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Green Commercial Architecture that Fails Sustainability Test

It takes more than green construction materials to create a sustainable design. Apply three tests to verify the sustainability of green buildings.

Many organizations are joining the rush to be sustainable, using green building materials and eco-design principles for new commercial architecture. A closer look reveals some of this newfound sustainability is only a veneer.

Sustainable Building Design

Sustainable design is more than green architecture. It has three pillars: social, environmental, and economic. Selecting green construction materials addresses only one aspect of sustainability when it comes to building development. Other factors, such as the ethical construction of buildings and their accessibility via public transit, are also contributors to a building’s sustainable design.

Verifying a Building’s Sustainability

The Burj Dubai, on track for being the world’s tallest building at 164 stories when it opens in 2009, is lauded in marketing literature for its energy-efficient building systems. In an October 13th, 2007 Globe and Mail article entitled “The Next Very, Very Big Things,” architectural critic Lisa Rochon reflected on the downside of uber-big buildings. Referring to the Burj Dubai, she wrote that immigrant labor at the site is being exploited to help keep construction costs down. These underpaid, badly-housed construction workers have been called Dubai’s dirty secret. Is this sustainable design as the architects, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill LLP maintain, or just green-speak?

A building can meet the requirements of LEED, the rating system used by the US Green Building Council to recognize green architecture and interior design, yet still, fail the sustainability test on other metrics for social and economic factors. Here are three tests for verifying the extent of a building’s sustainable design.

1. Travel distance and accessibility by public transit:

A commercial building could win an award for its green construction practices, but if it is located far from where its employees or users live, and if it is poorly accessed by public transit routes, its claim to being a sustainable development is spurious at best. There is nothing sustainable about having to drive to a building site, in a personal vehicle, over a long distance.

2. Treatment of construction crews and displaced former site residents:

Any so-called green construction or renovation that displaces former residents without taking into consideration their relocation and rehousing, or which otherwise disrupts the fabric of a community, is doing a disservice to the sustainability cause. Similarly, if a building’s construction relies on the use of indentured or underpaid laborers, its sustainability is in question.

3. Conspicuous consumption versus sustainable design:

Monument building undermines the essence of sustainable design. A green building at the $1000/square foot is a monument with green features, as Bill Valentine, chair of international architectural and engineering giant HOK points out in his public presentations.

A prime example of conspicuous consumption is the Getty Center in Los Angeles, designed by Richard Meier. The museum has received a prestigious LEED Gold accreditation, but at a cost of $1 billion, it stands in stark contrast to poor neighborhoods nearby, where teachers must buy crayons out of their own pocketbooks because there is no public money for supplies. While an admirer of the edifice’s designer, Valentine regards the museum as building on a scale that is not sustainable in the long run.

Achieving the Goals of Sustainable Design

Before you accept a green commercial builder’s claim to sustainability, examine the building’s design and construction from all three perspectives. Ask: is this building environmentally and socially sound in every respect, or does some aspect of its realization impose a burden on the environment or society? Only when a building’s design has addressed environmental, economic and social factors can it be genuinely sustainable.