Being Raised on Sustainability


LEED, Green. Sustainable, Passive, Active, Energy Efficient, Net Zero. All these terms being shoved in our faces loose the luster they may have to more seasoned architectural designers. To us, these ideas are not ground-breaking and do not create goals to aspire to. To us, these are normal methods and practices, so much so that if they’re not incorporated or at least considered in a design, it’s ignorant amateur work by someone who clearly has no clue what’s going on the world.

PNC Tower - Gensler

The Robot Tower

The PNC Tower by Gensler. It was basically a famous movie star to me and my classmates. "Oh we have to do a report on a sustainable building? Let's do the PNC Tower!" Throw passive design out the window and forget everything you know about harnessing the power of natural elements - this is essentially a robot, self-operating building. I may have had a slight outburst in class when someone called this "passive design".

LEED was all the rage when my class entered college. A new building wasn’t cool unless it was LEED certified. If you got to intern at a firm that made a LEED platinum building, everyone was jealous. Then, while they were all oohing and awing at LEED standards, the real dedicated eco-enthusiasts gradually stumbled upon a lesser known standard - PassivHaus, or Passive House as it is known in the U.S. I remember when I discovered PassivHaus, it didn’t even exist in the US and I was certain that I was going to move to Germany after school to learn it. Times changed and that didn’t happen, but that’s how much “green building” influenced my education goals. By the time we were upperclassmen, we were seeing “LEED Green Certified” on peers’ resumes. A classmate said, “I’m taking the LEED exam next month.” and it was considered a kind of gossip: “Did you hear that Stacey is getting LEED certified? I should do that too!” Now, just a couple years later and being out of school I have little ambition to get that certification because in a way, it’s overrated to millenials. Designing with a conscious awareness of environmental impact, resource consumption, occupant comfort, and long-duration effects is second nature to us (or at least it should be). Particularly for students like myself who concentrated their studies in modern technologies and building functionality, treating a building as an entity that breathes, adapts, and responds just makes sense. We know that just because something is made of concrete doesn’t mean it’s stagnant; quite the opposite when we know all the material’s characteristics and capabilities.


The Mobile Home

This is SOM's AIME. It stands for Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy. It's a micro home with it's own accompanying car. You can see the solar panels on the roof, but what you can't see is the energy generated by the car that get's transferred to the house through a wireless charging pad - like the one you use at coffee shops to charge your phone. Pretty cool, but better yet - it was 3d printed by a machine called Big Bertha. The things that humans are capable of is amazing. Everyone should be able to generate their own energy at this point! 


Buzzing around the internet these days are talks that “sustainability is dead” which is referring to both the design aspirations and the diction floating around it. As mentioned, sustainability goals have been pushed into depths of our design psyches for years and by the time I was a graduate student, if you said “sustainable” in your review, people responded with... nothing, because it’s just not impressive anymore. Saying “This building is sustainable” is like saying. “This building performs as you’d think it should.” You might as well point out that there are beams supporting the floors - it’s not revolutionary; in fact, it’s typical. I even had professors tell me, “Don’t use the word sustainable - it’s far overused.”


The Science Experiment

This is the Torre de Especialidades building in Mexico City. The beautiful facade was designed by Elegant Embellishments. But it's not just elegant, it's also very functional. This exo skin is coated in titanium dioxide, a compound that when hit with UV light, actually cleanses smog from the air. It won't clean the whole city, but it's doing something!


Now that the generation raised on this concept is out in the professional world, how are we going to redefine and regenerate these ideas of smart, Earth-friendly buildings? Better question - how are we going to do it with a President who is pulling the U.S. out of the Paris agreement? It’s not enough to slap solar panels on the roof. It’s not enough to add glazing to the south side. It’s not enough to fill the envelope with 5 inches of XPS insulation. At this point in the game, it’s not enough to ‘use less energy.’ The buildings we design not only need to take less, but they need to give back. Architecture has always operated for the user, as it should, but we have entered the Anthropocene and must account for the changes happening around us in our architecture. Buildings that affect the natural environment in positive ways is the next step. Architecture that cleans the air, provides habitats for microorganisms, filters water, and teaches the next generation that buildings do so much more than protect us from the elements.