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News & Views Curation

January 26, 2006

Message from Barcelona

Treehugger The future is green. Find it here.

The more information and ideas, about how to make our lives greener, the better we say. Which is why we like the New York based Sallan Foundation. This organisation was set up to focus attention on improving the urban environment through innovative green ideas. Their mission is to follow trends, consider current thinking and push interesting proposals into the spotlight. They do this by reporting on topical green issues, commissioning focus articles, promoting green events, as well as hosting forums, salons and lectures. They aim to disseminate information to as wide an audience as possible believing that 'the urban environment must become a key to the solution of a sustainable future'. The Foundation has also initiated The Sally Prize to encourage environmental research in institutes of higher learning in New York City.

Leonora Oppenheim (Treehugger)

January 03, 2006

Lost in Translation

Recently, one of New York's pre-eminent architectural critics lavishly praised Sir Norman Foster's new Hearst Corporation skyscraper in mid-town Manhattan. Paul Goldberger's essay in a December 2005 issue of the New Yorker was filled with superlatives about the marriage of engineering inventiveness and aesthetic satisfaction.

Alas, it failed to take note of Foster’s achievement as the architect of a high performance building and the reasons why the developers decided to go green. These omissions represent a lost opportunity to use the platform of a widely read magazine and the authority of a Goldberger review to let readers know that the Hearst building is designed to use natural resources more efficiently. It will make good use of natural light, conserve energy, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and improve indoor air quality. These are exactly the sustainable design goals that governments and developers around the world are starting to demand. And, these virtues are part and parcel of a building that succeeds on all the conventional architectural criteria. This should be big news.

Also newsworthy is the fact that the building is seeking a United States Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and the Environment (LEED) “Gold” rating and that Hearst project developers received a $4.9 million New York State Green Building Tax Credit for building a high performance tower. That’s both good for the developer and a sign that this is a government program that works.

Here’s still more good news. The Hearst project is not alone in New York City. The Bank of America headquarters, which is being designed to meet LEED “Platinum” standards and the Goldman Sachs tower near Ground Zero, going for a LEED “Gold” rating, also received Green Building tax credits.

An important feature of New York’s Green Building Tax Credit program is the requirement for participants to keep records showing their compliance with the program. This information will be analyzed and published by the State’s Energy Research and Development Authority. The report (due in April 2008) could provide essential evidence for evaluating the fate of environmental policy aspirations in the real world, which, in turn, could have a positive impact on markets and the financial institutions that underwrite new development.

All these things are part of a trend — a growing movement at the state and local levels — to bring high performance building into the mainstream. In 2005, the aspirations of the Green Tax Credit program combined with its real world success lead to its reauthorization. This State action comes at a good time because New York City enacted its own Green Building Law in October 2005. This new local law is an addition to the City Charter giving the Mayor direct executive responsibility. As an addition to the Charter, the Mayor will get to decide which agencies will be tapped to carry out its purposes. Local Law 86 is not, as is more common case, an amendment to the City’s Administrative Code where the statutory language defines the responsible agency.

To implement Local Law 86, the Mayor’s team will spend 2006 crafting regulations and setting up a program for municipal green building that will come into effect in January 2007. This means that during 2006, critical decisions will be made about which agencies will be responsible for drafting regulations, who will bear the responsibility for carrying out the law, how Local Law 86 will fit with the existing Building Code, and which pots of money will be counted toward the capital dollar threshold for green design. The Mayor also will get to determine whether to rely on LEED or seek out LEED equivalent standards for use as its architectural benchmark.

Local Law 86 will require any capital project with an estimated construction cost of $2 million or more involving new construction or substantial renovations to meet LEED “Silver” standards — or their equivalent. Capital projects with an estimated construction cost of $12 million or more will also be required to reduce energy costs by at least 20%. Exempted from these requirements are residential projects since they are not included in the statute’s requirements. Public school construction will be designed to meet LEED “Certification” standards. Local Law 86 will direct much of the City’s $12 billion ten-year capital construction plan into the design and development of a generation of green building. At this scale, Local Law 86 has the potential of transforming the practice of building and the industries that provide the design, fabrication and installation of building components and building system materials. New Yorkers who care about creating a sustainable City must become actively engaged over the next year as Local Law 86 takes shape and gets ready for launching. The Sallan Foundation intends to follow these developments closely.

Already there are many New Yorkers who know something about high performance building. Some are advocates; others are watchfully waiting to see if it’s right for them. There is also good reason to believe that local government officials, local economic decision makers and environmental and community advocates around the U.S. are the new epicenters of environmental innovation. This is a natural phenomenon: just this year, although the federal government has maintained its intransigent opposition to acting on climate change, the U.S Conference of Mayors unanimously approved a Climate Protection Agreement and another group of American mayors agreed to the Urban Environmental Accords on World Environment Day in San Francisco.

On the New York City scene, in 2005, the Sallan Foundation, in partnership with the Municipal Art Society and the Committee on the Environment of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, put on a four part panel series, “High Performance Building in New York City”. This series was developed with two goals in mind. The first was to understand how to stimulate the market and mobilize policy demands in order to make high performance building New York’s “new normal”. The second goal was to open a path for evidence based environmental policy making. The panelists in this series — public policy makers, environmental and sustainable energy advocates, architects, market-rate developers, as well affordable housing and sustainable community activists and green building clients too — should all be called practical visionaries. They presented a wide set of experiences with green building in New York and spoke about what worked well and what obstacles they found.

As a sponsor of this series, I believe that it clearly advanced the necessary public discussion in a forum where all participants — panelists, moderators and audience members — spoke candidly about the challenges of building green and convincingly demonstrated that we can build a sustainable city. Thinking about the lessons learned from the series, I conclude that sponsors and participants alike would agree that cities offer great potential for a sustainable future and that it is our shared intention to use the urban built environment as the crucible for environmental solutions that work at the local, national and international scale.

Now it’s your turn. Please look at the series “Event Wrap-Ups” written by Gunnar Hand on this web site and post your comments. Paul Goldberger, are you there?

January 02, 2006

Transparent Green

It's time to get rid of the concept of green design. Let me explain.

Science fiction author and design advocate Bruce Sterling, recently asked, "What if green design were just good design?" He talked about "sacrificing the bohemian romance" of the earthy earnest look so that green could become more mainstream. He's right, but it'll take more than that to get green products out of small boutiques and into Wal-Mart and Target.

And we know what the issues are: cost, knowledge, availability, perceived quality, and design.

Let's say for now that green products cost the same as other products. (In reality, we need to somehow restructure the marketplace so that the price of something reflects its true cost, including environmental impact, health costs, etc. but that's another story.) And let's say that comparative, easy-to-understand product information — "green labeling" — was available so that consumers could make educated decisions.

We've now imagined away two barriers, costs and consumer knowledge. Pie in the sky, maybe, but go with it for now. And I'm going to ignore availability, because that'll happen when the cost and demand align.

That leaves us with two related barriers.

Many people think that eco-products are inferior in their effectiveness, performance or durability. Pre-conceptions usually have some basis in reality and eco-products are no exception. Certainly, there have been inferior green products offered in the name of saving the planet and they have marred the reputation of the entire genre. Overcoming this fear of inferiority requires a consumer education campaign — no small undertaking.

Another common notion is that eco-products look different. They're for tree-huggers, former hippies and upper income liberals who aren't into high modernism. This, too, is partially true and is the fault of us designers.

How did this come about? For many, the ecology movement, eco-design's progenitor, began with the energy crisis of the early Seventies. Along with a gasoline shortage, pollution was in the news. Lake Erie was declared dead and Cuyahoga River was on fire. Seventies ecologists looked like an outgrowth of the Sixties anti-war generation. The lifestyle was hippy and handmade and eco-products could be crude and expensive. Most of all, you couldn't buy them in the department store or on the mall. They weren't mainstream.

Why? Part of the answer is that green designers tended to work in a world separate from "regular" design. And this produced furniture and household goods and even electronics that often subordinated esthetics — meaning the type of design that other designers focus on — to environmental issues. Or, when there's been an esthetic, it's been that, uh, granola-look.

This must stop. We can't keep saying there is design and there is green design. This separation does a disservice to the success of our designs, green or otherwise. So long as there is a disconnect between the general design world and eco-design, there will be a division of the market into two parts: the mainstream and the eco-niche, and the eco-niche loses.

It's incumbent upon green designers to make designs that will sell. Design the greenest, most sustainable refrigerator, but it won't matter a bit if no one buys it. If it doesn't sell, it doesn't have an impact. Unless eco-designs replace other products in a substantial way, they won't have a significant environmental impact. Twenty electric cars in Los Angeles will not improve the air quality. And a handful of hand-cranked radios won't dent the piles of batteries going to landfills.

That's not totally true. A failed green design can affect other designs. It can influence and demonstrate possibilities. But it's more likely to have the opposite effect if it fails to sell.

Market success is also necessary to financial success. Yeah, that's pretty obvious. But an eco-product's market failure has additional repercussions because of its message to industry and the public. The perception that the public doesn't care about green becomes a "fact" that's cited in corporate boardrooms and by government policy makers. And this spins a vicious circle. Arguably, we do more harm than good in developing unsuccessful eco-designs. This criticism bears repeating. It's a problem that emanates from design firms and corporate offices down to design schools that still haven't incorporated eco-design into their core studies.

But wait. The first thing I wrote was that it's time to get rid of green design. "He's contradicting himself", I hear you saying. Well no, not exactly. What I meant in my opening line was that we have to get rid of the consumer category of green design.

Actually, that's not exactly it either. What I mean is we need to hide it. Eco-design should be so completely imbedded in a design that it is an integral, indistinguishable part of the whole design. And when we've done that, and put the eco aspects on a par with function and color and sexiness, the design will stand on its own.

Once we've made the eco-properties of a design invisible, then we can appeal to the mainstream. Until then, it's not gonna happen. We know that most consumers are cool to eco-products. The ambivalent ones may buy green if it doesn't cost more and is readily available. The anti-greens avoid products with the eco label. So, to sell to all these consumers, we have to practice stealth green. A more positive way of saying the same thing is that we need to make the product appealing without touting its environmental qualities. And, really, that's the way it should be anyhow.

This doesn't mean forsaking our loyal green buyers. The green is still there, and dedicated greenies will know it. It's just transparent; it's not there unless you're looking for it. It's Transparent Green.

Here's the ultimate goal of green design — make it disappear. Make every product's green virtue so integral that it' s assumed; so fundamental that it's there whether you're looking for it or not. It's our job to put it there. And then, don't tell anyone.

David Bergman is principal of David Bergman Architect and founder of Fire & Water Lighting + Furniture. He teaches sustainable design at Parsons School of Design and is a LEED Accredited Professional. For more see