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COTE Top Ten: Adaptive Reuse Erases Line Between Green and Existing Buildings

This year’s top green building list, announced at the AIA National Convention, sees architects finding new ways to knit sustainable architecture into old buildings and new community contexts.

By Kim A. O'Connell

In a packed Thursday afternoon convention session with more than 400 attendees, architects representing the 2012 COTE Top Ten illustrated just how far the concept of sustainability has come. This is the 16th year that the AIA's Committee on the Environment (COTE) has selected the Top Ten projects, in what is widely considered one of the nation's most prestigious sustainable building award programs. This year's projects represent a sophisticated understanding of sustainability, according to Filo Castore, AIA, 2012 COTE Chair, with an integrated approach to community engagement, natural systems, economics, and technology.

Although the list demonstrated a wide range of projects, they coalesced around several key themes, including adaptive reuse, community integration, daylighting, and transparency in design. The projects also demonstrated a significant improvement in the understanding and use of metrics to describe building performance, according to the six-member awards jury.

"I think we are all weary of claims of 'This is a really, really efficient building,'" said jury member Scott Shell, FAIA, principal of San Francisco-based EHDD Architecture. "Now we are finally getting beyond these vague pronouncements to actual numbers. Designers now understand these metrics, and many will follow up and try to validate them with actual performance measurements."

At the same time, Shell said that a number of technically superlative projects did not make the Top Ten because the design simply wasn't strong enough. "As an AIA award, we felt design and sustainability both had to excel," he said.

This year's submissions also included a half-dozen net-zero energy projects and more than 30 LEED Platinum projects, said jury member Clark Brockman, AIA, principal of SERA Architects, Inc., in Portland, Ore. "This is a fascinating and spectacular development," he said, "a real sign of a growing maturity of the movement, and of these awards."

Existing buildings vs. green buildings

In the COTE Top Ten awards announcement, the jury wrote that the "perceived tension between existing buildings and green buildings may be on the wane." Many of the winning projects dealt with adaptive reuse, in which a historic or existing building or site is sustainably renovated to adapt to a new program. The Mercy Corps Global Headquarters in Portland, Ore., designed by THA Architecture, was once a neglected 42,000-square-foot historic landmark. The renovation and addition includes a 3,800-square-foot green roof, xeriscaping, and low-flow fixtures that reduced the potable water demand by 40 percent. "The robust structure and small glazing percentages in the existing building allowed the new addition to be much more open and transparent," said Sarah Bell, senior associate for THA.

Perkins + Will's renovation of its Atlanta office at 1315 Peachtree Street turned a 1986 building the jury called "relatively banal" into a "living laboratory" for sustainable design. Solar studies and energy modeling were used to determine optimal levels of daylighting, glazing replacement, and shading systems. "Choosing to renovate an existing building is part of the 2030 Challenge [on energy and greenhouse-gas reduction], and provided several lessons in deconstruction, waste diversion, infrastructure reuse, and creating a more engaging and relevant building in the city," said Bruce McEvoy, AIA, design principal for Perkins + Will.

Giving Back to the Community

A number of projects engaged their community in beneficial ways, such as knitting a fractured neighborhood back together or creating pedestrian circulation where none existed. Other projects exist at a scale that make them a community in and of themselves. "Some sustainable strategies optimize at the community or campus scale, rather than the building scale, so it was very exciting to see the University of California-Merced master plan selected—it may be the first planning-scale project to get a COTE Top Ten," Shell said. "They have a very impressive longer term plan to reach zero energy and zero waste at the scale of a large research campus. They are well into that plan and are exceeding their goals." UC-Merced's Long Range Development Plan includes design standards that call for daylighting in 75 percent of indoor spaces, as well as occupant controls and energy-efficient lighting. The project's net-zero-energy approach depends on the campus generating as much electricity as it uses through solar and wind power, and waste-to-energy conversion.

The Arizona State University Polytechnic Academic District transformed a decommissioned airbase into a pedestrian-oriented campus that includes five high-performance LEED Gold buildings. "ASU Polytechnic Academic District responds to its environment by extroverting building circulation and minimizing air-conditioned square footage and electricity needed for lighting," said Andrew Herdeg, AIA, a partner in Lake|Flato Architects, co-designers with RSP Architects. Jurors praised the project's "design elegance" and the way aggressive daylighting strategies drove light through the long, narrow site plan.

The unrelenting Arizona sun was also a factor in SmithGroupJJR's design of Chandler City Hall, which replaces a rundown collection of abandoned buildings and parking lots, and revitalizes the city's downtown. On one side, a sunshade made of perforated stainless steel panels doubles as public art. In a central courtyard, a wastewater collection system becomes an appealing waterfall feature that lowers the ambient temperature.

Overcoming obstacles

One project in particular illustrated the power of architecture to remediate both the physical and social stigmas of a site. Philadelphia’s Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts was located on a contaminated, abandoned lot adjacent to an elevated train line that was once a haven for criminals. Jane Rath, of SMP Architects, said her firm focused on making sustainable features obvious, including recycled content and rapidly renewable materials, so that they could be used as a teaching tool. Since its opening, truancy at the school has dropped from 35 percent to 0 percent, and test scores have quadrupled. The jury praised the building's "transformative power."

Studying site and context also informed the design of the Bagley Classroom Building at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Its designer David Salmela, FAIA, employed the German Passivhaus approach, which entirely foregoes conventional heating systems. "The Passivhaus approach is very elegant in its simplicity, with a focus on the thermal envelope and a conservation-first philosophy," said Carly Coulson, AIA, who worked with Salmela on the project. In fact, the classroom requires virtually no energy for heating, even in its frigid Upper Midwestern site. Passive cooling, natural ventilation, and shading are also key elements of the Portland Community College Newberg Center, which is designed to be the first net-zero-energy higher education building in Oregon. "Sustainability doesn't have to be about gimmicks and gadgets," said Tim Eddy, AIA, principal of Hennebery Eddy Architects. "It is just simply smart design."

Looking Ahead

Going forward, jury members want to see more evidence of how green buildings can further contribute to their environments at a community level, and want to encourage greater occupant participation in the performance management and monitoring of green buildings. "As we start to have more and more buildings that are approaching best-in-class efficiencies, the next frontier will be achieving meaningful, and persistent occupant engagement to achieve even greater efficiencies," Brockman said. "We started seeing examples of that this year, and I'm guessing we're going to see more."

Projects that achieve these two goals might be eligible for yet another benchmark of green building recognition, when the AIA introduces a new category of the COTE Top Ten awards: “COTE Top Ten +,” chosen annually from among previous Top Ten projects that can demonstrate, through resubmitted performance data and information, that the actual operation of high-functioning buildings can meet or exceed ambitious design goals over time.


1315 Peachtree Street in Atlanta, designed by Perkins + Will. Image by Eduard Hueber.

Chandler City Hall in Chandler, Ariz., designed by SmithGroupJJR. Image courtesy of Bill Timmerman.

The Bagley Classroom Building at the University of Minnesota-Duluth in Duluth, designed by Salemla Architect. Image courtesy of Paul Crosby.

Mercy Corps Global Headquarters in Portland, Ore., designed by THA Architecture. Image courtesy of Jeff Amram.

Recent Related:

COTE Top Ten Recipients Push Sustainability Past Property Line


The 2012 AIA COTE Top Ten

1315 Peachtree Street in Atlanta, designed by Perkins + Will

ASU Polytechnic Academic District in Mesa, Ariz., designed by RSP Architects and Lake|Flato Architects

Chandler City Hall in Chandler, Ariz., designed by SmithGroupJJR

Iowa Utilities Board Office of Consumer Advocate Office Building in Des Moines, designed by BNIM

Mercy Corps Global Headquarters in Portland, Ore., designed by THA Architecture

Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Philadelphia, designed by SMP Architects (in collaboration with SRK Architects)

Hood River Middle School Music and Science Building in Hood River, Ore., designed by Opsis Architecture

Portland Community College Newberg Center in Newberg, Ore., designed by Hennebery Eddy Architects

University of Minnesota-Duluth Bagley Classroom Building in Duluth, Minn., designed by Salmela Architect

University of California-Merced Long Range Development Plan in Merced, Calif., designed by UC-Merced

The 2012 AIA COTE Top Ten Jury

Sue Barnett of Sue Barnett Sustainable Design in Houston

Clark S. Brockman, AIA, of SERA Architects in Portland, Ore.

Steve Dumez, FAIA, of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple in New Orleans

Laura Lee, FAIA, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg

Paul Schwer of PAE Consulting Engineers in San Francisco

Scott Shell, FAIA, of EHDD Architecture in San Francisco

Back to AIArchitect May 19, 2012

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