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What Makes It Green? Awards: Conversations on Sustainable Design
Amanda Reed, 5 May 10

The green building community is gathering in force this week in Seattle. This afternoon the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Seattle Committee on the Environment hosted a public presentation of the top eleven projects in the running for the 2010 What Makes it GREEN? Top Ten Regional Green Awards, and later in the evening the Cascadia Region Green Building Council opened their three-day 2010 Living Future unConference. Over the next few days we'll be reporting back from the Living Future conference here at Worldchanging, both on the blog and over on Twitter, but first, I thought it would be worth sharing some of the highlights from this afternoon's What Makes It GREEN? (WMIG?) session, in which the competition jury publicly interviewed the design teams...

The stated intention of the WMIG? awards is to focus the attention of the public and design professionals on innovative design and materials that will allow us "to achieve our vision of a sustainable future." The projects eligible for the WMIG? awards come from the Northwest and Pacific Region and should "demonstrate the highest accomplish­ment in environmentally sustainable architecture, combining inspired design, systems analysis, and performance evaluation under the domains of Planet, People and Prosper­ity." What exactly "environmentally sustainable architecture" and "inspired design" mean, or should, or could mean, triggered a lot of conversation between the jury and design teams, especially in the following four areas:

  1. The relationship between cars and sustainability
  2. The pedestrian environment
  3. The building as a learning lab
  4. Community investment in design

I thought the five projects pictured along the right side of this post stimulated the best discussions.

The Seattle Center Garage by NBBJ Architects begged the question: "How can a parking garage be green?" Worldchanging's Alex Steffen, a member of the jury, brought up that cars are the number one source of emissions and toxic runoff in Seattle, so the very idea of a structure to support their continued use is arguably unsustainable. The design team admitted to struggling with the issue and pointed out that their design made the best of the project scope by reducing the footprint of the existing twelve-acre parking lot by replacing it with a two-acre footprint, replacing the asphalt lot with a green roofed structure, and overall designing a flexible structure that could be used as something other than a parking garage in the future as transportation systems change (in fact, as an example of the structure's programmatic flexibility they shared that there are current plans to introduce a farmers market to one of the parking levels as early as spring of 2011). Furthermore, the design team argued that the garage supports the "cultural sustainability" of the area, as it supports the parking needs of the Seattle Center, a cultural hub not yet adequately served by public transit. Clearly there are merits to the design, and ultimately, the question left to the room at the end was "How do we judge this project? Within the scope of the design brief? Or, within the greater scope of sustainability issues is the region?" A part of this answer lies in how one sees the role of the architect: Does creating an "inspired design" suggest or demand that architects look beyond their design brief and aggressively push for sustainable design from all angles and scales?

A similar question about the role of the architect came up during the discussion of the King Street Station Rehabilitation by Zimmer Gunsul Frasca (ZGF) Architects.

This design admirably aims to return Seattle's main train station to its former glory by rehabbing the iconic 12-story clock tower, restoring the original materials and decorations of the interior spaces, and updating the structure for seismic safety and durability. Additionally, the design replaces an unsightly parking lot on a busy street with a new public plaza, which includes a newly designed access path to the train station located on the lower level (see image of path to the right). The jury appreciated this gesture to pedestrian life, but wondered if the design team could have done more to make the pedestrian experience safer and richer around the site; perhaps by adding retail to the street level, or by extending the plaza design into a new and integrated vision of the whole street scape abutting the site. The design team assured the jury that retail was being considered, and stressed that the current plaza plan is "what we can do now" given the project's budget and the constraints of the site as an intersection between many different stakeholders (as a multi-modal hub for the city, the site sits on a complex intersection of roads and trains, each governed by different jurisdictions, which complicates development of a unified design plan outside the station's footprint). The designers said that they hoped the new plaza will be a "catalyst for change," and stimulate more pedestrian friendly design strategies in the area to soften the currently hostile pedestrian environment.

Another ZGF project, Twelve|Street, also aims to be a 'catalyst for change' and is a great example of the third main topic of discussion: the building as learning lab. One of the most figural "green" expressions of this Portland, OR building are the five wind turbines on the roof, which, according to the design team, are the first building integrated wind turbines installed in an urban setting. The point of the turbines are not to generate energy, but are an investment in knowledge gathering. One of the designers said that architects are often told "you can't do wind in cities" (I heard this myself when I was in architecture school), and so they wanted to find out if that was true by doing it and gathering data. What a wonderful idea, and what a great stroke of fortune that the team was able to finance and develop the project! In addition to the wind feasibility data being collected, the team is observing how adaptive people are to glare by studying when people actually close their blinds in different light conditions, which will potentially help inform day lighting design decisions in the future. This kind of testing and monitoring of building performance, and studying of occupant use and comfort are essential to advancing sustainable design.

Throughout the WMIG? presentation, there seemed to be a consensus that beyond building systems, and even beyond transit and pedestrian oriented development strategies, design needs to engage the communities for which it is created in order to be 'sustainable.' As one designer said during his time up at the mic, "You can make the best damn building, but if you don't engage the occupants, then you get nowhere." The Common Ground project by Mithun and the Highline Heritage Museum by Rohleder Borges both stood out as projects by and for their communities, and are representative of uniquely different communities with the former serving a rural community out on Lopez Island, WA and the latter an urban community in Burien, WA. When asked how Common Ground can serve as model for other designers, Bill Kreager of Mithun said that much of its success was due to the stress the designers made in connecting people and prosperity. From concept to construction the whole project was developed as a way for people to live sustainably in the Lopez Island community, to learn from the design, and to take those lessons out into the world -- the homes are affordable, the community is water and energy efficient, and the owners are trained to maintain the development. The community's ownership of and investment in the design contributes to its success and future longevity. The Highline Heritage Museum is another case in point. According to the architects, the building systems were specifically simplified so that there was a better chance that the performance of the facility could be maintained by a non-profit group over time. The Highline project also provided the most feel-good moment of the afternoon. In the closing remarks about the building, the mayor of Seatac took the mic and said: "The people really love it, they like the style, and they want it" - and it's green!

You can see all of the WMIG? submissions at the AIA's 2010 What Makes It GREEN? website and vote for which project you think is the most "green" in the People's Choice Award category here.

All images of projects from the WMIG 2010 Project Gallery. From top to bottom: Seattle Center Garage by NBBJ; King Street Station Rehabilitation by ZGF; Twelve|West by ZGF; Common Ground by Mithun; and Highline Heritage Museum by Rohleder Borges. Note: Image of Seattle Center Garage was cropped and modified by me, so that garage in the foreground would be in color and the background in black and white.

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It's great to see events like this help raise the profile of green building projects. Awards and recognition are helpful in guiding people to understand where leadership and excellence are taking place. Awards can also empower these leaders to go out and accomplish more because of their higher profile.

It's also important that the awards themselves reflect the principles of sustainability. We've developed a line of green awards that can help enhance the values of your organization and raise the profile of your event.

Posted by: Toby Barazzuol on 6 May 10

ok, so let's say we justify that a garage is needed to accomodate the inevitable use of the automobile. why does it need 2 acres of concrete as a lid? does planting grass on the top of it really offset the energy used to create it? and the end sum purpose is to keep bird pooh off of the windshields of those who choose not to use the city's bus system!

Posted by: Tim on 7 May 10

I live in Common Ground on Lopez Island and wanted to add a few things about the project which I think are really important but not as obvious. The passive solar, net-zero, rainwater collection, straw-bale, integrated systems design are pretty easy to see but there was another aspect that once it is finished is invisible. These houses were built mostly by the future residents and by interns. Over 80 people from all over the world worked on the project and were able to gain valuable hands on experience and understanding of green building techniques and PV panel installation. Also the 11 families who live here were all participants in the building as part of the down payment for ownership. This has created within the residents a level of pride and an intimate understanding of "green" components of the project. The other component which is important is that it is within the village. I walk and bike for all of my daily needs. I was glad that there was a rural model at the AIA awards.

Posted by: Faith Van De Putte on 10 May 10

I commend you on the very real impact that you are having on the world of sustainable design, urban planning and architecture. Your posts are always an educational and intellectual delight to open! But, we need to go much further to create the 100% sustainable world of the future, for when there is no more petroleum, and in advance of catastrophic global climate change, and I am not a catastrophist!
Please view the proposals on my website at for designs that occurred to me as I struggled to recover from my heart stopping for 10 minutes following a car accident in Kenya in 1980. That the ideas impelled me to continue my recovery to the point that I became a professor at the Swiss campus of Pasadena's renowned Art Center College of Design may be testament to what you are discovering - that our survivability and the insights provided by good design are more powerful than all the cash in the world!
We can and must provide for 100% sustainability for all the generations to come!

Posted by: Mr. Kim Gyr on 19 May 10

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