Architects, Engineers LEED the Way to a Sustainable Future

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Covering the green build environment over the last eight years has been a journey filled with surprises, not the least of which was the quick integration of green building principles to the mainstream build environment.

When the U.S. Green Building Council launched the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system in 2000, it was hard to imagine that green building principles would become integral to popular culture and a driving force in the real estate market within a decade. Back then, just the mention of “green” caused developers to shudder.

Today, green homes sell quicker and at higher prices than conventional homes. Green office space commands above-market rents, because it consumes up to 50% less energy and provides a healthier work environment that improves worker productivity.

Now, all major corporations—even Wal-Mart—have adopted sustainable building standards, considered “best practices” by industry professionals. Even in a dismal real estate market, demand for green buildings continues to grow. In 2008, LEED and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star programs had record participation. Construction magazine’s Green Outlook 2009 predicts that the number of green commercial buildings will double within five years, rising from 10-12% of new structures in 2008 to 20-25% by 2013.

LEED gave credibility to green building practices in the business community by providing an unbiased framework for measuring the level of sustainability achieved based on green criteria, ensuring buyers they would get the green benefits they paid for.

There were a few early adopters, like Houston’s Hines and Toyota’s Southern California corporate office, but the rest of corporate America didn’t jump on board until the advantages of owning a green building outweighed the added cost.

Instead, government was the change agent in greening America’s real estate. It brought the paradigm shift to sustainable building technology full circle by requiring LEED certification for public buildings. Requiring certification created a market for green-building expertise that motivated architects and engineers to develop innovative designs and processes that made building green cost-effective, points out Dr. Jennifer Wolch, who heads the University of Southern California Center for Sustainable Cities.

This expertise was the game changer, lowering the cost for sustainable construction in a span of five years from prices that were 10% to 15% higher than conventional buildings to a difference of little or nothing, according Capital E, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm specializing in energy technologies.

The creative community—the architects and engineers—are keeping the game in play.

Several groups, including the American Institute of Architects (AIA), have adopted Architecture 2030’s 2030 Challenge. The 2030 Challenge, which sets a goal of 100% of new buildings having zero-carbon footprints within 20 years, is taking environmental design to the next level. It encourages architects to collaborate with engineers to integrate best design practices with technologies to create high-performance, aesthetically attractive buildings that conserve resources and produce most or all of the energy occupants require.

Architect-engineer relationships are resulting in a new generation of sustainable buildings, some of which attain a level of sustainability that conventional wisdom deemed impossible just a few years ago. One example is the Dynamic Rotating Tower designed by Italian Architect David Fisher, with help from Engineer Leslie Robertson. The tower doubles as a local power plant, producing enough electricity to power the entire neighborhood. Another is a natural ventilation and cooling system at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s  Pacific Region Center (below) in Hawaii created by a team of HOK architects and engineers from the Australian firm of Lincoln Scott. The team not only demonstrated how to create a natural cooling system in a hot, humid climate with sea water and ventilation with rooftop wind scoops, but it also used the moisture extracted from the air to create an indoor water feature.

Over the coming months, this column will explain green-building trends, new projects and emerging technologies that demonstrate innovations in the building environment that propel the nation to a sustainable future. Stay tuned.