Green Design: Building the Future
The World of Tomorrow
Whether it’s a museum that is almost invisible under its plant-covered green roof, a bed-and-breakfast built from car tires and old cans, an office powered by the sun, or a Major League baseball stadium made from recycled steel, chances are one day soon you are going to set foot in a green building—if you haven’t already.
In the following pages we travel the country to show you some of the most exciting and inspiring ways that today’s visionaries are designing amazing places to live, work, play, and learn while creating a smarter, more sustainable future. The days when buildings simply sat there sucking down vast amounts of energy are almost over. Today’s best houses, schools, restaurants, and arenas sip their megawatts, while catching rainwater, sparing resources, and preserving green space—without sacrificing style, or fun.
From New York to California, from Minnesota to New Mexico, businesses, universities, and everyday people are finding ways, in spite of the tough economy, to do good for the planet. Best of all, the designs highlighted here teach us how to build better while even saving a little green. And all signs show there’s a lot more to come.
TOWN: GREENSBURG, KS
“No walls. No roof. Nothing but destruction.” That’s how Bob Dixson, 57, then a U.S. Postal Service employee, remembers the night of May 4, 2007, when he peered out from the remains of his former basement in the wake of one of the worst tornadoes in Kansas history.
The natural disaster that leveled the south-central Kansas town of Greensburg killed 11 people, a toll still considered miraculous given that nearly the entire burg, population roughly 1,500, was slammed by the 1.7-mile-wide twister. “Everybody lost everything,” says Dixson, who became mayor in the spring of 2008. “It didn’t matter what you had—everything was gone. It looked like a bomb went off.”
The catastrophe spurred a mission to rebuild the town in a way that would live up to its name: a greener Greensburg. “We would create a sustainable community that doesn’t overuse natural resources,” says Dixson.
Tour Greensburg today—or tune in to the Discovery Channel’s Planet Green series about the town, now in season two—and you will find a nearly finished, energy-saving City Hall and a new arts center; cisterns collecting rainwater to irrigate native street plantings; and a reduced-rent building, dubbed the “business incubator,” that is helping local businesses such as a Benjamin Moore store—it sells only the company’s green product line—get on their feet. The new homes are designed to, among other things, minimize waste from building materials and take advantage of natural light.
Greensburg is the first U.S. town with LED street lamps, 300 of them, which has cut its energy costs by 70 percent. And it may go off the grid entirely with wind power. Still, Dixson seldom speaks of global warming, which, he says, politicizes the conversation. “This is not a right or a left, Democrat or Republican issue. It is the right, responsible, and prudent thing to do for future generations and the legacy we’re going to be leaving.”
|Take a Seat This stylish chair by Abbott Miller and Brian Raby is doing good for both people and forests. A growing demand for furnishings made of hardwoods certified as sustainably cut by the Forest Stewardship Council is providing vital jobs in countries like Bolivia, where two-thirds of the population is impoverished, and creating incentives to preserve the country’s forests.
COMMUNITY: LOUDON COUNTY, VA
The EcoVillage in Loudoun County aims to transform the American dream of home ownership into something more idyllic than a treeless grid of identical structures connected by a swirl of asphalt, which describes most other new neighborhoods in nearby Leesburg. Instead, this experiment in human development boasts a mature forest, four creeks, seven springs, and a growing number of private houses that have floors fashioned from recycled wooden fence posts, geothermal heating, and roof shingles made from used vinyl and sawdust.
“This site was zoned for development,” says cofounder Grady O’Rear, who lives in the EcoVillage with his wife, Tena Meadows O’Rear. “It would have had three-acre lots in a grid-matrix pattern by normal subdivision planning. We reduced the lot size and clustered the homes, conserving 85 percent of the land as open space. We want to help promote change.”
O’Rear’s dream began with an article in The Futurist magazine about Denmark’s bofoellesskaber, or “living communities.” Widely known as “co-housing,” the concept, which began in the early 1970s, tries to overcome the problem of neighbors who are strangers by balancing the advantages of traditional home ownership with the benefits of shared facilities. Residents typically have private dwellings with their own kitchens, living rooms, and sleeping areas, but they also have access to a common house with a large dining room and kitchen for potlucks, meeting rooms, recreational facilities, and, frequently, daycare.
APARTMENT: NEW YORK, NY
Room With a View
Eco-friendly residential buildings are rising nationwide, but especially in the place most associated with apartment living: Manhattan. Where would a hero of the planet like movie star Leonardo DiCaprio bunk when he’s in town? The actor reportedly has a flat at Riverhouse, one of a handful of green high-rises that now stand sentinel over Battery Park. With views of the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty, the building offers filtered air and water, bamboo floors, energy-efficient appliances and systems, an outdoor terrace, and bicycle and kayak storage. It even has plans for an organic bakery.
|This Little Light of Mine Herman Miller and designer Yves Béhar spent three years developing Leaf, a multipurpose lamp for home or office. The light’s sculptural shape minimizes material use while maximizing lighting options. Using 40 percent less energy than standard compact fluorescent bulbs, its LED (light emitting diode) provides up to 60,000 hours of illumination. Ninety-eight percent of the lamp’s parts are recyclable.
HOUSE: NEW ORLEANS, LA
A Port in the Storm
Four years after Katrina, New Orleans is still knocking the seawater from her ears. But along the banks of the Mississippi River, there’s a new sign of the times: a small collection of buildings that should provide a lifeline—not only in the next storm but also in the face of higher oil prices. These structures in the Holy Cross neighborhood in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward are built a solid seven feet above sea level (then elevated further by pilings) and outfitted with solar panels, a cistern system to collect water, and an array of details that earn them one of the highest energy-efficiency ratings in the country.
The project has been made possible by a partnership between Hollywood heartthrob and architecture buff Brad Pitt, the Home Depot Foundation, and the nonprofit Global Green, the U.S. affiliate of Green Cross International.
For Pitt’s part, he chaired a design contest calling for an energy-efficient green home design that would ultimately be built in Holy Cross’s mixed-income and racially diverse neighborhood, and eventually be inhabited by a Katrina survivor. Of the 125 designs submitted by architects and designers from around the world, the house by Matthew Berman and Andrew Kotchen of Workshop/APD emerged as the winner. The judges liked that solar power produces all the house’s energy; its chemical-free construction materials; and the use of wood salvaged from storm-damaged buildings. The community gave high marks to a modern take on an architectural style common in New Orleans. “I’m so happy this dream is going to become a reality,” said Pitt when the project was announced. “Today we are one small step closer to a future of smart design and a rebuilt New Orleans.”
With three single-family homes built, Global Green will soon begin construction on an 18-unit residential building and a community center. The focus is on making everything “super green and also super affordable,” says Beth Galante, director of Global Green’s New Orleans office. “We’re trying to create a model so other people can pick up and build it. We don’t want to have a white elephant out there that no one can afford to replicate.”
OUTDOOR COMPANY: PATAGONIA
Protection for the Elements
“There is no business to be done on a dead planet.” Those words, spoken by legendary environmentalist David Brower, are the motto at Patagonia, and even etched on the company’s front door. But Patagonia’s efforts go far beyond words. Dozens of its employees, for example, have traveled to the company’s namesake, Chilean Patagonia, to dig up invasive plants and yank old fence posts as part of an effort to turn Estancia Valle Chacabuco, 173,000 acres of former sheep and cattle grazing lands, into a national park.
Patagonia’s facilities are among the world’s greenest. Its 171,000-square-foot warehouse in Reno, Nevada, boasts energy-efficient lighting; radiant floor heating; 100 percent recycled carpets; recycled plastic restroom countertops; and some walls made from compressed, formaldehyde-free field straw.
Through its Common Threads program, the company, founded by outdoor adventurer Yvon Chouinard, also collects worn-out Polartec fleece pullovers, cotton T-shirts, even underwear to create new clothing. “Discarded undies now crowd landfills and strangle baby birds, while every day natural resources are being used to make more underwear. This is a global underwear crisis!” warns Patagonia’s leotard-clad Agent Timmy (rock climber Timmy O’Neil, above). “There’s a solution: Send it to Patagonia. We will make it into new underwear.” Now that’s taking recycling seriously.
Start Making Cents
There is such a thing as a free lunch—at least at Google. What’s more, that meal might be made with ingredients grown in the organic gardens on the company’s main campus in Mountain View, California. There’s also a free biodiesel shuttle bus, and free access to Google’s electric cars, charged at a special solar carport. “From the founders on down, people around here are really interested in these issues,” says Jamie Yood, 23, who works for Google’s green communications department. “If you see something you’re not happy with, you can start an e-mail chain to other Googlers (that’s what we call ourselves).” Yood follows the subject of food closely. “The chefs will respond,” he says, “and change their policies based on our feedback.”
Google is good on energy, too. Buildings within the “Googleplex,” as the campus is known, are fitted with 9,212 solar panels, supplying the facility with 1.6 megawatts of energy, enough to cover 30 percent of those structures’ peak electricity demand—or about 1,000 California homes.
The dot-com likes to say you can eat one cheeseburger or do 15,000 Google searches—for the same carbon output. Through offset projects, the company has recently achieved carbon neutrality for its 2007 emissions, and it is working on doing the same for 2008 and subsequent years.
The company is fine about revealing its carbon-cutting secrets to others, even rivals like eBay and Amazon. “At first it was all about keeping the cost per click low, but saving money saves energy,” says Niki Fenwick, another spokesperson. “It’s a good business model for us. We’re sharing this information because we think it’s in our best interest for our industry to be as sustainable as possible.”
|Castle in the Clouds One of the country’s greenest skyscrapers, the Hearst Corporation’s ornate geometrical skyscraper in midtown Manhattan uses diagonal (instead of vertical) support beams, requiring 2,000 tons less steel than the average city office building.
Feathering Its Nest
The National Audubon Society has a new perch, so to speak, built on its history of making earth-friendly renovations—recognized industry-wide as a better option than building from scratch. The organization (the parent of this magazine) hopes to be a model for others seeking cost-effective sustainability.
Its new headquarters recently received the highest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) point total of any commercial interior in the world evaluated by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).
“Audubon’s LEED Platinum certification demonstrates tremendous green building leadership,” says Rick Fedrizzi, president, CEO, and founding chair of the USGBC, which manages the LEED program. Designed by FXFOWLE Architects, the seventh-floor office in New York’s Greenwich Village occupies 27,500 square feet on one floor. Recycled, sustainable, and reclaimed materials are used throughout—most of them sourced from within a 500-mile radius. The entryway features reclaimed barn siding, and the tables in the common area are made by an artist out of fallen trees salvaged from the Hudson River Valley and western Pennsylvania. Countertops are made of compressed cardboard, and the cabinets are bamboo.
Twenty years ago Audubon restored an eight-story, 100,000-square-foot building (also in Greenwich Village), helping to create some of the top construction standards now used to certify new buildings.
SMALL BUSINESS: GREEN COURAGE
Former real estate agent Kate Dayton was renovating a two-family investment property in Beacon, New York, when she kept running up against the same wall: Where could she get environmental building products made from sustainable materials that don’t off-gas unhealthy chemicals and that have little chance of ending up in a landfill before her toddler graduated from middle school? The question became particularly challenging when she tried to replace some kitchen cabinets. “One of the architects I worked with told me cabinetry is saturated with urea formaldehyde,” she says. “They were making formaldehyde-free cabinets in California, but I couldn’t find them here on the East Coast.” Then came her ah-ha moment: “This could be my business,” she thought. So she cashed in on that investment property and launched Green Courage, a small company that helps consumers and interior designers source eco-friendly products. Her New Paltz, New York, showroom offers everything from those aforementioned kitchen cabinets, Forest Stewardship Council–certified hardwood floors, and countertops made from compressed paper to recycled glass tiles, organic mattresses, and paints that don’t off-gas volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The store also provides design services to help clients with their renovation projects. Being a first-time small-business owner is “not easy,” says Dayton. “It’s hard, hard work. But it’s satisfying. I feel like I’m making a difference for people, for my kids, for my future.”
SPORTS & ENTERTAINMENT: ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ
Allen Hershkowitz often has the hottest tickets in Hollywood and sports. That’s because he’s behind the greening of America’s favorite pastime, baseball—not to mention basketball, tennis, the Oscars, the Grammys, and the Tonys.
As a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Hershkowitz spends time lobbying on Capitol Hill on behalf of the environment and some of the nation’s wildest landscapes. But ask him about his other work and he’s a stat machine.
7 million: Gallons of water the Staples Center in Los Angeles—home to the NBA champion Lakers—saves annually by using waterless urinals, which are now commonplace in dozens of other stadiums and arenas across the country.
100 million: People who watch Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game and thus learn about the sport’s environmental initiatives. Parks like the Washington Nationals’ new stadium, which features a plant-shrouded roof and recycling bins that will keep your beer bottle out of the landfill, are also on the rise.
30,000: Tennis ball cans that will be recycled at this year’s U.S. Open, where Roger Federer and Serena Williams will help their sport score points for the planet.
1.3 billion: People watching the Oscars when Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore announced that the 79th Academy Awards telecast had achieved carbon neutrality.
44 million: Playbills distributed at performances on Broadway and around the country each year—all of them made from virgin paper. Until this year, that is, when the programs at the Tony Awards were printed on 30 percent post-consumer recycled paper, kicking off a new trend.
Hershkowitz and the NRDC have managed to achieve all this and more by shifting the events’ supply chains for energy, food, paper, water, chemicals, and more.
Does star power really make a difference? You bet, he says. “Outside of the family, there’s no one more influential on children than sports and entertainment figures. By engaging them, it sends a message that this is an intelligent, hip, necessary thing. And if we’re going to take on global warming, everybody has to do something.”
|Solar Sound This handheld, vintage-looking radio is completely solar- or crank-powered. Manufactured by SE, the stereo receives AM, FM, and Weatherband frequencies and can provide up to seven hours of continuous use when fully charged.
PLAYGROUND: SAN FRANCISCO, CA
A Live Jungle Gym
Why run around on asphalt and climb plastic jungle gyms when you can slide through a wildflower meadow and hang upside down from tree limbs? That’s precisely the idea of the San Francisco School’s green playgrounds, which boast a 35-foot-long dry creek bed made of beautiful salvaged granite stones, climbing trees, fencing from recycled redwood chicken coops, native flowers, and a water pump for making mud pies and sand castles (muck boots included). The ever-evolving project was one of the first school playgrounds designed by Jeff Miller, who has made a career of creating natural and sustainable play areas for schools and backyards.
“Kids are encouraged to get dirty and explore,” says Miller. “To use their imaginations.” He focuses on employing recycled materials, like the 25 tons of concrete he saved from a bulldozed basketball court that became the San Francisco School’s terraced stone walls. He also tries to help expand a school’s curriculum by creating play space that doubles as outside classrooms where students can explore the arts, study math, and investigate the natural world’s fragrant plants and interesting insects. “These gardens also improve neighborhoods,” he says, in part “by bringing in butterflies and birds.”
|Hit the Slopes Even snowboards are getting greener. Made from bamboo, Salomon Snowboards’ Sick Stick, created by Wolle Nyvelt and Josh Dirksen, recently went head-to-head with 300 competing products to win a prestigious Volvo SportsDesign award.
LODGING: TAOS, NM
You’re an eco-minded person, so where do you bunk when you’re on the go? How about a bed-and-breakfast? Think about it: No resources are used to build a hotel or resort—the owners often live in the inn—and you’re supporting a small business and a local economy. What’s more, you can increasingly find B&Bs that are built and decorated environmentally. Case in point: The Dobson House in Taos, New Mexico, which is based on a design by Michael Reynolds, an architect known for building “earthships,” off-the-grid, adobelike structures made from such materials as discarded car tires, bottles, and aluminum cans.
This inn, which has two guestrooms, was hand-built by owners Joan and John Dobson. Now in their 70s, the couple spent the early 1990s pick-axing a 100-foot underground corridor that would save some beautiful old junipers above ground while still allowing them to connect their living space with the guest quarters. They built the 7,000-square-foot structure’s curving walls tire by tire (2,000 in total) and can by can (20,000). “It was tougher than raising four teenagers,” says Joan, laughing. “We lived in the middle of it all, but we were determined to do it on our own, and that we did.”
The Dobson House sits on 25 acres overlooking the Rio Grande Gorge. Twenty-eight solar panels collect energy, that’s stored in 16 gold-cart-sized batteries to power the home. The 34 tons of stone forming the inn’s abundant flagstone floors retain heat collected during the day through south-facing windows.
Guests come from as far as Australia (a double is $118 a night plus tax) to enjoy nearby hot springs and wildlife, including eagles and five species of hummingbirds.
PRIVATE EVENTS: AUSTIN, TX
Raising the Bar
Think urban nature, and Austin might come to mind for its seasonal concentration of Mexican free-tailed bats that roost under the city’s Congress Bridge. But Austin has lots of other green destinations, from the living roof on its Starbucks to the profusion of restaurants that feature both environmental design and local, organic, and delicious cuisine. One standout among them is the Barr Mansion Artisan Ballroom, which has truly put its money where its mouth is. The wedding specialist’s namesake ballroom was made with rough-hewn lumber salvaged from a barn dating back to the 1770s and topped with a grass-thatched roof woven by English craftsmen. The building is heated and cooled with geothermal energy. The kitchen composts food scraps, serves organic vegetables, uses organic cotton tablecloths and hemp napkins, and, to top it off, reinforces the ambience with candles made from soy, not petroleum. For a green eatery near you, visit the Green Restaurant Association.
LIBRARY: SEATTLE, WA
Get in line to borrow a book from Seattle’s Ballard Library and, while you wait, you might also receive a lesson on wind currents and rainfall from LED displays inside the building. But that’s nothing compared with what’s tucked inside its siding: a periscope that reveals the building’s plant-studded roof. “Kids usually discover it first,” says architect Robert Miller, whose firm, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, led the project. “It’s really a memorable experience, discovering the small details.”
The faceted, 18,000-square-foot roof blanketed with plants absorbs rainwater, thus reducing runoff. The solar panels on the roof are easy to see, but some of the structure’s less conspicuous features, such as the window panels coated with a photovoltaic film, are working just as hard. By pulling the library’s front entrance back from the street, the architects also created a front porch-like space where people come to sit, even after hours, taking advantage of free wireless service and mingling with neighbors, helping to build community.
Unlike many other buildings of its kind, the library is not LEED certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, largely because the $7.1 million budget wasn’t big enough to cover the cost of certification. But there’s another advantage to not being constrained by the point system, says Miller: “The LEED certification process tends to go more toward a quantitative approach than qualitative. Both are important, but it’s harder to come up with points for quality of space and experience than it is for the amount of [energy] a space uses.”
|Power Up One Laptop per Child is providing computers to children in developing countries throughout the world. Energy efficient, compact, and durable, the laptop is designed with the environment in mind, including the potential to recharge its battery with what designer Yves Béhar calls “yo-yo human power,” or energy generated by pulling a string.
COLLEGE: NORTHFIELD, MN
Head of the Class
Many an environmental battle has been fought on college campuses, so it’s only fitting that the institutions themselves should be building better. Minnesota’s Carleton College was the first university in the country to own and operate a utility-grade wind turbine, and one of the first colleges in the state to offer “single-stream” recycling—meaning it’s not necessary to separate paper, plastics, and glass.
“The push came from our student population [a total of about 2,000], which was stating that Carleton should be setting an example,” says Rob Lamppa, the college’s director of energy management. “That got the faculty excited.”
Lamppa says Carleton’s “bright shining star” is the wind turbine, which produces 4.8 million kilowatt-hours a year—enough to supply one-third of the campus’s electricity needs. “We are hoping to have another one just like it hooked up to the campus within a year.” A generous alumnus has pledged the $3 million to $3.5 million needed to erect it.
Two dorms under construction feature floors made from sunken lumber rescued from Lake Superior and floor-by-floor energy monitors that will encourage students to have efficiency competitions. “We anticipate 40 to 50 percent of the electrical load will be from the students’ plug-in devices,” says Lamppa. “Students will hold a lot of power to make a difference.”
Other colleges are following suit. Find out how yours measures up at The College Sustainability Report Card.
SCHOOL: CHICAGO, IL
Schools teach lots of lessons, but the Tarkington School of Excellence is itself a learning experience. It is the first public school in Chicago to be built to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED standards. Planted with vegetation that can withstand hot sun, snow, and Chicago’s famous winds, the school’s roof grows almost year-round, while capturing rainwater, filtering it, and sending it down a series of pipes to a lagoon. The roof also helps insulate the school, cutting down expenses for heating in even the most blustery winters and cooling during the hottest summers.
About a fourth of the building’s materials came from within 500 miles, thus reducing pollution and fuel used for transportation. Ninety percent of the structural steel in the building was diverted from landfills, and 86 percent of the construction waste was recycled, too—far more than necessary to reach LEED Gold status. Tarkington should soon have company, because all new Chicago Public Schools will be required to emulate it.
|Triple Play Architect Renzo Piano designed the roof of the California Academy of Science’s museum to do triple duty: simulating the seven green hills of San Francisco, disguising a rainforest and planetarium, and passively cooling the building’s piazza by taking advantage of natural air currents. Skylights flood the rainforest and coral reef exhibit areas with natural light. The roof’s two and a half acres are covered with 1.7 million native plants that sponge up 3.6 million gallons of rainwater a year and provide refuge to birds, bees, and butterflies.
ONLINE BOOKSELLER: BETTER WORLD BOOKS
Buy the Book
Ask 30-year-old Xavier Helgesen why you should purchase a book from his company instead of another online bookseller like Amazon.com. His answer: “Do you want to vote with your dollars for global literacy and a company that makes the environment a priority? Or do you want to vote for a place just because you have shopped there before?”
Better World Books makes it possible to order your favorites online and offset the carbon emitted during the shipping process. You can also sell Better World your unwanted novels, biographies, and college texts; the company covers domestic shipping costs and tacks on the cost of carbon offsets on your behalf; in some cases, you might even get cash back for your donations. What’s more, portions of the funds generated by Internet sales go toward supporting global literacy programs.
This social venture is the brainchild of three Notre Dame alums who started out collecting books on campus and selling them online. Today more than $6.5 million has been raised for literacy programs like Room to Read, Books for Africa, Worldfund, the National Center for Family Literacy, and Invisible Children. All told, 25 million books have been diverted from landfills.
Back to Top