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COTE Top Ten Recipients Push Sustainability Past Property Line

This year’s crop of COTE Top Ten projects shows that sustainability has as much to do with what goes on outside the building as it does with what goes on inside it

By Sara Fernández Cendón

This year’s COTE Top Ten award recipients continue to push toward a more holistic understanding of sustainability--one that includes social awareness and community engagement, while still striving for ambitious performance goals. A related panel discussion on Friday, 2011 COTE Top 10 Eco-Buildings and Community Developments, will present lessons from the honored projects at the AIA Convention in New Orleans.

Beyond LEED

“There are a lot of high-performing, solid projects that would’ve won in prior years, but now the jurors are looking for more,” says Alexis Karolides, AIA, principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute and chair of the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE).

Karolides points out, for instance, that jurors aren’t just interested in carbon-neutral projects, but carbon-neutral projects done “the right way”--which means reducing the energy load first, not just “slapping a lot of renewable energy on the building afterwards,” as she puts it. Typically, the Top Ten program looks for 45 to 50 percent improvements on code requirements, she says, but this year’s jury would like to see even greater gains.

Karolides says jury members noted projects where the architects got users to change their behavior and adjust their expectations in order to improve performance. As an example, she cites one of this year’s projects, the First Unitarian Society Meeting House designed by The Kubala Washatko Architects. It was able to achieve greater performance in part by working with users to adjust temperature requirements.

Lauren Yarmuth, principal at New York-based YRG Sustainability and also a jury member this year, agrees. “We expected the standard green building best practices,” she says. “We’re at a point where LEED Gold and Platinum certification are almost just a starting point.”

Social sustainability

Yarmuth says this year’s jury was especially interested in projects that addressed social issues—“projects with shared community spaces that showed an awareness of social equity in their program, and in some cases projects that pushed the local code to expand the reach and benefits of green design,” she says.

This year two projects by Brooks + Scarpa (formerly Pugh + Scarpa) were rewarded for reflecting a sensitivity to social sustainability issues. Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, says his firm’s COTE Top Ten projects are similar. They both involve multiple buildings broken up to avoid an overbearing mass on the site. They have the same solar orientation, and they both use screens that provide privacy, thermal comfort, and aesthetic value. And, Scarpa says, they’re both urban buildings.

“They’re in the public realm, they’re part of city fabric, they’re not something that’s in a private street,” he says. “I think all those make good contributions not just to the profession, but to our built environment.” Step Up on 5th, a housing project for mentally disabled people, is located in downtown Santa Monica, Calif. “I’m a big believer that just because someone is poor or disadvantaged doesn’t mean that they should be excluded from good design,” he says.

Scarpa calculates that with 46 units on a 7,500-square-foot lot, the project’s density is higher than the average density of New York City. Screens, which the jurors noted for their beauty, shield occupants from the street while blocking some direct sunlight. The aesthetic quality of the screens was no accident, as Scarpa places as much emphasis on delightful design as inherent sustainability. “If you make a building that is perfectly sustainable but nobody likes it, it has no longevity. It will eventually go into decay and be torn down,” he says. “A good, sustainable building has a long lifetime.”

The second 2011 COTE Top Ten project by the firm, Cherokee Studios, is an infill project in Los Angeles expected to achieve LEED Platinum certification. Scarpa’s team worked with the city to change zoning regulations to allow for mixed-use spaces. The sidewalk in front of the building was enlarged above city standards.

“They went beyond what would be typically a design team’s role to challenge the code and the zoning because it was the right thing to do,” says juror Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, global director of sustainable design at HOK. “Recognizing the advocacy on the part of the design team to challenge convention and try to push into a different role for the building in the community--we thought it was great sign to the rest of the profession. This is what we like: Take this on. You can’t let the building code stop you.” 

Challenging convention

Yarmuth says the jury debated whether single-family homes, given their scale and often limited impact, represent an appropriate program to receive a sustainability award. The jury did recognize one such project, the OS House. Yarmuth says the house was not just green and beautiful, but it also challenged convention by being part of a traditional block in an urban core suffering from decades of disinvestment.

The house, located in downtown Racine, Wis., along the edge of Lake Michigan, was designed by Milwaukee-based Johnsen Schmaling Architects. The architect, Sebastian Schmaling, AIA, worked with a client interested in design and technology to create a confident, contemporary building that adds vitality to the neighborhood. The house is LEED Platinum certified, and the design incorporates sustainable practices like minimizing the building footprint, using local manufacturers when possible, and installing a geothermal heating and cooling system. About 80 percent of the power comes from two solar photovoltaic systems, and in the summer the house produces an energy surplus which the owners can sell to the local utility company.

Also important to the jury was the owner and architect’s commitment to using the house as a case study to influence sustainable residential development. Schmaling says the team did extensive research to find components and systems that could be incorporated into the design without dictating it, and also to find local sources of materials, which sometimes led to interesting discoveries. “We were really interested in working on this because the learning curve takes time, and you don’t make a lot of profit, but it’s stuff you will forever know and have,” he says.

The green beyond

Lazarus says predictive performance data was an absolute must in submissions. But also important was the intention and capability to measure actual, long-term performance. 

Karolides says COTE doesn’t require projects to submit real data over several years because the awards program wants to see cutting-edge projects that have just hit the market, but COTE is considering the development of a “plus” award for previous recipients that come back and demonstrate actual performance.

Looking ahead, Karolides says the jurors would like to see building performance pushed even further. This year the jury cited the NREL Research Support Facility, designed by RNL Design, as an example of the kind of project that “takes everything to the next level,” Lazarus says. The NREL project is a large-scale office building for more than 800 people, and Lazarus sees this project as one that can help debunk the misconception that sustainable projects have to be small. She would like to see very complex building types, such as hospitals, win more COTE Top Ten Awards. The NREL building is a step towards “net-zero energy, net-zero water, pushing to living building kinds of solutions, and understanding the implications,” Lazarus says. When these types of building start being honored as COTE Top Ten recipients, they’ll be “leaving LEED Platinum behind.”




The 2011 COTE Top Ten

Cherokee Studios in Los Angles, designed by Brooks + Scarpa.

The First Unitarian Society Meeting House in Madison, designed by The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc.

Greensburg/Kiowa County Schools in Greensburg, Kans, designed by BNIM.

High Tech High Chula Vista in Chula Vista, Calif., designed by Studio E Architects.

The Livestrong Foundation in Austin designed by Lake|Flato.

The LOTT Clean Water Alliance Building in Olympia, Wash., designed by The Miller Hull Partnership.

The OS House in Racine, Wis., designed by Johnsen Schmaling Architects.

The NREL Research Support Facility in Golden, Colo., designed by RNL.

Step Up on 5th in Santa Monica, Calif., designed by Brooks + Scarpa.

The Vancouver Convention Center West in Vancouver, designed by LMN Architects.


Visit the COTE Top Ten Web site.

Visit the Committee on the Environment’s Web site on AIA KnowledgeNet.

Visit the AIA Convention web site.

Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to the AIA Committee on the Environment’s Measures of Sustainable Design and Performance Metric.

See what else the Architect’s Knowledge Resource has to offer for your practice.


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