A Green Star for Sidwell Friends

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007

The usual tour of a new building doesn't include loving detail about the sewage system, a trip to the basement to check out the heating and cooling equipment, or a traipse across the roof to see how the building will handle storm runoff. Most people, proud of a spanking new bit of architecture, want to talk travertine marble and daring cantilevers.

But the stewards of the new middle school building on the campus of Sidwell Friends School are promoting it as one of the most environmentally friendly pieces of architecture in the country. And in the process, they're thinking so much about the building as a collection of systems (photovoltaic cells, water filtration, passive solar) that you might think they were channeling the perverse vision of Le Corbusier from a century ago. A house, Le Corbusier wrote, is a "machine for living."

There in a nutshell is the great challenge for what is known as the green building movement: What role will aesthetics play? Are green buildings beautiful because they're environmentally friendly? Or should they be beautiful even if one doesn't know the environmental agenda that is driving their construction? Put another way, can low-slung buildings with green, growing roofs compete with the uber-sexy architecture of titanium-clad twisty shapes and torqued walls and hallways?

The middle school at Sidwell Friends lies at the low end of the campus, down a gentle slope, with Wisconsin Avenue above and a leafy neighborhood just below. It includes a 39,000-square-foot new wing and a major renovation of a rather plain 1950 building. New and old have been neatly integrated, tied together into a U-shape with a facing of long, vertical wooden slats, made from recycled wine casks. In the new courtyard area, where one might expect a patch of grass for Frisbee or after-class sunning, there is a wetlands, of sorts, gently terraced into the low-rising landscape.

The first word that comes to mind is nestled. Visually, at least, it is a humble building, a conduit for things -- light, air, students -- to flow in and out. It is not a billboard or a message sender or statement maker. It is not architecture as art object, unless you radically rethink what big, sexy art-object architecture looks like.

Which may be one reason that the school officials are so actively promoting it as one of the most environmentally friendly spaces to be built in the country, explaining in detail the many investments they have made to secure a "platinum" certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The wetlands, which looked a bit scrubby earlier this month, filter sewage from the building and return it for use in toilets, cutting net water use. The wood slats maximize shade during the hot hours of the day, while allowing light to pass into the building. School officials cite the following statistics: The building uses 93 percent less water than it would if simply hooked up to the city's water and sewer system; energy efficiency and passive solar design cut energy use by 60 percent; and 78 percent of materials used were manufactured "regionally" (within 500 miles of the site) to cut the environmentally degrading effects of long transit.

Hardly a day goes by that an architecture writer isn't sent notice of a some newly certified building -- a process known as LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Overseen by the Green Building Council, these voluntary standards use a point system to award classifications based on how efficient a building's water and power use is, how close it is to public transport and how environmentally friendly its materials are (the Sidwell building uses environmentally friendly linoleum on the floors, and rugs made of recycled fibers). Basic environmental sensitivity earns a "certified" rating; higher levels are dubbed silver, gold and platinum.

The Grand Rapids Art Museum, for instance, "will be the first and only art museum in the world whose entire facility is LEED certified," according to a February press release. Closer to home, the Alta condominiums, at Thomas Circle, will be the "first LEED certified residential building in the District of Columbia." The District has even passed the Green Building Act of 2006, which will set environmental standards for many buildings that receive public funding and (by 2012) private buildings over 50,000 square feet.

The standards have become so popular, so quickly, that they are already beginning to have an influence beyond their voluntary use, in zoning and municipal regulations.

That's just fine with the Sierra Club, which supports the LEED ratings system.

"The only problem with the LEED standards is that we don't have enough buildings that are following them," says Glen Brand, director of the Sierra Club's National Cool Cities Campaign.

The challenge, for proponents of the standards, is to make them desirable to builders as the luster of "getting there first" dies down. Built into the very name of the program is the word "leadership." But how much following will there be?

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