A Green Star for Sidwell Friends
New Middle School Moves to the Head of the Enviro-Friendly Class

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?

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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company