Monday, 10 June 2013

The greenest building is the one already built

Carl Elefante, an American architect, deserves the credit for introducing the phrase "The Greenest Building is the One Already Built." He appears to have framed it in the context of the seminal paper by the Advisory Council On Historic Preservation Assessing the Energy Conservation Benefits of Historic Preservation: Methods and Examples dating from 1979, which succinctly stated:
"Preservation saves energy by taking advantage of the nonrecoverable energy embodied in an existing building and extending the use of it."
Elefante brought the principle thoroughly up-to-date, and placed in the wider sustainability context in his eponymous 2007 paper in the Journal of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

So it struck me forcefully that when recently the American Institute of Architects announced its selection of the Greenest Buildings of 2013, only one is the reworking of an existing building.  The 355 11th Street: the Matarozzi/Pelsinger Multiuse Building by Aidlin Darling Design is a LEED-NC Gold adaptive re-use of a historic and previously derelict turn-of-the-century industrial building in San Francisco, and to my mind equal to or better than any of the other projects by any normal criteria for architectural excellence.

That it is possible to do better, and what's more to do it within the architectural mainstream, was best illustrated for me some years ago when in the 2008 New South Wales State architecture awards here in Australia, of the 42 premiated projects fully a half were of adaptive reuse – and those adaptive reuse buildings comprehensively dominated the top prizes. The particular year, and the singular location in a far flung corner of the world is significant only in that at the time I happened to be preparing for a keynote address to the Architectural Institute of Korea, and that they had asked me to throw some light on the conspicuous success of Australian architects working internationally in the region. Part of my explanation was that Australian firms piched for work with stronger than usual sustainability credentials, and that those awards were the embodiment of the complex factors in Australian architectural education and practice from which such skill sets derived.

Which leaves the dangling question: why this bias for new build in the American conception of the best examples of current sustainability practice?  I don't want to offend the conscientious architects and other consultants, who were either the authors of the chosen project, or the members of the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment (AIA COTE), who wrestled with the choices.  They say that: "What stands out this year is that it wasn’t just green building technology that put these buildings on the list, but the community impact of specific buildings......This year's winners displayed a holistic excellence that encompassed much more than just the technical aspects of green building."
To my mind, despite the lofty claim, the listed projects are on the whole, still a variable grab-bag of all the usual strategies for making buildings less worse, rather than even vaguely sustainable.  I can only suggest that it is a confirmation of the systematic distortion of priorities driven by the current use of rating schemes, such as the US Green Building Council's LEED certification.  Chasing the stars swamps other, more thoughtful and more rigorous approaches, to the point that it perverts the very meaning of 'sustainable'.
Doing something with our existing buildings remains the most pressing, but also probably the most fruitful approach to improving the sustainability of the built environment. 

No comments: