Green Buildings Respond to their Environment

At The Economist magazine’s Intelligent Infrastructure conference last week, a number of big-name architects discussed how effective green buildings are highly responsive to their physical environment. Richard Cook, of Cook +Fox Architects and Terrapin, Elizabeth Diller, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, Ken Yeang, Llewelyn Davies Yeang, and Thom Mayne, Morphosis discussed some of their projects, while Tristan d’Estree Sterk, from the Office of Robotic Architectural Media, presented a potential model for future green building design.

Richard Cook, designer of the Bank of America tower at One Bryant Park, the world’s first LEED Platinum skyscaper, said most buildings are highly inefficient. Some 80 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions come from the built environment. In addition, the U.S. suffers from a highly inefficient energy production system that waste 2/3 of the energy it produces in the form of heat. Another seven percent is lost in transmission. As a result, on-site, meaning “in-building,” energy generation is the answer. Cook pointed to thermal storage systems that can help heat and cool a skyscraper at low-cost.

Beyond the technological systems though, Cook made an eloquent case for biophilic design, arguing that these super-green buildings need to “make us feel good.” Pointing to internal Bank of America studies, he argued that the building’s biophilic elements and improved air quality systems helped improve employee health and productivity. Bank of America confirmed that a one percent increase in productivity actually resulted in gains of around $10 milllion. Over time, the building pays for itself. See an earlier post on Terrapin’s biophilic design work and more on Cook’s beautiful Bank of America tower.

Elizabeth Diller talked about the High Line, an “interesting reclamation project” her firm helped create. While totally neglecting to mention James Corner Field Operations, the lead designer on the project, or Piet Oudolf, the master horticulturalist, Diller described how the project design team aimed at preserving “the melancholic beauty of the ruin.” Airbone seeds had populated the derelict infrastructure over the years, creating an urban ecosystem. As a result, any design work couldn’t “sentimentalize” the project.  

With Field Operations, Diller’s team helped create stairways into the elevated park along with “pre-cast concrete planks,” which along with the benches, “become the vocabulary of the site.” Movable lounge chairs were also added. Before the first phase was even complete, the High Line had set off a “developers’ feeding frenzy.” An interesting development for a project that helps highlight “the romance of urban decay.” (See a case study about the High Line).

As the principal of Morphosis, a cutting-edge architecture firm, Thom Mayne, a Pritzker prize winner, has spent years experimenting with how buildings can dramatically reduce energy use. His new Cooper Union building is LEED Platinum, but the recent San Francisco Federal Building is even more amazing: it has no air conditioning systems, using natural ventilation alone. (See an interview that discusses this building). In addition, a new building he’s working on in France includes 4,000 data points that enable the building to follow the sun and maximize solar energy.

In New Orleans, Morphosis just created a model home for Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation project. If flooding should strike the city again, the building is designed to float. Tom Darden, Executive Director, Make It Right Foundation, later said this was the first floating building the city of New Orleans has ever approved.

Summing up, he argued that sustainability issues will need years to solve, but the current American attention span is about two years.

The Chairman of Llewelyn Davies Yeang, Ken Yeang, outlined how green design provides a “platform for sustainability.” He argued for “overlaying green design elements over grey ones.” Green design elements are natural, living systems that provide a range of ecosystem services, while grey infrastructure systems are streets, stormwater pipes, and other “hard” surfaces that often can’t be avoided but are expensive to maintain. The key he said was to create an integrated, inter-connected relationship between these two elements; they shouldn’t be separate systems. “Green design enables seamless, benign integration.”

Just like a garden needs to be tended, a green building also needs to be continually cared for over time, argued Yeang.

Tristan d’Estree Sterk wowed the audience with a demonstration of a robotic architecture that is “highly responsive to its environment.” Sterk argued that energy savings of more than 38 percent could be achieved in most climate zones with the use of more efficient building technologies. Some two percent of those savings have to do with changing a building’s color, another eight percent relate to windows, while 25-30 percent relate to changing a building’s shape.

Sterk is experimenting with “soft shells” that would be lightweight and change shape. Embedded sensors and “actuators” could help a building lean towards the sun. This would do much to increase energy efficiency because current “dumb” building materials are also the result of dumb, energy-inefficient manufacturing processes as well.

Image credit: Bank of America tower lobby / Cook + Fox

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