Rainwater cistern and outdoor classroom on south side the Warren Skaaren Environmental Learning Center. Photo: Greg Hursley.

Green by Design

IN THE MID-1980S, ARCHITECT WILLIAM MCDONOUGH was commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund to build a headquarters in New York whose construction materials were to be as non-toxic as technology would allow and whose signature traits would include energy efficiency. The 20,000-square-foot structure was a watershed in environmental friendliness for workers and could boast the novel application of sustainable practices in an industry routinely rapped for circumventing them.

But the scope of the project would stretch far beyond its political and even its structural merit. For McDonough, it was the equivalent of crossing the Rubicon, a passage from the old days and old ways of building that neglected to take into account the true cost of consuming nonrenewable resources and tended to be cavalier about the carcinogenic constituents in everything from floor coverings to light fixtures. McDonough would go on to be the first recipient of the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development in 1996 and to co-author with chemist Michael Braungart Cradle to Cradle  in 2002, a 200-page epistle concerning ecologically beneficial — or “eco-effective” — principles aimed at preserving the planet, product by product, structure by structure.

Three years later, McDonough was designing a master plan for seven sustainable cities in China, where housing demands have soared along with the population. The eco-opus under way this year by his firm, William McDonough & Partners, is a condominium and mixed-use development in the heart of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, aptly named “Greenbridge.” A trend-setting project in an urban area, Greenbridge is expected to serve as a model for use of non-toxic materials, energy-saving devices and rooftops planted for food production as well as recreation.

What distinguishes an architect like McDonough from the merely well-intentioned is that he both advocates and applies methods of production which aim to ensure that the life of a material moves from cradle to cradle, so to speak, instead of from cradle to grave. In a concept predicated on design and building but not limited to it, McDonough proposes products whose utility is as versatile as their lifespan is infinite. Toward that end, the architect who earned the epithet “Hero for the Planet” in 1999 from Time magazine collaborated with Braungart to create such items as a fabric strong enough to serve as upholstery, but safe enough to eat. And at the close of the fabric’s aesthetic life, it can gain new vitality or be reborn as a source of compost. There is nothing outlandish about products whose value is enhanced by components that lend themselves to a constant cycle of rebirth. But short of a revolution among a myriad of industries — though one may be in the offing amid existing economic and energy conditions — there is, for every idealist and his counterpart pragmatist, a universal syntax that aids sustainable practices.

If nature serves as the archetype for making things, then the metaphor for architecture is a tree, which McDonough and his co-author argue is never isolated from the systems around it. A multitude of measures that make up the canon of green building might best be likened to the law of parsimony, where the simplest solution is the most elegant one. In the context of ecologically sensitive design, what is old is new. That premise is in play in such concepts as daylighting — positioning of windows to make optimal use of natural light — and in the use of thermal mass to ensure temperature stability and reduce costs associated with heating, ventilating and air conditioning.

Moreover, materials now coming into vogue with an eye to sustainability, including rammed earth and straw bale, once were central to structures erected by pre-industrial societies. And several of the conventions that make up the one-time unconventional practice of eco-friendly design are in harmony with the precepts espoused by Frank Lloyd Wright concerning organic architecture, where structure is paired with site in a partnership of true equals.

A select group of architects in the West has come to embody an ethos about the natural and built environments that stretches from yesterday’s giants, such as Wright, to today’s visionaries, such as McDonough, and beyond. Through their commercial, public and residential works, they are tapping an instinctual, age-old pragmatism that stretches back to an epoch when the discovery of energy forms such as electricity was as distant a technological advancement as the mortared rubble that made architectural masterpieces like the Parthenon possible.

In an era when green architecture has gained a cachet that is all but unmoored from its ecological advantages — and formalized with the U.S. Green Building Council rating system, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) — Henry Siegel of the award-winning firm Siegel & Strain Architects in Emeryville, California, is among the pioneers in environmentally sustainable design. Siegel, chairman of the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on the Environment, felt the early stirrings of an environmental consciousness while seeking a master’s degree in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, a school he selected in part because it offered study in alternative energy.

Siegel was keenly interested in climate-based design in a period that offered no formal courses in that discipline. He embarked on a self-imposed tutorial pinned to his premise: Climate conditions dictate the orientation and shape of a building in a fashion that weds setting to structure.

“It’s not just a technical way of keeping buildings more temperate in whatever climate is planned for,” he says. “It’s a meaningful way of connecting to a particular place in a larger, more philosophical way. It will feel like it fits in that environment.”

Today’s green architects are the de facto champions of Wright’s theories about a design approach that responds to nature and they also borrow from the legacy of doing more with less promoted by 20th-century utopian — and architect — Buckminster Fuller. That rule is central to McDonough’s concept of eco-efficiency and it carries with it the seeds of what has blossomed for Siegel into the belief that architecture in the information age must attend to what biologist E.O. Wilson has proposed is the biologically based impulse of humans to relate to nature.

“You’ll find people who have been creating great architecture for a long time believe it’s not just a design agenda, it’s an ethical agenda that goes well beyond architecture,” says Siegel.

It is an agenda that embraces rather than rejects the three core values of classical thought — truth, goodness and beauty. A residential gem designed by Siegel & Strain in the crown of California’s wine country dispels the myth that sustainable design is another term for earnest but unattractive building. The low-profile Wine Creek residence makes stunning use of a sloping site that overlooks Sonoma County vineyards even as it nestles against a backdrop of towering oak and fir trees.

The object of accolades in multiple sustainable design categories, the 1,200-square-foot retreat features walls constructed of straw bales and relies on ventilation, insulation and thermal mass to ensure cooling where a natural system was selected over a mechanical one. It is a structure that eases into its environment instead of dominating it and consequently links interior and exterior spaces.

With Wright’s westward migration in the late 1930s he founded the celebrated Taliesin West, his winter home-cum-architect colony where the Wisconsin-born designer relished the challenge of contending with the rugged landscape and searing temperatures of the Arizona desert. Building in conditions that stood in stark contrast to the suburban Chicago setting for many of his prairie style houses, Wright experimented with new materials in keeping with the grammar of his new landscape, Wright apprentice Arthur Dyson writes in Frank Lloyd Wright: The Western Work.

Working long before solar panels were a source of renewable energy and before society had conceptualized that certain resources were finite, in the Southwest Wright employed canvas as a flexible covering for apertures, arguing that circulating air acted as a buffer against soaring temperatures, thus providing cooling without resorting to air conditioning, Dyson notes.

If a conservation ethic existed in the absence of contemporary social, economic and political forces driving it, then today’s adherents of sustainable architecture have elaborated on the theme. Mike McElhaney, a principal with the Austin, Texas-based Jackson & McElhaney, says self-consciousness has grown along with the profession, with few designers and builders able to avoid the reality that buildings in the United States consume the lion’s share of electricity. According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Green Building Council, structures are behind 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation even as they consume 30 percent of raw materials and produce 30 percent of all waste.

“When you get labeled as that wasteful industry, you try your best in the field of architecture to offset that,” says McElhaney, noting that the firm, like others that are environmentally aware, has in some cases diverted as much as 90 percent of its waste from the landfill.

Jackson & McElhaney can boast an impressive list of sustainable design projects, with the Warren Skaaren Environmental Learning Center at a nature preserve outside Austin garnering one of the prized American Institute of Architects’ “Top Ten Green Buildings” award in 2006. A key goal in the design of the educational facility was a building that would both accommodate large groups of school students and spur an awareness and understanding of the environment.

As the architects like to say, the structure was conceived as a three-dimensional textbook, featuring such state-of-the-art green systems as a photovoltaic array, or solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity, and a self-composting restroom.

McElhaney is justifiably proud of the project, which employs stone from a nearby quarry and includes a rainwater collection and filtration system, since it surpasses the standard — zealously endorsed by architectural giants from Wright to McDonough — of achieving harmony with its surroundings.

“That’s where it all starts — where you put the building in relation to the breeze, sun, rain,” says McElhaney. “That should never change. That has always been important to us and we will never stop designing that way. As stewards of the environment, we are responsible for bringing that to the client; we need to do so and we should do so.”

At a time when the call for going green is reverberating from the rooftops — literally, with large retailers installing solar panels to cut energy costs — and when the Web sites of major suppliers of everything from paint to flooring are touting their environment-friendly initiatives, an Olympia, Washington, project by Mahlum Architects has come to represent a tour de force in sustainable design.

The cluster of five four-story academic buildings by Mahlum for Evergreen State College achieved one of the highest ratings offered by LEED, and went on to win a national architectural award for green design, but not before the firm, with offices in Seattle and Portland, Oregon, had accomplished such feats as equipping the cluster with mostly natural ventilation and a roof planted with vegetation.

The project, a continuum of daylight-washed rooms and walkways that evoke the fresh air of the forested site, was a testament to the importance of the pre-design dialogue, says Mahlum associate David Mount. “I don’t know if we knew at the time where the journey would lead,” he says of the complex of structures that all but breathe.

Mount says the project was framed by a client — a composite of faculty, staff and students — with a specific environmental roster, including least disturbance to the site and the use of low-emitting materials. “It goes beyond the aesthetic; it’s also educational,” he says. “It teaches its occupants, and not just with signage and campaigns, about what buildings should do and be in their environment.”

Where architecture attains its highest form, it is a reflection of the aims of an evolving society. In Cradle to Cradle, McDonough envisions a future in which architecture will transcend the age-old axiom of do no harm, a world in which taking and not returning to the earth will be as outmoded as the Romans found the Greek inclination toward open-air theatres.

“Imagine what a world of prosperity and health in the future will look like,” McDonough urges, “and begin designing for it right now.”



Laura Zuckerman lives and writes in Salmon, Idaho. Her work has been featured in such publications as The New York Times Magazine and on such news outlets as ABC and CBS.

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