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Reverse Zone, weblog on urban planning, sustainability, and technology.

Martin Laplante

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Sat, 11 Apr 2009

Green Buildings Need Design and Geographic Context

In Green Building Blues, art critic Kriston Capps wonders why "green buildings" are so ugly, and gets some surpising answers.

First, green buildings currently being built are mostly for show; looking sustainable is more important than being sustainable. That means, like the Vancouver Olympic village and the new Vancouver Convention Centre Expansion, lots of ostentatious greenery on the roof. Even when other other solutions with less steel and glass would emit even less.

The other reason is LEED standards themselves, which pay little attention to context. If you place a green building in a location that is only accessible by car, you burn more hydrocarbons than if you build or reuse something better located. That is also part of his argument - good design is more sustainable simply because people aren't so keen to demolish it and start over. But his major beef with LEED is that it is absolute. Wood gets you more points than steel even if you are in Pittsburgh, where steel is local and wood shipped in from far away. The cost of transporting just the right shade of stone from across the continent is not calculated. What would make more sense, both from an environmental and design point of view, is the use of local material and building methods, fostering an indigenous vernacular style.

He blames International Style introduced by Le Corbusier for the difficulty in getting both sustainable and well-designed buildings. The big firms and starchitects look at buildings as sculptures, singular artistic expressions, competing with each other for opulence.

It's an interesting analysis. Have we gone from conspicuous consumption to conspicuous thrift, without going through humility and frugality along the way? What architects are discovering as they progress further and further into a future having stringent new green constraints is that they do not need so much to invent new building methods, styles, and materials but rather to look around them at traditional methods, styles, and materials that have been around them for centuries.


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