On one of the hottest days of this past summer, Peter Q. Bohlin, FAIA sits near the end of a long conference table at the Wilkes-Barre office of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the firm he helped found in 1965. Impeccably dressed in a blue button down shirt and grayish white slacks, peering at a video screen that projects the image of an interviewer 250 miles away in Pittsburgh, he pauses a moment, then coolly states his opinion about people who think that sustainable design is uninspired design.
“If an architect thinks that, he’s brain dead,” replies the 72-year-old AIA Gold Medalist. “And if the public thinks that way, then it’s our job to convince them that it’s not.”
With nearly a half-century of groundbreaking — and equally breathtaking — sustainable projects to his credit, Bohlin needn’t do much to persuade the unconvinced. From the woodsy Connecticut Forest House retreat he designed almost 40 years ago for his parents to a plentiful crop of Apple computer stores currently opening around the world, Bohlin’s work speaks for itself.
Still, the question of whether and how sustainability affects the design process remains a nagging question. While government regulations regarding sustainability, along with green certification guidelines, might seem restrictive, Bohlin claims those “rules” aren’t so new and actually stimulate creativity — a sentiment shared by many architects in the region.
“Sustainability and design have been joined at the hip forever, since humans stopped living in caves,” says Peter Kreuthmeier, a principal at Loysen + Kreuthmeier Architects. “I don’t think the world has changed. I think we’re just looking at sustainability in a different way.”
NEW FOCUS ON AN OLD CONCEPT
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist — or even an architect — to understand the meaning of sustainability at its fundamental level. Simply put, a sustainable building is one that is designed to suit a particular site’s environment and constructed with local materials. Sustainable structures such as igloos, teepees, and thatch-roof bamboo huts reveal that humans had an early grasp on the concept. The builders of those dwellings turned to nearly inexhaustible and renewable sources of nearby materials to build structures that withstood the extremes of the climates in which they stood. In their straightforward, functional approach, those buildings performed exactly as needed. Yet that spare, utilitarian approach, some people will tell you, is the Achilles heel of sustainable design. Not so, says Karen Loysen, AIA, a principal at Loysen + Kreuthmeier.
“I don’t see a connection between sustainability and a lack of design,” she says. “I don’t see the sustainability of buildings rising and the quality of design declining. One of the least interesting periods of design was in the 1960s and ’70s, when many new buildings weren’t sustainable at all and didn’t really look that good.”
Case in point, the monolithic GM Building on New York City’s Fifth Avenue and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s Apple store that sits in the GM plaza. Completed in 1968 for the then-leading U.S. automaker, the towering monolith casts an all-enveloping shadow across the urban landscape. In contrast, Bohlin’s midtown Manhattan project, which opened in 2006, with its 32-foot tall glass cube ground level entrance, allows light to cascade into the subterranean retail space below. Containing no structural steel, the store’s glass panes reflect, so to speak, the skyscraper’s rectilinear form while creating an open and transparent environment, despite its bulky neighbor looming behind it.
“I find that the way that architects are taught seems to be heading back to fundamental design principles that are specific to climate and location,” says Catherine Sheane, sustainable design manager at Astorino. “And many of the more experienced architects already have that sensibility from their training. There are still a few people in the industry who think that sustainability is a fad. But the reality is that sustainability is taking architectural design back to where it started.”
Another plus, according to Loysen, is that the added emphasis on sustainability just might reinvigorate regional architectural distinctiveness.
“As technology and transportation became more sophisticated over the years, architectural styles became more homogenized and far less context-specific,” she says. “Before the time when we could ship just about anything anywhere, each climate, each culture, and each choice of materials resulted in diversity of architecture. The return to sustainability may bring about a rebirth of regionalism and context-specific architecture, too.”
FOLLOW THE LEED
If Wall Street movie villain Gordon Gekko had been a law-abiding architect instead of an illegal inside trader-financier, he might have uttered the phrase “Green is good.” Especially if he set his mind on securing LEED platinum certification.
Long regarded as the Holy Grail of sustainability, LEED certification — at any level — triggers a mixed bag of feelings among architects, clients, and the general public. As the internationally recognized third party, green building verification and certification system, LEED ensures that a project is designed and built using principles and processes that will improve long-term performance in energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions, indoor environment quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their affect on the planet.
Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council in 1998, LEED set up a well-defined framework that aids architects, contractors, clients, and eventual end users in identifying and implementing practical and measurable processes and solutions for green building design, construction, and operations. Even though the LEED process can present demanding challenges at times, local architects generally agree that the LEED guidelines for growing a green building tend to deliver a positive effect instead of dampening creativity.
“Going for LEED certification doesn’t inhibit the design and aesthetics of a building,” says Sheane. “I don’t think the designers feel limited in building form or materials when they’re designing a green building. When I have a LEED checklist, I use it as a progress report to see whether we’re meeting a set of goals.”
For Christine Mondor, AIA, co-founder of evolveEA in the city’s East End, LEED’s significance reaches beyond its role as a roadmap to the sustainability honor roll.
“You have to think of LEED as an organizational teaching tool, as a way of exchanging values in a common language,” she says. “Once everyone’s on the same page, there are more opportunities to benefit from that tool and to get back to that idea of creativity and not just follow a set formula. That’s the sweet spot we like to occupy.”
On the other hand, chasing LEED can create some not so sweet record-keeping headaches and financial drawbacks.
“I think sometimes there’s a frustration with the documentation that’s involved with LEED,” says Sheane. “When you do it on a regular basis, it’s not that complicated. But it’s an extra step in the process to have to prove your claims for efficiencies in design and energy. That can be viewed as a burden because the paperwork does require additional attention and effort. And it can add time to the project and increase fees because of the extra depth.”
Often, that extra depth extends deep into the pockets of the design firm. While some pass along the entire cost of applying for LEED certification to their clients, most often share the substantial fees generated by the additional hours and work associated with compliance. At Astorino, Sheane says the firm’s extensive LEED background helps streamline the certification process and keep fees at a minimum, when possible. However, other firms absorb the cost or encourage clients to seek a lower level of certification. Another option is to forego LEED certification altogether.
“One of the first questions we ask a client is whether they want to pursue LEED,” says Nick Doichev, AIA, senior designer at DLA+Architecture & Design. “Some say yes. Some say no. And some say, ‘Hell no.’ Of course, some do want LEED certification and wear it like a badge. But a lot of clients don’t want a rating system. They want a good, efficient building. They choose not to pursue LEED because they know it will cost them more to pay for another layer of bureaucracy. In return you get the recognition and the plaque, but what does that add to your building? I’m not thinking about sustainability because I want to save the world and earn validation for my work. I think about sustainability because it benefits me and my client.”
Still, Doichev admits that sustainability is a good thing — with a caveat or two — even if a project doesn’t go for LEED gold or other levels of certification.
“Early in my career, nobody really paid attention to how efficient a building’s HVAC systems were,” he recalls. “Energy was cheap. So you heated and cooled the building as much as necessary to defeat the elements. Now energy is getting more expensive, and we have to pay more attention to HVAC systems. Of course, designing those systems is more difficult at times. The joy of this type of challenge is to solve the problem. To be more creative should be part of the sustainability equation. That adds complexity to the designer’s job and requires them to spend more time on how they design buildings. But I see that challenge as a welcome opportunity to change.”
THE HUMAN FACTOR
With a renewed focus on sustainability, architecture can make people change the way they think about and construct buildings. But can sustainability change the habits of the people who live, work, or play in those structures?
“Design does offer ways for social norms to change,” says Mondor. “We often work with clients that started off with wanting a sustainable building and end up greening their entire organization. We looked at how that happens and observed that these green projects require a client to have a new internal governance structure to deal with the project in ways it never had to before. When one of our clients moved to a new location after never having its own headquarters, the organization had to think about and manage sustainability. There were tangible demonstrations that being in a green building did change the way people thought and acted. The director of the organization said that he tried to persuade his staff to recycle in the old facility without much success. But once the organization got its own place, the staff worked to help sustainability reach into other areas of what they do.”
For Mondor, sustainability is a vital tool in challenging and changing social norms. Whether it’s convincing populations to live in clusters of smaller dwellings closer to cities or trading in their SUVs for hybrid autos, she firmly believes that architecture can subtly lead people to alter their behavior for the benefit of themselves, their communities, and the planet. It’s part of the philosophy behind evolve’s motto — People, Process, Place.
“Sustainability implies a relationship between us and our environment,” she says. “That’s really a cultural thing. There’s no technology that’s going to fix how we act. Change comes from what we believe and what we do about sustainability.”
Pointing to the work of Le Corbusier in his attempts through architecture to improve living conditions in the slums of Paris during the 1920s, Doichev offers a differing view.
“I’m not a believer in architecture changing social contracts,” he says. “People’s behavior doesn’t change because a building is sustainable. It’s a noble sentiment to think that if I build it green, people will change. I can install a bicycle rack and showers in a building to earn extra LEED points, but I can’t guarantee that people will bike to work as a result. It’s nature versus nurture. Yes, environment can change people. But people usually change because it benefits them directly.”
However, clients do choose to go green for personal gain and to reduce their impact on the planet, according to Kreuthmeier.
“We have a loft under construction now, where the client is a professor of planetary geology,” he says. “So he’s ubergreen. But we’re not pursuing any sort of certification, because it doesn’t have a tangible benefit for the client. Having lower utility bills has a tangible benefit for him. Having a garden in the middle of his living space has tangible benefit for him. He’s putting a solar array on his roof and other things because they are dear to him. I think that’s fantastic. And just because he doesn’t have a certificate on the wall doesn’t diminish the sustainable aspect one bit.”
SUSTAINABLE FOR LIFE
Back in Wilkes-Barre, Peter Bohlin checks his watch. In a few minutes he will leave his office to prepare for a European trip to visit new Apple stores in London and Paris. He missed the opening of the Paris store, located in a former bank across from the city’s famed opera house, because he couldn’t be away from his grandchildren on the Fourth of July.
After all the discussion about the merits of sustainable building based on creativity, environmental stewardship, and costs, Bohlin believes that sustainability will lead to more powerful architecture — with a huge dividend for the end users.
“I believe in the absolute necessity of sustainability,” he says. “And I believe in discovering what that means in helping people to be more connected to the world around them and to lead richer, fuller lives.”