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A Green Star for Sidwell Friends

As he stands on the back porch of a school that the American Institute of Architects just recognized as one of the "top ten green projects" of 2007, Sidwell's Head of School Bruce Stewart is looking across the street at the old red-brick Georgian-style Phoebe Hearst Elementary. It is a District public school, dedicated 75 years ago to the mother of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Its simple facade, graced by an arched window, offers a much clearer sense of entry, a more imposing sense of balance, a more assertive ideal of America's history as an offshoot of European civilization, than the serene, almost unprepossessing lines of the new Sidwell building.

"Don't be surprised if a few schools can change the academic world," says Stewart, who says he's just read Jared Diamond's "Collapse," a cross-cultural analysis of societies that have lost the survival game. He describes the Sidwell addition not so much in architectural terms but as a living model for teaching environmental lessons, as a piece of three-dimensional curriculum, and an incubator of a deeper environmental consciousness for all who pass through it.

Stewart is the head of Sidwell Friends, and he's a Quaker. The Quakers have defined their spiritual niche by holistically fusing concerns about the environment, pacifism, service and general do-unto-otherness. The Sidwell students in the new middle school building will mentor the elementary school students from the District who study across the street, using the green roof to teach lessons about plants and food and the environment.

"I'd like my grandchildren to have grandchildren," says Stewart.

Right now, the green-building movement is gaining traction. It is fashionable to build green, especially at lower levels of certification, where the costs and design issues aren't particularly burdensome. Proponents of the movement argue that the increased costs of green systems are often recouped in energy savings, and as more and more architects and contracts "go green," the costs are coming down.

"We did some things that cost more money," says Mike Saxenian, Sidwell's chief financial officer. "But there are a lot of things that are free, or that pay for themselves quickly."

Both men cite an October 2006 study (sponsored by the Green Building Council, the American Lung Association, the Federation of American Scientists and other groups), that said a national survey of 30 green schools proved the long-term financial incentives for building green. Although the initial costs of green building were about 2 percent higher than ordinary construction, long-term benefits were "20 times as large" as the extra cost of going green. These include savings from energy reduction, the health benefits of asthma, cold and flu reduction and better teacher retention. The report isn't a peer-reviewed journal article and was based in large part on the self-reporting of costs by architects. But if its claims pan out, green building will likely become the norm.

Which means that the issues of green aesthetics -- is there a green look? a green style? or simply green systems hidden under the skin of any building you can imagine -- will become a much bigger part of the architectural debate about what our built environment should look like.

Stephen Kieran, a partner at KieranTimberlake, the Philadelphia-based firm that designed the school, seems relieved to be asked about aesthetics, given the attention focused on the school's sustainable features. He describes it as "an ethical aesthetic," a look that demonstrates the building is connected to the earth, that it isn't about creating a space apart from nature that then requires an infusion of energy to cool it and heat it and flush out its waste. He is no fan of what he calls "LEED bling," the ostentatious greening-up of ordinary-looking buildings with high-efficiency systems without rethinking the entire building's fundamental design and relationship to nature.

"The key is to get beyond functionality and aesthetics and have this one beautiful thing that just also happens to have the smallest possible footprint in the world," Kieran says.

It's interesting to contrast the Sidwell building with the headquarters of the National Association of Realtors, one of the most interesting pieces of new architecture built in the District in the past five years. The sleek modernist building on New Jersey Avenue, with long, gently curved sides clad in silvery glass, is "silver" LEED certified. Among its environmental features is an underground tank to collect and reuse rainwater. And there are distinctive, flat, trellis-like projections from its south-facing windows -- sun shades that allow light in, but limit heat during the hot months.

The Sidwell middle school has similar sun shades. If you see them on the downtown office building, without knowing their function, they seem purely aesthetic, curious postmodern ornaments that give a pleasing, horizontal emphasis to the lines of the building. There's the danger, if architecture continues to go green, that these details will lose their aesthetic novelty, and become monotonous: just another flat-roofed building with plants on top and the obligatory sun shades.

But the makers of the Sidwell Friends school are trying to take architecture in a different direction, toward a holistic vernacular in which functional details essential to sustainability become part of a new ethical way of making and interpreting architecture. They're imagining an architecture in which a building without functioning sunshades would seem as wrong to a our new environmental sensibility as, say, a building without balance and proportion and a classical facade would have seemed to an Enlightenment sensibility. As it gathers momentum, it's clear that the green movement is both the inheritor of Le Corbusier's basic notion of a building as a machine for living, and the most radical reinterpretation of that idea in a generation at least.

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