been so slow to come to fruition, and the obstacles that still remain. I was heartenned to see Levitt promoting "cross-disciplinary conversations." I worry that many of the traditional design disciplines have been slow to embrace cross-disciplinary educational processes. Architects receive little engineering training - let alone education on economic and climate policy! The University of Vermont's Institute for Global Sustainability ( offers several short, intensive, summer courses for design professionals seeking to engage in cross-disciplinary conservations. The three foci in ecological design, sustainable business, and ecological economics are are worth investigating further by those seeking to expand their knowledge base.

Posted by: Noah Pollock on 2 May 09

Consider speaking with individuals who have had serious health challanges due to environmental trauma.
They would be your best experts and sources of input; not on the how's but the why's and their consequences.

Keep up the good work and aspire and inspire to your highest quality because it is so far reaching to everyone on the planet.

Posted by: maria terese, n.d. on 3 May 09

What are the barriers for sustainability becoming mainstream? Until "being green" is commonly viewed as capable of "making green," and until it ranks up there in fundamental importance with other tangible, day-to-day concerns such as poverty and healthcare, sustainability will be an esoteric pass-time for the priveledged. The good news is it took a long time to figure that out, and we are well on our way toward both.

Posted by: Scott S. on 4 May 09

One of the worst things any city or state could do right now is to mandate LEED. The U.S. Green Building Council, the creators of LEED, urge against such an action. LEED is advisory, and voluntary. It's lousy public policy, and mandating it will cause untold wasted effort, inappropriate design decisions and buildings not nearly as good as they'd be otherwise. For example: a rigorous statistical study of a large sample of LEED-certified buildings showed that not only did they not save energy, compared to "conventional" buildings of the same type, they actually used MORE energy. Here's a link to an article documenting this claim.

Posted by: David Foley on 4 May 09

Yes, Architecture and Design are in a bad way but how to fix it, maybe we require a total rethink.
Is most of it necessary? Will the forthcoming age limit the automobile. Maybe we should be doing more with less.

Posted by: Lawrence Roberts on 4 May 09

As a green builder with 10 years experience in residential construction in Seattle I concur with Lawrence Roberts comment above that one of the WORST things a city can do is mandate LEED. This raises the cost of building in almost all cases. I also know this from hundreds of conversations with clients interested in green building but without the budget to raise the cost of construction. Also, having just attended the AIA national convention in San Francisco, I walked away discouraged after having confirmed again that there are still no integrated design build practices producing energy efficient buildings using computer aided manufacturing at a scale large enough to lessen the price premiums. This is primarily attributable to the architectural community's unwillingness to design for manufacturability as is commonplace in Switzerland or Germany. As they scale the efficient production of energy plus homes our design community waste energy in academic argument.

Posted by: Greg Howes on 6 May 09

I believe that designers are some of the biggest leaders in the sustainable/environmental movement. We need them to help us figure out cost effective and smart ways to reduce our energy usage and pollution! It’s hard but we have to remember that it will start small.

I actually know of two really young designers out of RISD who are doing their part! Nate Bastien is designing a backpack for the homeless made entirely out of recycled and scrap material, while Sami Nerenberg is piloting her first eco-home redecorating show with inner city teens. These two designers, though under the age of 25, are already helping tackle huge environmental issues within marginalized communities. Pretty cool! You can get more info on them here:

Posted by: Eleanor on 12 May 09

I am the editor of Home Energy Magazine and I ask any potential author who wants to write about a home building or retrofit project, "Do you have one year of performance data?" I have had a hard time getting that information from people who want to write about LEED for Homes projects. That's the missing piece in my opinion, in the green building movement—performance measurement.

I'd love to cover a LEED for Homes project with one year of occupancy/performance data—even if the energy efficiency results are poor. Please readers, send me information on such a project. How else will we learn to do it right?

Posted by: Jim Gunshinan on 12 May 09

I am an undergrad Architecture student at the University of California, Berkeley graduating in a few days and it's extremely interesting to read all of these posts. I'm definitely inspired to take action and familiarize myself with as much information concerning Sustainable Design.

P.S. Anybody out there looking for a recent grad to hire, holler!

Posted by: Angel Lopez on 16 May 09

Why enlist architects but ask them to think like bureaucrats or politicians?

Cities are all about people, and changing the pattern of a city requires changing the pattern of its people. There are two ways to change human behavior: we can force people to act as we want (the IKEA approach) or we can design a place, based on an understanding of human nature, that will encourage people to intuitively decide to do as we would have them to do (Apple’s approach). IKEA’s approach creates resentment and drives folks to find a shortcut, a way to game the system. Apple’s approach creates devoted followers and evangelists who happily choose to do as Apple likes..... and bring their friends.

So don’t ask designers to think like bureaucrats or politicians, ask them to think like designers. But now you are thinking that it is designers who created the mess in the first place. You are largely correct. So instead of asking designers to get politically involved, ask them to get socially involved. Tell them to spend time with people - real people with families, bills and clothes that aren’t black. Tell them to do as Apple has done - design products (buildings, places, cities) that real people want. Tell designers to design for a quality of life as real people, not just affluent singles and eccentric artists, but real, normal people, define quality of life. Tell them not to do as they have done - design based on the life that designers believe people should live.

Does that mean designers cannot change the way people live? Of course not. It means that rather than forcing change, smart designers create change that people will want, buildings and places and cities that people want, that will enhance THEIR lifestyle - and are environmentally responsible. People were, after all, satisfied with Windows and dumb phones until Apple created an operating system and smart phone that people wanted.

Designers tend to define quality of life as we think it should be, design to that standard, then wonder why so few live in the worlds we create. A Hobbesian cynic defines quality of life based on the self interest of people as THEY define it, and designs so that change is in the self interest of real people. A Hobbesian cynic is wise. Works for smart phones and laptops.....

Posted by: Brent Thompson on 11 Jun 09

I am an ordinary working class Australian citizen,with no formal qualifications, other than a Permaculture Design Certificate. I am also deeply concerned with the way we are burning up our future, with the way many of us live - including our Shelters.
I wrote this 3 years ago, to Thunderclap Newmans' song:
"Something In The Air."


Change architectures' bad rules
so we can save mass energy
We've got to retrofit all homes and buildings
and legislate for future needs

We should retrofit now
to the future endow
We're on a mad helter skelter
we've got to change all our shelters now

Use natural insulation
to keep the summer heat at bay
And keep the warmth inside in chilly winter
we've got to re-design today

Use the sun and the rain
and the plants and all waste
We have got to change architecture
we have got to live within nature now

Use natural air convection
and store the vital things we need
We've got to re-use all resources wisely
like water, soil and air we breathe

Store it re-use on site
trade excess, do it right
We have got to think of our damage
we have got to energy manage, right.

PS. I was wondering how many student architects are taught where true North is?

Posted by: Nigel Medina on 3 Oct 09

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