Environmentally Smart Design, Powered by Hollywood

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 17, 2006

Can Brad Pitt make "sustainable design" sexy?

Even before Pitt joined forces this summer with an environmental group to foster "green" housing in New Orleans, he was lending his voice to "Design e²: The Economies of Being Environmentally Conscious," a three-hour documentary (airing tonight at 8 on Channel 26) that might lure viewers based on its narrator alone.

The topic is architecture, and those who tune in will encounter some of the smartest recycled, energy-efficient, materials-conscious buildings on the planet. Structures are large, tall, small, sprawling, visionary, innovative and, to the extent possible, antidotes to global warming.

Pitt's soft voice sets the scene with two statistics: Buildings, he says, "use 40 percent of the world's energy and emit 50 percent of its greenhouse gases." Structures, more than cars, are the villains.

Architects have been working on the problem, with some notable successes. The documentary's producers, Karena Albers and Tad Fettig, travel to two "breakthrough" New York skyscrapers, which promise to clean the city's air while using storm runoff and groundwater for the building's water systems.

An entire half-hour episode is devoted to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's passionate campaign to "green" the city, an effort that has paid off in waving fields of ornamental grass at Millennium Park and honey-producing bees on the meadow planted to reduce the heat island on the City Hall roof.

Boston's Big Dig yielded enough discarded concrete and steel from temporary highway overpasses for a construction manager to recycle slabs and girders into a designer house. At the other end of the economic scale, an architect from Texas replaced failed government housing in Mexico with environmentally sensitive adobe dwellings.

The happy stories are offset by unresolved challenges. In China -- where rapid urbanization is threatening to gobble up resources and spew pollution at a scale not yet seen -- visionary U.S. architects and a few Chinese developers and officials are racing to develop new models of urban development that don't mimic the "energy unconscious" American lifestyle.

The film also provides an introduction to some of the most important voices in environmentally and socially conscious design. Architect William McDonough of Charlottesville weighs in passionately on the potential for ecological disaster in China, where he is working. Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity, argues for the kind of small projects his volunteer network accomplishes, changing a few lives at a time.

The documentary ends by looking at a radical glass house in Germany that was engineered to operate off the grid and be fully recyclable. (For those who miss the end of the broadcast, this glass house by Werner Sobek is on view in the National Building Museum's "Green House" exhibition.)

"Design: e²," created as a six-part series, rides a recent wave of interest and exposure of the issues, from the cover of Vanity Fair to Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth." After a Los Angeles debut in June, "Design" has been slowly making the rounds of PBS stations (Chicago and New York, which play starring roles, will tune in next month).

Washington is all but alone in showing the series in one night, a decision made by Kevin Harris, WETA vice president and television station manager.

"I love the show," he says. "It's beautiful. It says everything that you want a show like that to say."

Even the riveting Ken Burns series on Frank Lloyd Wright was held to 90-minute segments. But Harris says he figured viewers would have an easier time recording the program if it aired on a single evening.

After the first hour, the high points are segments on China and Chicago. No politician should miss the notorious night in Chicago in 2003 when Daley defied the Illinois governor and Federal Aviation Administration by ordering bulldozers to break up the runway of Meigs Field so he could reclaim the lakefront for the people.

Susan Szenasy, editor of Metropolis and an early advocate of green design, describes "sustainable" features as "the new poetry of buildings." The film's superior visuals -- cityscapes and action footage, as well as brilliantly orchestrated interviews -- convey excitement about largely hidden and technical features, as well as infrastructure, to purify water and air and reduce reliance on carbon fuels.

Pitt reduces the technology and engineering to a mantra for the movement: "Imagine buildings that make people feel better."

The documentary touches on the role of tax codes and political muscle in encouraging green design, which costs more than conventional construction but offers savings, not to mention survival. There is a strong suggestion that big change will not occur without the weight of government.

Much of the government will be away this week in Washington. But Harris said: "People actually will take a look at it. I just want real people to understand the issue, that big cities can be designed in ways that help all of us."

As a sustainable-housing convert, Pitt will travel to New Orleans on Aug. 30 to announce the winner of his competition to design sustainable housing there -- a contest that speaks directly to a question he poses in the film:

"Where are the new ideas?"

Design e²: The Economies of Being Environmentally Conscious (three hours) debuts tonight at 8 on WETA (Channel 26).

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