The Green Building Bloom

July 28, 2002

By Michael Jessen

They're not exactly sprouting like weeds yet, but green buildings are beginning to bloom around the world.

From a multi-family housing project in Harlem to a convention centre in Cairns, Australia and a solar city in Linz, Austria to a Canadian insurance company's new headquarters in Boston, environmentally designed buildings that conserve energy and resources are shooting up into the sun.

Although ancient Romans discovered that if the south-facing portico and windows were covered with glass, solar energy would be trapped causing the internal temperature to stay constant into the night, most of our built environment sucks its comfort levels from an electrical or fossil fuel energy grid. Consider the staggering environmental impacts of commercial and residential buildings in the United States alone:

 Consume 65.2 percent of total US electricity  Use 36 percent of US primary energy  Emit 35 percent of US primary greenhouse gases  Use 12 percent of potable water in US.

According to the US Green Building Council ( these buildings are also responsible for 136 million tons of construction and demolition waste annually (approximately 2.8 pounds per person a day) and 40 percent (3 billion tons annually) of raw materials use globally. It is estimated that only 2% of buildings are efficient, while new green buildings can save 70% to 90% of their traditional energy use. Most existing buildings can be upgraded to use 30% to 50% less energy.

Bill Reed, an architect and environmental consultant with the USGBC, says too many buildings are ''extremely resource dependent and are just plain bad places to live and work.'' Green building, he said, ''is not a fad. It is not granola headish. It makes business sense.'' For example, the costs of building green can be 2 percent or less of a project's budget, and can easily cut energy costs by 40 to 50 percent, Reed added.

The USGBC developed a green building rating system called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) to improve the environmental performance of new and existing commercial, institutional, and high-rise residential buildings. It evaluates environmental performance from a "whole building" perspective over a building's life cycle, providing a definitive standard for what constitutes a "green building". Under the LEED framework, each design element is considered in relation to how it interacts with and affects the other design elements, ensuring that the overall design will be as energy efficient and environmentally friendly as possible. In addition, LEED encourages a full integration of the entire team - from the client and building architect/engineer to the contractors and subcontractors.

As a global leader in the financial sector, Manulife Financial (Canada's largest life insurance company) recognized that it also had the opportunity to be an environmental leader with its new US headquarters building in South Boston. The Manulife building was the cover story in May/June 2002 issue of EnvironmentalDesign+Construction magazine,4118,77290,00.html.

To meet the goal of sustainable architecture, the project team decided to seek LEED certification. By taking a holistic view and incorporating environmental design strategies such as energy efficiency, water conservation, stormwater management and occupant well being, the project team discovered that the sustainable approach to building design is also the smart approach. Perhaps the most striking feature of the building's design is the proposed fully glazed, 8-inch, double-skin curtainwall facade, which will contribute to the building's acoustical and energy performance, enhancing occupant comfort. The double-skin concept uses the space between the exterior insulated glass and the internal structure to enhance sound reduction properties and provide a cavity for airflow through the wall.

To minimize stormwater runoff and slow the evaporation process while increasing the infiltration of rainwater into the surrounding environment, approximately 11,000 square feet of drought tolerant grasses and perennials of varying heights will be planted on the building's roof. In addition to the environmental benefits of this design element, part of the green roof will be accessible to the building's occupants, providing a pleasant natural environment to enhance occupant well being when it is completed in late 2003.

The building will use water-saving fixtures, such as electronically controlled plumbing fixtures, low-flow toilets and urinals, and flow restrictors on showers. In addition to conserving water, the design also specifies resource conservation in all other aspects of the project. Twenty-five percent of the core and shell of the building will use 20% post-consumer recycled content and regionally sourced materials, as well as certified wood and sustainable construction waste management practices.

The Cairns Convention Centre is Australia's first environmentally- designed major public building and has won many awards for its energy and resource conservation features. See It showcases the latest solar energy and resource conservation technology techniques and environmental design.

The most innovative feature is the double-layered pleated plate roof, which extends far out over the building to provide protection from sun and rain. The roof construction includes excellent insulation to further minimise energy consumption. Among the building's other features:

 The roof is designed to capture the seasonal tropical downpours, and channel rainwater directly into storage tanks. This feature provides half of the Centre's grounds and garden watering needs, reducing its call on treated town water.  The Centre's water usage is modified further by the installation of water flow restrictors on all outlets. The expected water saving is between 25% and 30% of total water needs.  Solar hot water heaters provide between 30% and 35% of the Centre's hot water needs, producing a significant saving on electricity usage and costs.  Controlled shading devices are installed along the eastern side of the structure. By following the angle of the sun during the day, these motorised shades reduce the level of air conditioning needed to keep the building cool. The shading devices save approximately 5% of the energy required to air condition this section of the building.

An Australian eco-lodge is an example of more sustainable hotel design. The Four Horizons development in the Watagan Forest overlooking the famous Hunter Valley wine country was designed through a collaboration between the architect/owner Lindsay Johnston and the nearby University of Newcastle's Centre for Sustainable Technology. (See

The two storey eco-lodge design features were refined using life cycle analysis and thermal monitoring. They include a 'fly-roof' (like a fly sheet on a tent) to help neutralize the summer sun, and careful use of orientation and thermal mass. External insulation and cross-ventilation keeps the buildings cool in summer and warm in winter. Energy consumption in each lodge with full occupancy is projected at just .76 GJ/sq.m/year. Four Horizons received advanced eco accreditation under the Australian National Ecotourism Accreditation Program (NEAP).

On the banks of the Danube River in north-western Austria, a solarCity is being built in the Pichling district of Linz, Austria's third largest city ( The idea for the project arose in 1990 when the City of just over 200,000 people adopted a decision to implement low energy construction methods in the field of public housing. Throughout the 90s, renowned solar architects developed the master plan for the Linz-Pichling residential district which will see a total of 1,317 homes built on an area of around 32 hectares by 2005. The homes are subsidized by the Province of Upper Austria and will promote the breakthrough of low-energy construction methods at the international level. The planned school, kindergarten and the multi-functional centre are models of resource-saving solar architecture.

The name "solarCity" stands for the all-encompassing use of the energy of the sun. This concept ranges from the direct use of the sun to improve individual comfort and plant growth to the use of the sun as a source of energy. A compact construction method largely oriented towards the south, highly heat-insulating facades, natural ventilation and lighting and the optimum storage of the heat are the characteristics of this solar construction. Solar collectors to heat water to save fossil energy.

The buildings are built in a low-energy construction method. The building materials used minimize both the harm to the environment and the noxious effects on the persons living in the buildings. In order to achieve an environment-friendly residential development, waste disposal has been included in the overall considerations:  Within the framework of a pilot project entitled "waste-water free estate", 106 homes and the school are to be fitted with urine separation with special toilets operated in the conventional manner. The urine is enriched with nutrients and supplied as agricultural fertiliser. The solids are composted.  Grey water -- the water from showers, dishwashers and washing machines -- is cleaned locally in a sand bed filter with vegetation and fed into the nearest stream.  A rainwater management system with hollows, gullies and reservoirs ensures that rainwater soaks into the ground locally.

Although not yet completed, the project has won a number of awards already. At the "Business and Municipality - New Partnerships for the 21st Century " conference in 2001 the solarCity project won a bremen partnership award as one of the five best projects worldwide.

Construction began in June on the first affordable, "green", multifamily residential building in New York City and the largest affordable green residential development in the United States. 1400 Fifth Avenue, a new $40 million residential and retail building in the Harlem section of New York, is the first urban affordable housing development to receive a New Construction Whole Building Award for its energy design. (See

The building use 35% less energy than the energy consumption permitted by the NYS Energy Code and 70% less energy than comparable buildings in NYC. By delivering filtered fresh air to each condo and by eliminating materials that off-gas, the project increases the quality of the air residents breath. The mechanical system removes allergens from the air thereby eliminating the environmental triggers for allergy attacks, which are higher in Harlem than any other community in America. Among the building's other features:

 Reduced local air pollution by hydrocarbons because the building does not use fossil fuels for heating and cooling.  Reduced strain on local waste treatment facilities by reducing storm water runoff and water consumption through a variety of environmentally friendly design techniques.  The building uses geothermal energy for heating and cooling. This system prevents the production of 700 tons of CO2 (greenhouse gas) annually thereby reducing global warming.  Over 60% of the building is constructed from recycled or renewable resources thereby reducing the stress on the global environment.

Spurred by rising energy costs and concerns about the effect of indoor air quality and lighting on student health and academic performance, the state of Massachusetts wants to dramatically change the way schools are built. The state is pressing local school districts to construct ''green schools'' and include features that save and generate energy and use more natural light.

While much of what people think of as green are features such as solar cells and wind turbines, architects say less obvious moves - the way a building is oriented in relation to the sun, how wastewater is handled, or optimizing natural light while blocking excessive heat from the sun - will yield the most significant savings over time. The South Elementary School under construction in Waltham, created as a green school, was designed and oriented to maximize use of natural daylight while preventing classrooms from overheating and making hallway lights almost unnecessary.

In addition, 32 photovoltaic panels - which double as translucent shades - will produce enough electricity to power the library/media center, art room, and cafeteria. A solar thermal system on the roof will provide hot water while water runoff from the building will be reintegrated into a wetland area being restored behind the school for student study. Students will be able to track the amount of energy the sun is generating. It is estimated the features will produce 18 kilowatts of power at peak operation and energy generated when the school is not in use will flow into the electric grid to the utility, earning the city a credit for that power. Schools not built this way don't generate any power. (As a point of reference, an efficient 3,000-square-foot home uses 4 kilowatts of power at peak.)

While educators are interested in energy savings, green schools also promise better air quality indoors and better learning and teaching environments. Some older Massachusetts schools, particularly airtight structures built in the 1960s and '70s, have histories of air-quality problems or are built with windows that don't open. Research shows that daylight also can improve academic performance. A report by a California architecture consulting firm shows students in classrooms with the most natural light progressed 20 percent faster in math and 26 percent faster in reading - and scored 25 percent higher on standardized tests - than students exposed to the least natural daylight.

Residents are starting to move in at a groundbreaking, energy -efficient eco-village in southwest London. The Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) -- comprised of 82 homes and enough office and work space for 200 people -- is constructed from sustainable resources, uses no fossil fuels, produces no net CO2, recycles household waste, and provides a solar-powered electric car.

Located in the south London borough of Sutton, the project was developed by the Peabody Trust, an organization committed to providing high-quality, affordable housing for people on low incomes. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified timber and reclaimed steel were used for construction. In addition, most construction materials were sourced within a 60km radius of the site, reducing pollution and environmental damage by minimizing freight transport.

BedZED ( derives all its energy from renewable sources. The homes are highly energy efficient: heating is reduced by 90 per cent and total energy consumption by 70 per cent compared to conventional homes. The development also incorporates combined heat and power generation as well as state-of-the art photovoltaics for solar electricity. In addition, a solar electric car pool has been set up for use by the householders. The development harvests rainwater, uses water-saving appliances and systems, and recycles sewage water through a reedbed “Living Machine”. Household waste is also recycled.

With the success of this pilot project, the BedZED developers (including the World Wildlife Fund, the BioRegional Development Group, and Bill Dunster Architects) teamed up with the Midrand EcoCity Project and a number of business partners to make a twin BedZED in the Ivory Park area of Johannesburg, South Africa.

These examples of sustainability in practice are part of a growing trend to place more importance on what buildings do than how they look. Buildings are finally being recognized as living systems rather than static structures. Architect William McDonough says we need to reimagine the foundations of our badly designed buildings. McDonough's new design foresees green buildings that, like trees, produce more energy than they consume and purify their own waste water and factories that produce drinkable effluent.

Better buildings will result in healthier humans and a less stressed environment. Green buildings are an essential component of our quest for sustainability. Low cost, high environmental performance buildings that reduce energy needs, maximize on-site opportunities for renewable energy, and minimize water consumption are blossoming everywhere. As they multiply, our garden Earth flourishes. What could be more natural.

RESOURCES -- Green building news is available at along with a searchable database and library. A green building primer for builders, consumers and realtors is available at The US Department of Energy has a platform to catalogue and learn about high-performance building projects around the world. Seeded with about 25 projects, you can add your own to The High Performance Buildings Database at Canada's R2000 Buildings is at The Canadian Green Building Information Council is at The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association has a green building information site at Additional information about the BedZED project is available at,, and A number of solar energy residential projects, including BedZED, are described at The European Journal of Planning Online ( best sites archives at provides great information on sustainable projects around the world. Building with Vision: Optimizing and Finding Alternatives to Wood," is the second volume in the Wood Reduction Trilogy. Written by Dan Imhoff and edited by Ann Edminster, it is an easy to read, visually dynamic, front-end resource tool that allows architects, builders and owners to explore and envision a variety of opportunities to use tree-free, recycled, and FSC certified wood materials and structural systems before projects begin. Part resource guide, part photo essay, Building with Vision offers concise descriptions, more than 160 original color photographs, contacts for further research, and numerous case studies and sidebars. For people interested in finding local solutions and ways to optimize or reduce wood in residential building projects, this is a must-have resource. Find out more at

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at

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