Sustaining the Sustainability Movement

With summer behind us and the fall weather coming on, many of us are programmed by our years of schooling to see this month the beginning of another year of learning. And perhaps we naturally gravitate to our subjects of curiosity and the desire for moving ahead with a better understanding of our pet topics. As in past Septembers, I am happy to say that I often get a mental boost from this season and dive in anew; thank goodness!

Feeling a bit of that in the air recently, I found myself thinking about the ‘sustainability movement’ and wondering how we are doing with sustaining the sustainability movement. It certainly seems that interest in LEED® certifications has waned in New England.

In our American culture and our media’s constant search for the latest interesting topics, it seems a challenge to keep the attention of the media and the resulting public attention on the sustainability issue, which in my opinion has been one of the most important developments to date in the contest of ideas here on what Bucky Fuller liked to refer to as “spaceship earth.” Some folks remember Bucky’s philosophical books as containing some of the underpinnings of this thinking about sustainability, but often with a technological focus.
So I thought I would begin this month’s article with a bit of an overview on the good work since then, a few thoughts on some of the later developments, and next month perhaps offer some more detailed insights.

I won’t belabor this article with the complex task of trying to define sustainability, but rather just dive in with what we all know to be the important environmental issues we are concerned with as participate daily in the creation of the built environment. I think I’ll start by listing some of the organizations and big picture tools out there that have evolved over the years to help us, as they identify issues and foster environmentally responsible design work.
A few important examples of these are:

  • COTE – The Committee On The Environment. This is AIA’s own contribution to focusing on this issue and was founded in 1990. Many chapters and components have an active COTE group. AIANH calls the AIANH COTE “the Environmental Guild,” which is open to all NH chapter members and other interested persons.
  • LEED® and its latest v4.0 rating system created by the USGBC – (US Green Building Council)
  • Architecture 2030 – the carbon neutral planning and design group founded by Ed Mazria FAIA. Our next AIANH educational event related to this mission is a presentation by the often entertaining, quite knowledgeable Dr. Joe Lstiburek on October 5.
  • IGCC – International Green Construction code – a model code published by the ICC organization.
  • 2015 International Energy Code (The latest iteration of the ICC code regulating energy use in buildings)
  • The LIVING BUILDING Challenge (now administered by The Living Futures Institute)
  • Building Green LLC – a complementary organization to the Environmental Building News, based in Brattleboro, VT
  • Declare (focused on transparency for pollution-free manufactured materials)
  • The Living Product Challenge 1.0 – The International Living Futures Institute’s challenge to manufacturers to provide transparency and clean up their products
  • The Natural Step – process and methodology from Sweden, founded in 1989 focused on broad goals for sustainability
  • Passive House – a certification program for very high efficiency buildings
  • Energy Star Program – the federal program begun in 1992 to encourage energy efficiency in buildings
  • Whole Building Design Guide – a program from the National Institute of Building Sciences
  • Building Science Corp. (co-founded by Joe Lstiburek)
  • Net Zero Buildings movement, described fairly thoroughly and with much practical information and detail by Bill Maclay in his book The New Net Zero.

And of course this is just a partial list of some of the better known sources and organizations working to address the issues of sustainability for the built environment. There are many more.
Now to provide a bit of a context for these issues, I’ll list the broad categories from the Living Building Challenge (3.0). I believe it attempts to be quite holistic in its consideration of the things to be included. It’s similar but a bit broader than the LEED rating system you may well know.

  • 3 Place
  • 3 Water
  • 3 Energy
  • 3 Health & Happiness
  • 3 Materials
  • 3 Equity
  • 3 Beauty

As you read this list of categories you may be wondering what the category of Equity refers to (a discussion for a later article), and you might be surprised to see the category of Beauty. Both are a bit of an expansion on the LEED Categories.

You might also not be surprised that this challenge was initiated by a couple of architects who had some history with LEED, but were interested in pushing beyond some of the LEED baggage into a new realm of regenerative design based on nature, and the metaphor of a flower. (The categories in this system are called petals.) The two architects I am referring two are Jason Mclennan and Bob Berkabile FAIA, his mentor and former business partner at BNIM Architects in Kansas City. Bob was the key speaker at an event in Maine a year and a half ago (co-sponsored by AIA Maine, AIA New Hampshire, AIA Vermont, and the BSA) and he inspired many of us with both his long history and continued dedication to focusing his career on issues of sustainability in building design. BNIM projects have received several awards for their notable work in the sustainable design field from the COTE annual programs and others.

In his book Zuganruhe, Jason Mclellan, who is the initial author of “The Living Building Challenge” criteria, tells the story of his move from a comfortable career at BNIM in Kansas City to take the CEO position at the Cascadian Green Building Council and also head up the Living Building Institute, now called the Living Futures Institute. The central idea according to Jason (quoting from his book for educational purposes that I believe he would support) is “the idea that nature, not machines, provides the ideal metaphor and performance measuring stick for buildings of the future… imagine a building to function as elegantly and efficiently as a flower; one that is informed specifically by place, climate, topography, and microclimate.
“Imagine buildings that generate all their own energy with renewable resources; capture, treat, and reuse water in a closed loop process, operate pollution-free with no toxic chemicals used in any material all while being a beautiful inspiration to anyone who interacts with them.”

Yes. It’s an ambitious set of criteria to meet when you look at the detail. But, if you’re looking for a heartfelt and inspiring story to sustain your interest in sustainability, Jason’s book will likely get you there. It was published in 2011, so it’s a few years back, but it is full of timeless wisdom; check it out.

To be continued next month…

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