Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED. Buzz word? Catch phrase? Fad? Trend? The future? How about late to the party? For those of you unfamiliar with this acronym it represents the latest efforts by the construction industry, and others, to do a better job constructing buildings that do less harm to nature and the environment while increasing occupant comfort eventually resulting in all of us living in plastic bubbles. The brain trust behind this idea is the USGBC who coordinates its efforts with the GBCI who is responsible for testing Green wanna-be’s. If you think keeping track of all this is confusing you should try to be one of the many trying to find their way through this maze of monkey business.
I know, I sound bitter. In all honesty, I am. And I’m not. You see, I am currently undertaking the process of getting my professional credentials so I can show everybody I work with what a good architect I am and what a good steward for the mother ship we call planet Earth I can be. What makes me bitter is the fact that the ideas and feel good solutions this program espouses is not new. In fact, it is quite old. By the blessings of the talented staff at North Dakota State University I was taught almost all of the thoughtful, design conscious, occupant sensitive ideas while working hard to earn my degree. Things like orient the building to capture as much of the sun’s thermal energy as possible in the winter while blocking prevailing winds with trees. Limit the amount of hard surface areas like parking lots to permit the soils to soak up as much rain water as possible to avoid causing problems downstream from too much stormwater. Offer occupants views to the exterior to enrich their working experience. Utilize local materials, the vernacular of where you build to make the new fit in with the old. And I am certain this was being taught long before I graduated in the early 1990’s. It’s not new stuff. It is good, quality, thoughtful architecture. And I blame Thomas Jefferson!
That’s right. Thomas Jefferson. Third President. Founder of the University of Virginia. An Architect himself! That guy. Him and his Jeffersonian grid. “Let’s carve this nation up into one mile by one mile squares so I can get to Grandma’s house without getting lost” Jefferson. The problem I have with this concept is that it has resulted in a very monotonous, one thought approach to structuring our built environment. Our rigid road system has resulted in a rigid building system as well. No longer do we look at a piece of property and say “how does it best sit on the site to take advantage of its surroundings.” Instead we set that sucker square to the street because it is the quickest and cheapest way to do it. By god that full wall of windows for that showroom is going to face North to show off my products because that’s where the street is and I want my stuff to be seen. Until the cold winter winds start blowing from the Northwest and the showroom is so cold you can rent skates at the door and ice skate from the stove section to the dishwasher section of the store. I once had a developer insist on digging a pond to hold his storm water on the highest part of the property because he wanted the building to sit at the street which happened to be the lowest part of the property. Genius.
So now the USGBC, through its LEED program, has got everyone thinking this is the best thing since the five knuckle mortised hinge. But now, instead of instinctively knowing the right way to design a building based on solid, learned practices, we have to submit paperwork, and paperwork, and paperwork to justify these decisions. I applaud everyone finally making their way to the party. Fashionably late but here nonetheless.