True Green: How Did We Get To #LEED? Or Where’s My Hanging Gardens?

 I am writing a series on sustainable design because there are a number of highly visible attacks against current practices. So far, I summarized the debate and broadly defined sustainability. This post is the first on how we got to this state of environmental affairs.

While I am no environmental historian, sustainable design deserves a long view, even if it’s a short version. Starting with the ancient world, here’s some milestones that I find most memorable.

Ancient Catastrophes

You might say that environmental damage begins the moment someone decides to make bread. Sounds strange, yes? Imagine, hunters and nomadic tribes can walk fairly lightly on the earth, leaving plenty of food for next generations. (Granted, there’s specific societies that over-hunted, vividly told by Jared Diamond in Collapse.)

However, since the beginning of recorded history, food production meant modifying eco-systems to farm. When we settle into a certain place or landscape and depend on it for generations, we fundamentally change it.

  1.  For starters, consider the Fertile Crescent, previously called Mesopotamia and Babylonia, now part of Iran and Iraq. Once the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the most flourishing paradise on earth became dry deserts unworthy of vegetation. Deforestation, canals to divert water to farming, and population growth transformed thriving forests and wetlands to barren deserts.
  2.  You might envision the Ancient Greeks as the ideal of balanced living? Three thousand years ago, through poor agricultural and deforestation practices, they turned marshes and oak forests into dry, barren land. Some say the magnificent city of Troy was decimated by soil erosion, burying the ruins beneath layers of weakened soil and sand. An ancient Dark Age ensued for four centuries, fortunately followed by the Golden Age and the rise of Athens.
  3.  The Romans diverted streams, deforested, over-mined, over-farmed, and paved large portions of watersheds. Jeremy Rifkin claims that Rome collapsed due to its inability to maintain agricultural production on declining soil fertility. Furthermore, sustaining massive infrastructure marked the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire.
  4.  Ancient Chinese mines turned forests and farms into wastelands. During the Bronze Age, the first known large scale copper mine operated for around a thousand years at Tongling, causing toxic soil and polluted water. Notably, they just moved their cities, leaving behind destroyed environments.

Each situation literally changed history. Depleting natural resources transformed societies, destroyed cities, and depopulated regions.

In other words, people have degraded the natural environment for several millennia; we are nowhere near the first generations. Furthermore, more people with more technology and higher consumption patterns strains even the most abundant, finite resources.

Yet we didn’t learn. That disappoints me as much – perhaps more than – the fact that these societies continued to exploit resources despite substantial decline. They may not have realized critical nature of the environment. We do. We know it from their losses. We know it from our losses.


Do Ancient Blunders Matter?The decisions of these societies resulted in hefty near-term prices. Their errors were system-wide, damaging or completely destroying societies. Environmental destruction and its consequences are the part of the story on which I am focused. The Roman Empire’s search for adequate resources led them into rainy, colder northern climates, and stretched their capacity. Exposed to militant barbarians, civilization collapsed. The ensuing Dark Ages lasted nearly one thousand years.

In fact, the abuses of the early societies were feeble compared to the substantial environmental changes to come. They made regional errors and affected specific groups, the perpetrators. Plus they were restricted by simple tools. No machines, no electricity, and far fewer people. Their contagion was geographically confined.

However, the ancient Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese did affect us. We are their future generations.

If the Romans had behaved wisely, if they had monitored resources, been peaceable neighbors, sustained a strong rural population and middle class, would they have ushered in the golden age of the Renaissance in the 5th or 6th century rather than the 14th century?

What if we were already a millennium further into our global development?

That’s an unknowable “what if” for a history that never happened.

We are not the first generations to damage the environment. However, we are the first to damage the whole planet. While atomic bombs empowered elites with the capacity to destroy entire cities and populations, environmental bombs sit in the hands of virtually every person on earth.

That’s extraordinarily difficult to fathom. Moreover, it’s even harder to change.

Images: Fertile Crescent Map, Iowa State University Public Images; Drought, photo: Infinite Unknown ; Hanging Gardens of Babylon: Wikimedia

True Green: What Is Sustainable Design Anyway? | on Construction Law Musings #LEED

Written on July 30, 2010 for Christopher G. Hill’s blog in Green Building, Guest Post Friday

 Noisette Rose

This week, Musings welcomes Cindy Frewen Wuellner, PhD, FAIA, architect, urban analyst, and founder of Frewen Architects Inc. Cindy teaches at the University of Houston Futures Studies Graduate Program. She is currently writing a book on the influence of social technologies on the design, construction, and use of 21st century cities. She can be reached at 913-961-1702 or on twitter as @.urbanverse

The Noisette Rose – A Triple Bottom Line Approach

For the Noisette Development in North Charleston, SC, in a collaboration of BNIM and Burt Hill Architects, we created a framework called the Noisette Rose. Based on the Triple Bottom Line concept, project goals combined concerns for Prosperity and People as well as the Planet. The Rose designates the qualifications and rates the success in meeting those criteria as radial arms around the circle.

The Noisette Rose effectively illustrates the complexity of sustainable design. While LEED and other models establish minimum standards for energy use, waste management, and so on, many experts consider sustainability environmental criteria alone will not achieve sustainable development. The Noisette Rose and Triple Bottom Line method describe that larger vision.

What is Sustainable Design?

Several organizations have defined sustainability in the spirit of the Triple Bottom Line.

  • United Nations: Development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” They added the three mutually reinforcing pillars of economic development, social development, and environmental protection.
  • US Office of Federal Environmental Executive: “The practice of 1) increasing the efficiency with which buildings and their sites use energy, water, and materials, and 2) reducing building impacts on human health and the environment, through better siting, design, construction, operation, maintenance, and removal — the complete building life cycle.”
  • USGBC: Certification defines “green building” as primarily environmental components and identifies five areas – site, water, energy, materials, and indoor environmental quality.
  • Cascadia Green Building Council: “A built environment that is social just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative.”

In other words, while USGBC has focused on environmental “green building,” several other organizations embrace social and economic terms as well. Consequently, it seems likely that sustainable development in coming years will extend beyond strictly environmental concerns and include all three areas of the Triple Bottom Line.

What Will That Mean to Our Practices?

The broadened goals warrant even greater clarity and precision in metrics, and ultimately to establish appropriate jurisdictions for compliance. Like the Noisette Rose, the value of each goal will be judged by how carefully we define excellence and track performance, and how effectively the combined criteria create true sustainability.

If environmental performance, being the most readily measured, is covered by building codes and regulations, it removes the question of the short-term marketplace. Similar to other life safety mandates that are the foundation of building codes, everyone plays to the same minimum standards. While individual heroics suffice for pushing knowledge during innovation, only mass adoption creates true environmental change. Voluntary efforts will always fall short.

As building owners, design professionals and users are discovering, we no longer can imagine sustainable design is achieved at occupancy.

The built environment no longer sits passively as a collection of boxes for shelter; experts, owners, and users collaborate with buildings and cities everyday to achieve environmental, social, and economic goals. The aggregation of individual choices determines performance.

True Green

Based my sustainable design work, research, and analysis, I am writing a series called True Green. A number of public challenges highlight the shortcomings of our current practices. Those questions range from inadequate energy performance and design conflicts to green washing and user complaints. These reactions are healthy so long as we respond and improve our practices. In particular, better data and improved education emerge as weaknesses.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” It’s our collective job to make certain the well remains full. If we can do it forever, it’s sustainable.

Cindy and I welcome your comments below.  Also, please subscribe to keep up with this and other Guest Post Friday Musings.


True Green: What’s Wrong with Green Building, Sustainability, and Especially #LEED? #green #architecture


During the July #aiachat, architects sang the praises of sustainable design and green building. Kyle Lee @KyleLEED says, “Green design is not only ‘good’ but a necessity.” @tomorrowsproject says, “67% of our poll respondents say sustainable design is already synonymous with good design.”

Others cite difficulties with increased costs of construction and persuading reluctant clients. In other words, according to this group, ‘why’ we build sustainably has been answered. Consensus reached, amen to that. And then we continue to stumble on the ‘how,’ the pragmatics of execution. Increased initial costs and unwilling clients have long been the one-two knockout punches for sustainable design.

In fact, beyond the community of sustainable design experts, you can hardly miss the frequent challenges. Particularly fierce shots target US Green Building Council’s LEED certification system, the reigning model for green design.

What are the problems with sustainable design?
Here’s a brief recap of the major complaints.

  1. Poor Performance. Some buildings are not living up to their promised energy efficiencies. Legal ramifications of de-certification are flying.
  2. Credibility. The ever-present bugaboo, greenwashing, undermines the credibility of the entire green tech industry. As The Atlantic said, being green is just too easy.
  3. Conflicting Standards. The myriad of green codes, regulations, and standards such as LEED, state or city energy codes, and BREEAM confuses clients and experts. Sometimes the criteria conflict. Which should we follow?
  4. Low Standards. LEED isn’t strict enough. For instance, according to recent report by Environment and Human Health, Inc., the highest level of LEED (platinum) does not mandate clean air quality and allows toxic materials. Does LEED actually protect human health?
  5. Weak Design. Frank Gehry continues to profess allegiance to sustainability while condemning the methods, specifically LEED. Why don’t we simply let A/E professionals use their judgment?
  6. Lacks Vision. LEED doesn’t inspire designers. It fails to represent true sustainability in a holistic sense including social justice, beauty, spirituality, quality of life, and education. It’s simply a checklist, not a transformational concept.
  7. User Complaints. Most recently, people that live in LEED buildings have started their own anti-sustainability campaign.

Gives even the most devoted believer pause, doesn’t it? What happened to the magic? Where’s the spirit of enthusiasm that inspired a movement? Are we truly building sustainably? Is LEED completely inadequate? Is there a fundamental lack of public support?

How should responsible, environmentally-concerned AEC professionals respond?

From this list of attacks, I see a pattern of three significant types of problems.

  • Is LEED the best option for sustainable design? Several of the items (performance, user complaints, and conflicting standards) confront LEED. Does it need tweaks or a major overhaul? Or should we throw it out and move on to a better system?
  • Why is there a war between sustainability and design excellence? Can green building and good design co-exist? Gehry gave it air, but believe you me, he’s got a whole cadre of cheerers. Lines are drawn.
  • In terms of sustainable buildings and cities, where do we go from here? Is there support for sustainable design in the long run? And frankly, exactly what is sustainable design? (You might think I’d start here, but I’d rather jump into the middle instead, grapple with some particulars, build some context, and see how those situations influence the abstract idea of sustainable design.)

Sustainable design is after all the single most critical problem that the modern building community has ever faced. Rather than the promised upward trend of endless new technologies and progressive growth, we have discovered epic mistakes, some that are irreversible. Our buildings make people, ecologies, even the planet sick. We abuse energy, waste resources, and destroy natural systems.

So where do we start? How do we learn a new way of thinking? Watching the tsunami of environmental catastrophes aggregate, brilliant people have pondered the problem for decades. We have practiced many new ways over the past ten or fifteen years.

More than that, environmental damage represents the first massive step backward that the industrialized construction industry has ever faced. We don’t even have the patterns required for identifying, analyzing, and solving problems at this scale. It’s nothing short of a new way of living; a new way of being.

If in fact, we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us, are we sick too?

A True Green Series
I have my ideas. And I bet you do too. I plan to tackle this list, and perhaps a few other stray topics, over a series of posts.

I hope you’ll read, and more than that, I hope you’ll join the conversation – here or on twitter where you’ll find me as @urbanverse.

Because I sure don’t have all the answers, or know everything. I know what I know from my experiences and study. And thanks to the joy of internet and research methods, I can gather a lot of data.

I believe it’s important to open the conversation. Complaints deserve fair analysis. And I believe the more we challenge our practices, values, and solutions, the better our work.

Are we true green? Are you creating truly sustainable environments? Are we giving future generations a reasonable chance?

Hang on, bumpy road ahead.

Smog Santiago | Flickr – Photo Sharing!