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Corey Squire

A few themes from greenbuild 2013

Posted by on 12/2/13 at 04:26pm

Last week a few of us traveled to Philadelphia for Greenbuild to learn about the latest trends in sustainable design. The week was full of seminars and product demonstrations and culminated with a keynote by Hillary Clinton and a performance by Bon Jovi. Here are the major takeaways from the week.


  • We should know what our buildings are made of.

The one overarching theme of Greenbuild this year was material transparency.  A building may be beautiful, but is it giving its occupants asthma, or allergies, or cancer?  The first step to ensuring healthy materials is material transparency and architects are leading the charge on this one. LEED v4 is offering up to 4 points for materials disclosure; Living Future Institute’s Declare program is creating a database of red list compliant products; and the Health Product Declaration Collaborative is making it easy for manufacturers to report chemical ingredients and health information of building materials.  Lake|Flato recently signed an HPD advocacy letter and we will no longer allow product representatives to present to our office unless they have completed an HPD for their products.  This is the number one sustainable design issue of the day with broad implication for human health and the industry appears to be moving in the right direction.  


  • Technology is not going to save us.

Nuclear fusion has not arrived to provide us with unlimited cheap clean energy, nor will it. The takeaway from the exposition floor is that there are a lot of exciting new products out there, but nothing will replace good design.  Narrow floor plans and good orientation are still the best solutions for day lighting and ventilation, natural materials are still the healthiest, and occupant education and user friendly controls will still beat the most technologically advanced systems available.


  • We need to drive sustainability in our designs.

Architects cannot wait for clients to drive sustainable design. If we believe, as many of us do, that sustainable design is good design, we must push for sustainable at every stage of every project. A Building Design + Construction survey from October 2013 reported that 62% of architects either let clients lead on sustainability or only mention it if the client asks. Only 17% of architects encourage their clients to go in a more sustainable direction. Would 62% of architects only try to make a building beautiful if the client explicitly asked?  


  • Everyone is doing post occupancy.

And if you’re not doing post occupancy evaluations, you’re falling behind…


  • Moving from prevention to resilience.

Next year, Greenbuild will be held in New Orleans under the shadow of a city that bounced back from the brink. With more global warming-related weather events affecting our communities, buildings that can bounce back will become just as important as buildings that can prevent climate change in the first place. This year at Greenbuild, the term “passive survivability” was thrown around just as frequently as “thermal break”.


  • Biophilia: We need more of it.

Nature is great. Once we build walls separating us from nature, we invite a slew of problems that we then need to solve: We block light from the sun so we need to add our own light sources; we prevent the flow of fresh air so we need to mechanically ventilate. We are now realizing that these walls are also cutting off our connection to nature and just like light and air, we need to intentionally bring nature into our buildings. Research has shown that seeing trees, hearing the flow of water, and feeling breezes can reduce stress and improve the performance for students and workers.


  • Don’t expect buildings to work the first time

A commissioning agent at Greenbuild commented that 99% of buildings underperform expectations. This is not because we are failing as designers, but because each building is a complicated, never before tested pieces of machinery that might take some trial and error to get running smoothly. The commissioning agent was making the point that commissioning is required for all high performing buildings. This is true, but the larger point is about long term engagement. If the architect walks away at the end of the project, the building will not be a good performer. Expectations should be established that he building will not work great on day one.  Only if the team stays engaged for a few years after occupation can a building perform at its highest potential.