Green buildings: shooting for the stars or arriving at average?

What is the purpose of a new green building aesthetically? Should it look like every other energy hog on the block? Or should it look different to call attention to the fact that it’s special?

That’s what I’m wondering after your comments to the post below, regarding the new LEED platinum headquarters building for the U.S. Green Building Council. Holz says “it’s got no soul,” while a conversation between Nate and I revolved around the image that the USGBC is trying to project. Nate says “USGBCs goal seems to be to bring green to the mainstream, and thus it is not surprising that they wanted their office building to look like a traditional office building.”

But why go traditional when you can go exciting?

I don’t even work in the field and I can come up with a number of reasons. It’s less of a risk if you design something that looks like everything else. And while many people might think the idea of LEED is great, there are also people out there who think it’s a load of hogwash. And heck, if you’re standing in a standard-looking building, you’ve got to search out the single USGBC plaque and know what it means before realizing you’re in a green building. What percentage of the population would even recognize the seal if they saw it?

But if you’ve got a green building that’s obviously a green building from its architecture, who knows how it will be accepted? Who knows if people will like it, or if tenants will choose it over a more common counterpart. It’s also more obvious to nay-sayers that the people who developed the building – and use it- are committed to green practices (or at least want to appear that they are).

Then again, one has to assume that if you’re going to the USGBC’s offices, you know that the people you’re about to be speaking with are green-minded.

And if the envelope is never pushed, you won’t get buildings like this:

The roof of the LEED platinum California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco by Renzo Piano

or Nate’s favorite:

CK Choi Building for the Institute of Asian Reserach by Matsuzaki Architects

or possibly the first living building in the country….

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living by BNIM Architects

Or the LEED gold Environmental Protection Agency Region 8 headquarters in Denver. From the outside…

From the outside, designed by Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects
And from the inside

Though to be fair, all the above photos are of buildings for private institutions or agencies that don’t really have to worry about market forces.

What do you think? Should really green buildings look like everything else or do they need to look mainstream for reasons of marketability, etc.? Answer my poll at right or share your thoughts below.

And if I missed a great example of a green building that pushes the aesthetic envelope, please comment with a link to a photo of it…..

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14 thoughts on “Green buildings: shooting for the stars or arriving at average?

  1. Pingback: Thriving Retail, Being Too Tight, Quantifying Green, + Android Monitors | Green Blog Media

  2. George

    I think it needs to look the same. It is what it does that counts, not what it looks like. People in general tend to resist change. I would hate to see people resisting going green because they don’t like the look of change.

  3. Andrew

    You should go take a tour of the Weber + Thompson Terry Thomas, I hear the working conditions there are near unbearable during this heat wave. Guess the idea of their not needing AC wasn’t exactly well thought out.

  4. Brett Thomas

    In our world of low-rise private sector commercial buildings, one of the reasons clients resist LEED/Green buildings is a misperception that it requires buildings to look like a science fair project.

    Aesthetic design for buildings should be appropriate for their context and use, independent of the green objectives.

    Case in point: The LEED Platinum WPUDA building in Olympia, designed to fit in with its historic neighbors, receives as many compliments on the classic architecture as the green building accomplishments.

  5. Katie Post author

    Brett, you have a point, buildings should always be appropriate for their context and use. But assuming that the design will fit in – should they be striving to look different (not like a science fair project but unique) or should they be striving to look like the norm. If the WPUDA design really gets as many compliments as its green accomplishments, I would guess it has met its objective because the aesthetic fits in and yet stands out enough to get people to compliment it. Also, judging from the pictures of the building, it does look a little different from your standard office (however, I have not seen it with my own eyes). I think buildings can look different without looking like they’re crazy!

    Andrew, I’ll ask the people over at Weber Thompson if they’ve got a response to your comment. However, I work in an un-airconditioned office (a beautiful big, brick 100-year old cluncker) and while it’s hot right now, it is certainly bearable. Is the added cost of an AC system really worth these very few days a year where the heat is unbearable? It’s all a question of what you’re used to, or can get used to.

  6. Nate

    I’d have to question Andrew’s comment as well. The lack of AC was certainly well thought out, and the consequences were accepted. There was a conscious decision made that the building would be out of the normal comfort range during the hottest periods, such as a string of 90+ days.

    A more fair critique might be: Is it appropriate to project the expected number of hours that a building will experience hot conditions using historical weather data? After all, if we are in a warming trend, maybe it would be more fair to show building owners how their building will perform during a 100-year summer as opposed to a typical summer.

  7. Dan A.

    Hi Andrew – you should come take a tour of the office and see what it’s like. I can tell you it’s warm, some might say unbearable, but its hot everywhere. With record temps this week we’ve adapted. Shorts, sandals, popsicles, and large glasses of cold water are standard, and many people have shifted their work schedules to miss the hottest parts of the day. One adventurous staff member has even taken a dip in the lake to cool off. These slight changes for me are really no big deal and come with the territory of a passively ventilated office building. I know the design team did think about days like this and how warm this building would get. They made a conscious decision about the trade off between no AC and the number of hours this building would be over 85 degrees (about 20 hours per year). Not a bad deal if you ask me. Besides we’re not straining the grid or contributing excess heat to the city with AC units going full blast. Stay cool.

  8. Brett Thomas

    Katie: Good observations. While I think that “distinctive or follow-the-crowd design” is an independent question, if a distinctive building is desirable, then highlighting sustainable design is one of the great options to create something unique.

  9. Nick

    I believe that in the case of “green” building it has unfortunitly become too much of a social movement. Now this doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with it because I do. The thought behind it and the effort are indeed very good ideas. As for making these building stand out, I believe that they should. Why not? The architects job is to do that and be creative. Just because it is LEED, doesn’t mean that its going to change the mold of what architects have been doing for hundreds of years. As for the whole concern of AC, I think that its crazy. I couldn’t imagine working in a warm environment like that. Like right after lunch…sitting in a warm room after eating…that would put me into a food coma.

  10. Wendy Hughes-Jelen

    Working under hot conditions is just an excuse to shorten your days – or get up and get to work earlier. Because it is true by 3 PM my brain shuts down when it is over 90 degrees. I work in a building frmo 1906 and have no A/C. It’s pretty miserable. But if I don’t move and stay in my fan zone at least I am physically here.

  11. Michelle

    Unlike the buildings you’ve posted as interesting green architecture, this was not new construction, it was an interior buildout in a leased building. Apples to oranges.

  12. Shooter

    I really enjoyed reading your interesting yet very informative insight. In the book of life every page has two sides: we human beings fill the upper side with our plans, hopes and wishes, but providence writes on the other side, and what it ordains is seldom our goal. Thank you for sharing and I am looking forward to reading more of your very current blog postings!!! 😀 Shooter Game

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