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  January/February 2005
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Green From the Ground Up
Using techniques simple and sophisticated, buildings can be easy on the planet.
by Reed McManus

Sidebar: Green Goods

While architect Bill Dunster and others make their mark with superefficient residential buildings, green construction and renovation are blossoming in office and industrial settings, too. The cost of using energy-efficient designs and recycled materials is usually no more than 3 percent higher than that of conventional construction, and the investment can often be recouped within a few years through lower utility and maintenance bills, says architect Kark Heitman, who designed an energy-efficient warehouse for a Chicago-area manufacturer. Plus, simple low-cost featured such as natural lighting and ventilation create a healthy environment that improves employee productivity, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, an industry group that rates innovative structures.

Every Earth Day since 1998, the American Institute of Architects' Committee on the Environment has unveiled its "Top Ten Green Projects," new or renovated buildings that showcase environmentally responsible design. With each project, architects and engineers have exploited opportunities to reduce the impacts of their structures. Energy and water conservation and waste-reduction strategies run the gamut from simple (rainwater collection) to sophisticated (photovoltaic panels). High-tech heating and cooling systems compliment age-old know-how about siting buildings to take advantage of natural light and ventilation. Some projects are built from scratch atop former industrial "brownfields," while others emerge phoenix-like from the carcasses of buildings from less environmentally attuned eras. Below is a sample of the AIA's recent award-winners:

The spacious central atrium in the Genzyme Center, the headquarters of a biotechnology company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, acts as a huge air duct and light shaft. Natural light is brought into the atrium (and 18 indoor gardens) by solar-tracking mirrors above a skylight and from the facade of glass that offers opening windows on all 12 floors. Steam from a nearby power plant is used for heating and cooling, while waterless urinals and low-flow fixtures help the building use a third less water than comparable structures.

A constructed wetland and meadow ecosystem wrap around the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College in Ohio, providing habitat for over 70 indigenous plant species and myriad animals. The wetland and adjacent 7,500-gallon storage cistern collect stormwater, lowering demands on the city's runoff and sewage systems. When mature, the wetland will provide irrigation water for the site's grasses, gardens, and orchard. Inside the building, visitors encounter an atrium (in left wing, above) and a greenhouse containing the Living Machine (in right wing), which processes all wastewater from the Lewis Center's sinks and toilets. To help the building meet its goal of being a "net energy exporter" within ten years, photovoltaic panels cover more than 4,000 square feet of the center's south-facing roof.

Composting toilets at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Philip Merrill Environmental Center in Annapolis, Maryland, symbolize the comprehensive approach to efficient water use. Waste from the flushless toilets drops into basement holding tanks, where "potty piles" are aerated by staff wielding clam rakes to break them down into rich compost—a technique the center has employed for 20 years. In addition, storage tanks capture rainwater for extinguishing fires and for use in the structure's sinks. Add water-efficient appliances and native landscaping, and it's no surprise that the facility uses one-tenth the water of a comparable conventional office building.

A glass atrium at the eight-story Plaza at PPL Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, brings natural light deep into the building, which includes a pair of two-story, plant-filled indoor gardens that improve air quality. Carbon dioxide sensors ensure that fresh air is supplied to each building area, while paints, adhesives, sealants, and carpets low in volatile organic compounds keep indoor pollution to a minimum.

Old meets new at the Woods Hole Research Center's Gilman Ordway Campus in Falmouth, Massachusetts, where modern energy-efficient construction harmonizes with a fully renovated 19th-century summer home. The Victorian exterior gives no clue that the building includes a photovoltaic system, as well as extensive insulation, skylights, and triple-glazed windows that provide plenty of natural light while ensuring that energy is used efficiently. The 88 PV panels supply about a third of the building's annual energy needs; in summer, it can be cooled by photovoltaic energy alone. Since the center studies climate change, reducing emissions that contribute to global warming is paramount. When wind turbines are added in the future, the staff hopes its greenhouse-gas contributions—already 17 percent of those of a comparable office building—will drop to zero.

Light floods this building through a three-story shaft, a skylight atrium, and plentiful windows. Air flows naturally throughout the structure, eliminating excessive heat and aiding the main ventilation system. These features are even more impressive when you consider that the heat comes from industrial ovens where prize-winning cakes, tarts, and brownies bake to perfection at the Greyston Bakery. The Yonkers, New York, facility, built atop an industrial "brownfield" site, provides much-needed jobs in a low-income neighborhood and respite from urban grit: A break room opens to a reflecting pool, and a roof garden provides a commanding view of the Hudson River.

Even structures from an energy-guzzling era can be rehabbed to reflect a new sensibility. Renovators of a 1974 building at the headquarters of Herman Miller, the famous office-furniture company based in Zeeland, Michigan, exposed steel framing, decking, and brick buried beneath a bland facade, and added horizontal "fins" to provide shading. Windows that open provide plenty of cross-ventilation and draw cool air up from landscape ground cover; sunlight from walls of windows penetrates deep inside. Those design elements don't seem radical—unless you've ever worked under the fluorescent glare of a hermetically sealed building from the period.

What looks like a massive air-conditioning unit atop the Lake View Terrace Library in Los Angeles is actually a passive cooling tower—a large-scale equivalent of the "swamp coolers" found in desert climes—which uses a fraction of the energy of a conventional AC system. Prevailing breezes are passed through a wet filter, where they're cooled before flowing to the building's interior. Reflecting the "rancho" style of the San Fernando Valley, the library is organized around an open central courtyard. During the day, all public areas are illuminated without artificial light—much welcomed by readers.

Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra.

ON THE WEB For more information on American architects' favorite energy-efficient buildings, go to

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