Sustainable Design Can Save More Than the Environment

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, March 18, 2006

Today just about all architects put sustainability near the top of the list of project design goals. Sustainability is on practically every conference agenda related to design, planning, construction and real estate development. But what does it mean to create sustainable architecture?

Dictionaries cite the adjective "sustainable" and the noun "sustainability" only after offering several definitions of the verb "sustain": to support, to keep up, to keep going, to provide for by furnishing means or funds.

Does this mean that a sustainable building is one with a skeleton that will prevent it from falling down, a building with technical systems that keep it functioning well year after year, or a building with revenue and expenses that continue to meet its owner's funding and investment objectives?

Architecturally, the sustainability ideal lies elsewhere. It is about conserving energy and material resources, safeguarding the health of occupants, and protecting and enhancing the natural environment. Sustainability in architecture means minimizing not only the waste and pollution generated by buildings, but also that attributable to their construction.

Architects are not alone. Sponsors of cultural, commercial and government projects increasingly seek silver, gold or platinum LEED ratings for their buildings -- LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

LEED ratings are calculated by adding up points earned for favorable site and building design. Those characteristics include brown-field redevelopment; access to existing transit and utilities; use of locally available or minimally transported materials as well as recycled or naturally replenishable materials; avoidance of materials that emit noxious gases or particles; use of solar energy, daylight and natural ventilation; recapture of waste heat; capture of rainwater and recycling of wastewater; efficiency of building form; tightness and insulating efficacy of building skin; and ecologically sensitive landscaping.

Increasing numbers of architects have studied and taken courses to become LEED-certified under a program administered by the U.S. Green Building Council.

But high LEED ratings aren't the only reasons for being green and environmentally sensitive. With energy prices soaring, economic motivation is greater than ever before.

A high LEED rating, however, does not guarantee great architecture. Energy-efficient buildings can be ugly. Buildings with green roofs can be ugly. Indeed, the nature of LEED assessment avoids making value judgments about a building's visual or symbolic qualities.

Nevertheless, sustainability has artistic implications. Architects who aspire to garner high LEED ratings do not have to abandon aesthetic exploration and invention.

After all, making buildings comfortable, fireproof, earthquake-proof and accessible to the disabled has not stopped architects from designing beautiful structures. Why should designing for sustainability be an impediment to visual and intellectual delight?

In fact, the language of sustainable design expression is rapidly developing, although its grammar and vocabulary are still evolving.

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