How architects are creating the next generation of green design
The profession is moving beyond LEED and embracing new opportunities for innovation
As communities feel the increasing economic, environmental, and societal effects of climate change, architects are spearheading leadership beyond traditional “green” design.
In the past, pioneering rating systems—especially LEED—helped architects and potential clients understand sustainable design in terms of energy efficiency, recycled materials, and low-VOC products. Increasingly, savvy architects and clients are looking beyond generic “green design” and embracing new opportunities—and in some cases, stricter requirements—around resilience, materials, and health.
According to a 2018 AIA report, 50 percent of AIA members use energy modeling and 87 percent of members have begun to incorporate qualities of resilience in their work. AIA’s 2030 Commitment and Disaster Assistance Program are two critical resources as architects prioritize design for a rapidly shifting climate.
Illya Azaroff, AIA, is actively involved with training architects in developing the skills necessary to assess the safety of buildings after a natural disaster or extreme weather event. Azaroff is the founder and Director of Design at the New York-based firm +LAB Architect, and he’s well-practiced in working with clients on strategies for buildings that can help them withstand extreme and sometimes unpredictable weather conditions. The demand for more resilient buildings sharply increased after Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast in October of 2012.
“There’s a lack of expertise in the profession currently that addresses resilience in a very comprehensive way,” Azaroff says. “My current thinking is that this is the opportunity where architects can show why health, safety, and welfare is what we do, and is what our ethical charge is.” 80 percent of Americans, he points out, have been affected by natural disaster since 2007.
“My current thinking is that this is the opportunity where architects can show why health, safety, and welfare is what we do, and is what our ethical charge is.” - Illya Azaroff, AIA
In partnership with the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, Azaroff’s firm recently designed a house for a woman whose previous residence in Breezy Point, Queens, was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy. In its newest iteration, the nearly-complete house has been built to the specifications of the FORTIFIED Home program. Extra-strength windows and doors, as well as an interconnected system that includes the roof, walls, floors and foundation, are designed to protect the house from catastrophic weather in the future.
The house, Azaroff explains, will subsequently be shared with city and state agencies as a model. His firm plans to make the designs accessible online for anyone who is interested, which, he hopes, will encourage other architects and potential clients to consider the costs and benefits of what building a resilient project involves. Azaroff, who also worked on a 2017 update to AIA’s Disaster Assistance Handbook, says that it is important for resilience to be baked into every aspect of the design and construction process in an effort for the industry to move towards thinking proactively about resiliency, rather than reactively. In the future, he says, architects need to focus on an effective way to measure the success of resilience efforts.
“That’s the next step that everyone needs to get to,” Azaroff says. “How do you evaluate resilient measures?”
Answering the Living Building Challenge
Evaluation was a big part of the success of the Josey Pavilion in Decatur, Texas, a 2016 COTE Top Ten winner designed by Lake|Flato Architects for the Dixon Water Foundation. During the initial design phase, Lake|Flato saw the 5,000-square-foot pavilion – a space for meetings, events and education – as the perfect opportunity to tackle something they had been wanting to try for a while: the Living Building Challenge (LBC). If they succeeded, it would be the first of its kind in Texas.
A Living Building can only be certified after it has met the LBC’s performance criteria for 12 consecutive months. As a “holistic approach to building”, the LBC organizes around seven “petals” which must be met to achieve LBC certification. Petals include an emphasis on net zero (or ideally, net positive) energy in addition to health, equity, water, and materials.
Tenna Florian, AIA, of Lake|Flato Architects, explains that for the Dixon Water Foundation, the appeal of pursuing an LBC-compliant structure lay in how area ranchers had been building structures throughout Decatur's history.
“In the past, you didn’t get building materials from far away. You got them locally, and they were free of chemicals and healthy and relied on natural ventilation. The water came from a local source and the waste was dealt with, good or bad, locally,” she says. Because of the requirements of the LBC, the pavilion was entirely constructed with non-toxic and renewable or salvaged materials.
A challenge during the construction process followed the decision to use constructed wetlands in place of a septic system. Heather Holdridge, AIA, of Lake|Flato, also a member of AIA’s 2030 Working Group, says that the wetlands were by far the most expensive piece of the project, but they allowed the client to home in more closely on their mission of watershed protection through prairie restoration, as well as larger sustainability goals of mitigating the negative effects of waste and storm water. The artificial wetland initially consumed more energy than predicted during a season of heavy rain in Texas, but it eventually leveled out enough to allow the project to achieve the coveted Living Building Challenge status.
“It did take us a few months to get our 12 consecutive months of net-zero energy, and now it is a net-positive performer,” Florian says.
Florian and Holdridge emphasize that the billable hours spent on LBC certification, which included materials and other research, were donated through the OnePlus program. This allowed for what Holdridge calls “learning curve hours” – “us really figuring out the most efficient way for us to be tracking the design process and construction administration,” she says. “I’m confident that in the next project, we would be much more efficient.”
Both the Breezy Point house and the Josey Pavilion allowed architects to solve problems for their clients through advanced sustainable design and to create structures that will serve as models into the future. Azaroff stresses the importance of leveraging what architects already know to help them become more successful in designing sustainable buildings. Although architects place a high value on sustainability issues, there are always more opportunities to incorporate sustainability practices into their work.
“There’s not enough of us doing it, and there’s a major need for it, and you see it every day,” Azaroff says.
"The Bell Propelled: A Progress Report on the Sustainability Leadership Opportunity Scan" is now available; download the full report.
Katherine Flynn is a writer/editor at AIA focusing on industry trends and emerging ideas.