Helping Big Buildings Go Green

Helping Big Buildings Go Green

Today, "large" architecture has become -- often out of necessity -- green architecture. Bill Browning and Cameron Burns of Rocky Mountain Institute explain why.

Rocky Mountain Institute has been deeply involved in green building (both influencing it and promoting it) for twelve years. In recent years, our work with large buildings has become both more frequent and more important -- for good reason. When done green, big projects exponentially multiply the benefits that green buildings typically produce.

From schools to factories to offices to institutional facilities, properly designed and crafted big buildings can stem the so-called exodus to the suburbs, lure even the most un-inquisitive into rich learning environments, and heal mental and physical ailments without a single doctor's appointment (or bill). Better yet, these buildings incur smaller utility costs and keep investments firm. It's somewhat disconcerting to think that we learned all this during the twentieth century, then promptly forgot what we knew. Now it's time to relearn it.

A Little Background

Before the invention of big-building mechanical systems, access to light and air were among the most important design considerations for large structures. While the big buildings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were often heated with steam, they were just as often passively cooled and illuminated, using deep-set windows, retractable canvas awnings, thermally-absorbent stone, and other, now-forgotten passive-comfort tricks. After World War II, however, as buildings' mechanical systems evolved and the International Style came to dominate architecture, access to light and air became end-of-design-process afterthoughts. With unlimited ducts, fans, pumps, and electricity, any building's light, temperature, and humidity could be dragged into a habitable range.

As Bill McDonough observes in Big & Green: Toward Sustainable Architecture in the 21st Century, "As the twentieth century came to a close, most new buildings had become so divorced from their surroundings that the Wall Street Journal devoted an entire front page feature to a new office building designed by my firm because it had windows that could actually be opened. When operable windows make news for setting a design standard, we have reached an astonishingly low point in architecture."

"Green" elements, such as daylighting, natural ventilation, and alternative energy and wastewater systems, meanwhile found their niche in small structures, and it was here that designers crafted personalized and very livable spaces. As anyone who grew up with Mother Earth News can recall, funky homes with solar collectors, wind turbines, and water recycling systems were commonplace in the early 1970s.

In 1973, the environmental movement of the late 1960s and '70s crashed headlong into the Arab oil embargo and America suddenly had an "energy crisis." The energy crisis was most noticeable in the way it affected transportation energy, but it also made an impression on the building industry, and the notion that fossil fuels could indefinitely power large space-conditioning systems was suddenly challenged.

"In Europe, where the price of energy was even higher, governments encouraged architects, engineers, and builders to develop strategies to naturally illuminate, ventilate, and supply power to buildings," wrote David Gissen, a curator for the "Big & Green" show at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C.

In the United States, the general environmental movement of the 1970s didn't catch on immediately, and floundered well into the 1980s. As James Wines noted in Green Architecture, "exploitative politics of ‘supply side' economics and its recklessly self-serving environmental policies" dominated social and political life, and it took several environmental disasters in the late 1980s and early 1990s to bring resource issues back to center stage. As many citizens of the world are now witnessing environmental calamity on at least an annual basis, how humans treat the world will probably remain a prominent topic.

"Since the journey into space, the fragility of the world has both shocked and challenged," wrote Brenda and Robert Vale in their 1991 book Green Architecture. "It has become apparent how dependent each person is on the planet, for all belong to the same whole. The single shared experience is that of living on the same, very small, earth. The way in which one person makes an alteration to the planet must have an effect on the other 4,999,999,999 inhabitants."

Today, a billion people later, "large" architecture is becoming -- often out of necessity -- green architecture. Many of the green buildings that exist, including products that have achieved a high U.S. Green Building Council LEED rating, are more or less conventional buildings that have been techno-fixed with green technologies. These buildings do have significantly better environmental performance than conventional projects, but we should take the next step. RMI's GDS team (Bill Browning, Huston Eubank, Alexis Karolides, and Jenifer Seal) has been fortunate to be involved in several projects where the environmental performance of the building is largely a result of the fundamental design decisions, examples of which are outlined below. In each of these projects, the building's form, skin, and systems are inseparable from its environmental performance goals.

How Is Bigger Better?

To the casual observer, big buildings seem the antithesis of energy- and resource-efficient design, but that is not necessarily the case. First, because of the concentration of users, the per-capita energy and resource efficiency, during both construction and operation, is much higher than in most other types of structures.

Second, the urban location is important. These buildings are in places where most occupants will arrive by mass transit or on foot.

Third, and less obvious, is the simple fact that large buildings have big budgets, and big budgets often allow developers, architects, and engineers to push their creativity and try things that wouldn't dare be considered with smaller projects and smaller budgets -- photovoltaics (PVs) in the building's skin, for example, or wind turbines on the roof, or fuel cells near the electricity's users. These big buildings are important economic engines in two important ways: a) they can enlarge demand for green technologies, thereby expanding production capabilities and lowering the price of PVs, turbines, special glazings, etc. (one large green building project, currently on hold, would have required the building of a small industrial facility to manufacture these devices), and, b) although this is not necessarily a quality of green buildings only, they will have huge impacts on their cities' economies. For example, when the World Trade Center was attacked and destroyed, Manhattan lost thirteen million square feet of office space, an area equal to roughly two-thirds the total office space in downtown San Francisco.

Certainly big buildings, green and otherwise, can cast huge shadows and create strange wind patterns -- two things the WTC did -- but there are some compelling reasons to push these buildings as far as possible toward sustainable design. RMI has long advocated smaller, decentralized systems -- notably with energy and water devices and systems -- but when it comes to green buildings, bigger does not always mean worse.

One Bryant Park
42nd Ave. and Sixth St., New York
Architect: Cook + Fox
Size: 2.1 million square feet
Year: Being designed in autumn 2003.
Client: Durst Organization
Description/what's special: The developer is exploring a partial double-skin building design (walls with space between them, often done in Europe), which can be very expensive. If done properly, heating and cooling energy savings can be, in the words of RMI's Bill Browning, "enormous." Raised floors, daylighting systems, onsite power generation, sophisticated water efficiency, and highly efficient mechanical systems are also components under strong consideration.
Unique challenges: Speculative building; however, the developer (who also did the Condé Nast building at 4 Times Square) is well-versed in green building issues and opportunities and is requiring even better energy and resource efficiency performance than 4 Times Square achieved.
RMI's involvement: RMI worked with Bob Fox, now a partner at Cook + Fox, and
the Durst Organization on 4 Times Square and will help guide sustainability here. RMI led a charrette with the design team and the major tenant regarding high-performance data centers for trading floors.

Peking University, College of Environmental Sciences
Architect: Anthony Ng and Prof. Young Ho Chang
Size: 250,000 square feet
Year: Construction hoped to start in 2004.
Client: College of Environmental Sciences
Description/what's special: A broad mixture of disciplines will go under one roof. There'll be architectural and landscape architecture studios, global information systems areas, wetlabs, an atmospheric research department -- you name it. A design charrette was held in September 2003. In fast-developing China, this building could help point the way to cleaner skies and better designs -- because, best of all, it's dedicated to teaching the nation's future leaders.
Unique challenges: The college is hoping to be very innovative with water and wastewater, and it hopes to have many of its components (PVs, turbines, etc.) manufactured in China. Also, it's near the university's East Gate, in a very visible location. Add to that the fact that China has little modern green building design experience, and you've got a very gutsy jump into green design (like David Orr's endeavors at Oberlin, only twenty times bigger). It is intended to be a demonstration building for the Chinese Olympic officials preparing for the 2008 summer games in Beijing.
RMI's involvement: RMI has been advising on green facilities design, and recently participated in the Beijing charrette.

David Lawrence Convention Center
Architect: Rafael Viñoly
Size: 1.5 million square feet
Year: 2003
Client: The Sports & Exhibition Authority (SEA) of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County
Description/what's special: This building is the biggest naturally-ventilated and daylit exhibit hall in North America. It's important because its remarkable green features are also wonderful form-givers -- the green "features" aren't merely tacked on. By mimicking the "Three Sisters," three suspension bridges that span the Allegheny River, architect Viñoly chose a beautiful curvilinear shape that would be both beautiful and conducive to natural ventilation and natural lighting. Over 90% of the demolition waste from the old convention center was processed on site and recycled, and an on-site water reclamation system reduces potable water use by an estimated 57%.
Unique challenges: An important downtown location. (Designers are aiming for a LEED gold rating.)
What has it shown/proved/done well?: Saved energy. Computer modeling predicts an energy savings of over 35% greater than ASHRAE/IESNA 90.1 1999. This will be achieved through the integration of natural ventilation and daylighting as well as occupancy and daylight sensors into the design. A LEED rating of gold was achieved.
RMI's involvement: Sustainability consultant in partnership with the Green Building Alliance.

California Academy of Sciences (CAS)
San Francisco
Architect: Renzo Piano Building Workshop
Size: 250,000 square feet
Year: The building is in design now.
Client: CAS
Description/what's special: The Peking University building described above is certainly complex enough, but the new CAS facility will have a planetarium, an aquarium, a rainforest, storage for eighteen million natural history specimens, and conventional exhibit space. The most attractive part of this building is the great big rolling green roof, and the re-creation of the location's original landscape.
Unique challenges: Being created for one of the oldest scientific institutions in California, this building has to reflect the public's desire for scientific information in understandable formats. (Designers are aiming for a LEED platinum rating.)
If built, what will it show/prove/do well?: There is talk of employing photovoltaics as a huge shade screen that extends all around the building. The latest design estimates are that it could produce 350 kW of electricity, but those are subject to change.
RMI's involvement: Sustainability consultant.