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March 25, 2015
by Bill Millard

Howard Roark died. A long time ago, some would add, perhaps even at birth; as professional icons go, the architect-as-solitary-aesthetic-hero character strikes many real-world architects as intellectually stillborn. Yet the “Edge Sustainability” panel’s most daring provocateur, RTKL Chief Sustainability Officer Lance Hosey, FAIA, finds the Roarkian image perversely staggering on, a zombielike presence obstructing efforts to apply architects’ expertise to the planet’s most pressing problem.

Instead of Roarkery, argued AIANY President Tomas Rossant, AIA, the world needs a more credible, sociable, responsible public understanding of architects, one that recognizes their ability to balance technology, design, and management in complex, purposeful acts of communication. Considering buildings’ pivotal role as both a cause of energy waste and an essential remedy, the urgency of such a reframing is hard to overstate (even in Hosey’s “very humble, modest, unassuming” presentation title: “Architecture at the End of the World”). The panelists found plenty of points of disagreement about effective tactics, but all accepted Rossant’s opening point, explicitly or implicitly: sustainable/resilient design has completed its opening stage, defining the problems at hand, and now needs to enter a stage he terms “radical response.”

Professionals who understand how design and operations can make massive headway toward the 80/50 goal – 80% reduction in greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 — have a weighty responsibility to communicate and implement that knowledge. Hosey observed that buildings can represent as much as half the nation’s consumption of energy and GHG emissions, and that we can already get to a 60% reduction from the baseline with existing best-practice strategies without spending more money or relying on uninvented miracle technologies. “80% within the next 35 years should be a no-brainer,” he asserted. “Why isn’t it?” The answers involve the difficult variable of political will.

Resilience strategies are widespread; the key question is whether they are sufficient. Notable local examples include the Rebuild by Design project (whose Lower Manhattan buffer-zone plan, recently renamed from the “Big U” to the Dryline, fuses beauty and livability with performance, a goal the panelists recurrently emphasized), and the 2015 iteration of PlaNYC, which John H. Lee of the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability (OLTPS) announced will be released on 04.22.15, stressing the links between green design and other mayoral goals involving housing, jobs, education, and the quality of life. Amid calls for new “silver-bullet ideas” like the ban on #6 heating oil (solicited through an online suggestion box at www.nyc.gov/ideas), Lee expressed delight at hearing “colleagues say things I often think but can’t say in my day job.” Amid acknowledgments of incremental progress on certain fronts, many of the panel’s most telling observations involved that gap between what’s permissible within official professional constraints (hardly limited to the public sector), and what everyone who’s paying attention knows is necessary.

Putting PlaNYC’s background in statistical context, David Bomke of the Fulcrum Group and the New York Energy Consumers Council pointed out that buildings accounted for 79% of the 58.3 million metric tons of carbon emissions in 2005, as OLTPS’ original 2007 plan was being formed. Yet as long as some stakeholders make decisions along a time metric of Wall Street quarters rather than centuries, Bomke commented, even the low-hanging fruit goes unharvested. Too much of the real estate community, he noted, has responded to potential conservation opportunities with the position “buildings don’t really use energy; it’s the occupants that use energy.” Noting the relation between density and energy consumption per capita (a more useful metric than per square foot), Bomke cautioned against focusing too closely on buildings’ energy-use statistics out of context; NYC buildings are so much more efficient than those in suburbia that he would prefer to encourage more development and even increased energy use here, diverting it away from the vastly less efficient areas. Still, if urban buildings’ use drops from that 79% figure to, say, 74%, “it’s not enough.” If owners and managers control only about 25% of buildings’ energy consumption, and new construction accounts for only 25% of carbon-reduction opportunities, the resulting 6.25% gain is also not enough. Bomke concluded that “the equivalent of an energy Victory Garden imperative” must target 100% of buildings, tenants, and occupants.

Short-term thinking constitutes one undeniable elephant in the room, but policy instruments can adjust incentives to make a rational business case for resilience. Bomke noted that 7 World Trade Center offers a positive example of performance gains through coordination of all parties using common benchmarks. University of Pennsylvania’s William Braham, FAIA, pointed out that in the history of green design, “if you go back to the 1970s, it’s only with each ratcheting of the building code… that buildings actually do better.” (His forthcoming book Architecture and Systems Ecology will consider design and performance from a thermodynamic standpoint.) Outright denialism, however, is a more stubborn elephant. Hosey raised the risky topics of politics and religion, which amount to serious cultural obstacles in some social realms (loosely termed red states, though the state-level attribution is clearly too broad; quite a few Texans like Hosey and people educated in Texas like Lee, a Rice graduate, accept the science on climate change). With state legislatures that ban use of the LEED system, or with end-times fanatics whose eschatology leads them to actively welcome climatic disaster because they think it will bring them closer to paradise, what is to be done?

Panelists’ views on mandates ranged from cautious to hard-nosed. “My opinion is ‘drop the hammer,’” Hosey declared to substantial applause, “because we don’t have time to wait for people to drink the Kool-Aid. [One can] educate and inspire and encourage innovation all you want; the leading edge, the people who are inspired by this agenda, will continue to innovate; the people at the back or in the middle of the bell curve are going to continue to bitch until we force them to do this, the same way that nobody wanted to put ramps on buildings until the Americans with Disabilities Act. I say put people in jail if they’re emitting too much carbon.” The profession can move demonstrably faster than the regulatory sector in this area. Instead of “signature styles” and star systems, Hosey advocates reformulating the senses of aesthetics and innovation so that form and performance, head and heart, are not at odds.

Rossant has presented a red-slashed, decisively rejected Fountainhead book cover twice now as an opening slide in the “Edge Dialogues” series. Is it too easy a target, too obviously false an image? Perhaps, but as long as important social actors view architects merely as makers of signature “form-for-form’s-sake” buildings, talent that could be solving systemic energy problems remains unheard. Hosey also recommended “embracing the already built” through reclamation and retrofitting of existing structures, since even a high-performing new building may take 80 years to make up for the embodied-energy impact of its own construction. This observation inevitably draws flak from entities with an interest in endless resource consumption, regardless of how much carbon enters the air or how many new buildings go unused. Though Hosey’s 2013 Huffington Post suggestion to “stop building altogether” was clearly tongue-in-cheek, and carried the red-flag phrase “a modest proposal,” the status quo defenders who took him literally and flamed him crudely in response evidently hadn’t read their Jonathan Swift. It will take an appreciation for ironic nuance, not to mention the courage to reckon with the full long-range costs of each component of the built environment, to respond to the challenges these panelists see in alarmingly clear detail.

Event: Edge Sustainability: The Future of Architecture in a Changing Climate
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.10.2015
Speakers: David Bomke, Assistant Vice President of Operations, The Fulcrum Group; Vice President, New York Energy Consumers Council, Inc.; William Braham, FAIA, Director of Masters of Environmental Building and Design, University of Pennsylvania; Lance Hosey, FAIA, LEED AP, Chief Sustainability Officer, RTKL; John H. Lee, Deputy Director for Green Buildings and Energy Efficiency, NYC Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability; Tomas Rossant, AIA, 2015 AIANY President (moderator)
Organizers: AIANY Committee on the Environment (COTE) and Urban Green Council with additional support from the conEdison Green Team
Sponsors: Buro Happold, Ennead Architects, WSP, Sciame (Patrons); Arup, FXFOWLE, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (Sponsors); Architecture Research Office, Capalino + Company, Cerami Associates, JFK&M Consulting Group, KPF, Langan, Murphy Burnham & Buttrick, Spacesmith, Thornton Tomasetti (Supporters)

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