As the “Green” movement pervades every aspect of our lives from the food that we consume to the cars that we drive, it has also pervaded the buildings that are being built around us. Currently the standard for evaluating a building’s environmental impact is the LEED certification process. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and was created by the US Green Building Council to evaluate that a building “was designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance across all the metrics that matter most: energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts.”
Recently in a public Q&A in Chicago, Thomas Pritzker, chairman of the Pritzker foundation, which awards the annual Pritzker Architecture Prize, asked architect Frank Gehry, “what would you think if a client said he wanted a LEED certified building?” Gehry mockingly responded, “Oh great.” He then dismissed environmental concerns as largely political and discredited LEED certification for awarding buildings for many things that don’t necessarily save energy. For example, in the LEED certification process, buildings are awarded for superficial additions like bicycle racks. Gehry then commented on how the costs of making sustainable architecture are enormous and often times the building doesn’t pay back in a person’s lifetime. According Blair Kamin, this translates to mean that designing for LEED certification isn’t what Gehry aims for although “fellow Pritzker Prize winners, such as the London architect Lord Norman Foster, have made a synthesis of elegance and environmentalism a hallmark of their work.”
In a follow-up of the interview, Gehry clarified his commentary on the LEED certification process claiming that he is actually in support of sustainable architecture and meant to attack the design community that designs solely for a LEED certification. “It’s become ‘fetishized’ in my profession. I think architects can do a lot, but some of what gets done is marketing and doesn’t really serve to the extent that the PR says it does.”
Gehry’s comments are particularly interesting because they raise the question: should architects design buildings solely to earn LEED certification?
Although I agree with Gehry on discrediting some of the criteria that LEED evaluates and some of the superficial solutions it promotes, I cannot disregard the validity of LEED evaluation and its necessity in the continually worsening condition of the world.
It is particularly interesting to hear Gehry speak about sustainability as his name and the word sustainable are rarely in the same sentence. Although Gehry has actually won LEED certification for a few of his buildings, he has never directed his work towards earning certification. He is often times characterized as an avant-garde architect with extremely sculptural forms taking precedence over environmental design issues.
For example, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California, is a beautiful building that has become an icon in Los Angeles. However it initially caused serious damage to the surrounding buildings by redirecting sunlight and overheating them. The concert hall was originally composed of stainless steel panels with a polished finish. However the mirror-like finish of the panels coupled with the building’s concave profile caused a severe glare problem for the neighboring condominiums. As a result air-conditioning costs increased and parts of the sidewalk heated up to almost 150° F . To remedy the problem, specific panels were sanded to create a brushed finish in order to eliminate the glare. Could Gehry have avoided this problem by taking a more proactive approach to sustainable design?
To some extent Gehry’s designs seem to be irresponsible; as architects we are responsible for shaping and molding the environment that everyone else inhabits and therefore we should be cognizant of all the realities of our buildings. However this does not necessarily mean running through the LEED checklist in order to create more “green architecture.”
As a student caught in the midst of this “green revolution” I do find some validity in Gehry’s resistance to LEED certification. By creating a system by which architects can go through a list of ways to create a supposedly sustainable building, LEED certification seems to limit the potential for architects to create more innovative solutions to alleviate the current issue of global warming.
The LEED certification process should instead be promoting and encouraging advancements like the Federal Building in San Francisco, California. The Federal Building was designed by Thom Mayne and Morphosis Architects to improve the nature of the work place and the experience of the occupants by reducing energy consumption. The entire project is a hybridization of natural and mechanical systems. Depending on the program, specific levels in the building utilize air conditioning systems while others are naturally ventilated. The levels with operable windows have floor slabs that are shaped to bring in the natural breeze at a controlled speed. The entire building is clad with a high performance façade composed to perforated metal sun screens to reduce solar heat gain while providing natural light and ventilation to the interior spaces. Realizing that natural light makes a work place exponentially better, the architects were able to illuminate 85% of the workplace with natural light. In this project, the sustainable aspects of the building and the conceptual driving force were fused into one cohesive system to create an innovative approach to sustainable architecture.
Although the LEED certification process has definitely encouraged more architecture and construction firms to be cognizant of and proactive towards the pressing global environmental issues of today, the criteria that it evaluates makes it more of standard than anything else. Perhaps the criteria that LEED evaluates should be reconsidered to actually embody its name: Leadership in Energy and Environment Design and promote more innovative ways build a sustainable world.