Why Green Architecture Hardly Ever Deserves the Name

7 World Trade Center / SOM. Image © Ruggero Vanni.

The following article, by Michael Mehaffy & , originally appeared in Metropolis Mag as “Why Green Often Isn’t”

Something surprising has happened with many so-called “sustainable” buildings. When actually measured in post-occupancy assessments, they’ve proven far less sustainable than their proponents have claimed. In some cases they’ve actually performed worse than much older buildings, with no such claims. A 2009 New York Times article, “Some buildings not living up to green label,” documented the extensive problems with many sustainability icons. Among other reasons for this failing, the Times pointed to the widespread use of expansive curtain-wall glass assemblies and large, “deep-plan” designs that put most usable space far from exterior walls, forcing greater reliance on artificial light and ventilation systems.

Partly in response to the bad press, the City of New York instituted a new law requiring disclosure of actual performance for many buildings. That led to reports of even more poor-performing sustainability icons. Another Times article, “City’s Law Tracking Energy Use Yields Some Surprises,” noted that the gleaming new 7 World Trade Center, LEED Gold-certified, scored just 74 on the Energy Star rating — one point below the minimum 75 for “high-efficiency buildings” under the national rating system. That modest rating doesn’t even factor in the significant embodied energy in the new materials of 7 World Trade Center.

What’s going on with these supposedly “sustainable” buildings? Read on, after the break…

Image from the ArchDaily Infographic on LEED.

Things got even worse in 2010 with a lawsuit [“$100 Million Class Action Filed Against LEED and USGBC”] against the US Building Council, developers of the LEED certification system (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). The plaintiffs in the lawsuit alleged that the USGBC engaged in “deceptive trade practices, false advertising and anti-trust” by promoting the LEED system, and argued that because the LEED system does not live up to predicted and advertised energy savings, the USGBC actually defrauded municipalities and private entities. The suit was ultimately dismissed, but in its wake the website Treehugger and others predicted, based on the evidence uncovered, that “there will be more of this kind of litigation.”

What’s going on? How can the desire to increase sustainability actually result in its opposite?

One problem with many sustainability approaches is that they don’t question the underlying building type. Instead they only add new “greener” components, such as more efficient mechanical systems and better wall insulation. But this “bolt-on” conception of sustainability, even when partially successful, has the drawback of leaving underlying forms, and the structural system that generates them, intact. The result is too often the familiar “law of unintended consequences.” What’s gained in one area is lost elsewhere as the result of other unanticipated interactions.

For example, adding more efficient active energy systems tends to reduce the amount of energy used, and therefore lowers its overall cost. But, in turn, that lower cost tends to make tenants less careful with their energy use — a phenomenon known as “Jevons’ Paradox.” Increasing efficiency lowers cost, and increases demand — in turn increasing the rate of consumption, and wiping out the initial savings. The lesson is that we can’t deal with energy consumption in isolation. We have to look at the concept of energy more broadly, including embodied energy and other factors.

There are often other unintended consequences. A notable case is London’s sustainability-hyped “Gherkin” (Foster & Partners, 2003), where the building’s open-floor ventilation system was compromised when security-conscious tenants created glass separations. Operable windows whose required specifications had been lowered because of the natural ventilation feature actually began to fall from the building, and had to be permanently closed. The ambitious goal of a more sophisticated natural ventilation system paradoxically resulted in even worse ventilation.

The Swiss Re Building by Foster + Partners, also known as “The Gherkin.” Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Aurelien Guichard

No building is an island

Another major problem with green building programs happens when they treat buildings in isolation from their urban contexts. In one infamous example (“Driving to Green Buildings”), the Chesapeake Bay Foundation moved its headquarters to the world’s first certified LEED-Platinum building — but the move took them from an older building in the city of Annapolis, Maryland to a new building in the suburbs, requiring new embodied energy and resources. The added employee travel alone — what’s known as “transportation energy intensity” — more than erased the energy gains of the new building.

The theory of resilience discussed in our article, “Toward Resilient Architectures 1: Biology Lessons,” points to the nature of the problem. Systems may appear to be well engineered within their original defined parameters — but they will inevitably interact with many other systems, often in an unpredictable and non-linear way. We look towards a more “robust” design methodology, combining redundant (“network”) and diverse approaches, working across many scales, and ensuring fine-grained adaptivity of design elements.

Though these criteria may sound abstract, they’re exactly the sorts of characteristics achieved with so-called “passive” design approaches. Passive buildings allow the users to adjust and adapt to climactic conditions — say, by opening or closing windows or blinds, and getting natural light and air. These designs can be far more accurate in adjusting to circumstances at a much finer grain of structure. They feature diverse systems that do more than one thing — like the walls that hold up the building and also accumulate heat through thermal mass. They have networks of spaces that can be reconfigured easily, even converted to entirely new uses, with relatively inexpensive modifications (unlike the “open-plan” typology, which has never delivered on expectations). They are all-around, multi-purpose buildings that aren’t narrowly designed to one fashionable look or specialized user. And perhaps most crucially, they don’t stand apart from context and urban fabric, but work together with other scales of the city, to achieve benefits at both larger and smaller scales.

Older buildings perform better… sometimes

Many older buildings took exactly this “passive” approach, simply because they had to. In an era when energy was expensive (or simply not available) and transportation was difficult, buildings were naturally more clustered together in urban centers. Their shape and orientation exploited natural daylight, and typically featured smaller, well-positioned windows and load-bearing walls with higher thermal mass.

The simple, robust shapes of these buildings allowed almost endless configurations. In fact many of the most in-demand urban buildings today are actually adaptive reuse projects of much older buildings. The results of this passive approach are reflected in good energy performance. While New York’s 7 World Trade Center actually scored below the city’s minimum rating of 75 out of 100, older buildings in the city that had been retrofitted with the same efficient heating, cooling, and lighting technologies fared much better: the Empire State Building scored a rating of 80, the Chrysler Building scored 84.

But just being old is clearly not a criterion of success. The 1963 MetLife/PanAm building (Walter Gropius & Pietro Belluschi), now a half-century old, scored a dismal 39. Another mid-century icon, the Lever House (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1952), scored 20. The worst performer of all was Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe’s iconic Seagram building, built in 1958. Its score was an astonishingly low 3. What’s the problem with these buildings?

Seagram Building / Mies van der Rohe

As the earlier New York Times article noted, they have extensive curtain-wall assemblies, large window areas, large-scale “deep-plan” forms, and other limitations. On a fundamental level, as we can now begin to see from resilience theory, they lack many crucial resilient advantages of older building types. There may be something inherent in the building type itself that is non-resilient. The form language itself could be an innate problem — something that, according to systems thinking, no mere bolt-on “green” additions can fix.

“Oil-interval” architecture

Architectural critic Peter Buchanan, writing recently in the UK magazine, The Architectural Review, placed the blame for these failures squarely at the feet of the Modernist design model itself, and called for a “big rethink” about many of its unquestioned assumptions [“The Big Rethink: Farewell To Modernism — And Modernity Too”]. Modernism is inherently unsustainable, he argued, because it evolved in the beginning of the era of abundant and cheap fossil fuels. This cheap energy powered the weekend commute to the early Modernist villas, and kept their large open spaces warm, in spite of large expanses of glass and thin wall sections. Petrochemicals created their complex sealants and fueled the production of their exotic extrusions. “Modern architecture is thus an energy-profligate, petrochemical architecture, only possible when fossil fuels are abundant and affordable”, he said. “Like the sprawling cities it spawned, it belongs to that waning era historians are already calling ‘the oil interval’.”

Buchanan is not alone in calling for a “big rethink” about the assumptions of Modernist design. It is fashionable among many architects today to attack Modernism, and argue instead for various kinds of avant-garde and “Post-Modernist” styles. Buchanan lumps these styles together under a category he calls “Deconstructionist Post-Modernism.” But he insists that the Deconstructionists have not actually transcended the Modernist paradigm they attack: they still operate almost entirely within the industrial assumptions and engineering methodologies of the “oil interval.”

Once again, resilience theory provides insight into the serious flaws carried by this family of related form languages — and indeed, flaws in their very conception of design. (Those will need to be examined in great detail.) Ironically, this “modern” model is now almost a century old, belonging to an era of “engineered resilience” — that is, resilience within only one designed system, but unable to cope with the unintended consequences of interactions with other systems (like urban transportation, say, or true ecological systems).

Because the Modernist form language and its successors are tied to the old linear engineering paradigm, they cannot in practice combine redundant (“network”) and diverse approaches, nor work across many scales, nor ensure a fine-grained adaptivity for design elements — though they can certainly create the symbolic appearance of doing so. Contrary to such dubious claims (in what sometimes takes on aspects of a massive marketing effort), they cannot actually achieve what C. H. Holling called “ecological resilience.” This seems to suggest an important explanation of the alarmingly poor performance of these buildings and places, when actually evaluated in post-occupancy research.

Seen in this light, the various avant-garde attempts to transcend Modernism appear more as exotic new wrappings for the same underlying (and non-resilient) structural types and industrial methods. But as Albert Einstein famously pointed out: “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” Just as it is not possible to achieve resilience by merely adding new devices like solar collectors to these old industrial-Modernist building types, it is not possible to get meaningful benefits with dazzling new designer permutations and tokenistic ecological thinking within the same essentially industrial design process. We do need a “big rethink” about the most basic methods and systems of design for the future.

Before its cancellation, the Anara Tower was planned to be one of Dubai’s tallest buildings, and an icon of sustainability — despite its west-facing glazing, high embodied energy in materials, and, remarkably, a giant non-functional (i.e. decorative) wind turbine. The building offered the consumer packaging of an “image” of sustainability at the apparent expense of real sustainability. Image courtesy of Atkins Design Studio.

A wave of neo-modernism

Yet if anything, in recent years there has been a remarkable resurgence of an even more unapologetic form of Modernism. In light of the evidence, this is a decidedly reactionary trend: we seem to be witnessing a “back to roots” movement — one that, like other such movements, is based more on doctrinal belief than on evidence. This fashionable Neo-Modernism ranges from outright “retro” boxy white buildings, interiors, and furnishings, to swoopy futuristic-looking buildings and landscapes. Stylistically, the shapes are eye-catching and often edgy, and some people (especially many architects) clearly like them.

Not everyone seems to care for this new/old aesthetic, however. Some see the new structures as sterile, ugly, and disruptive to their neighborhoods and cities. Defenders of the designs often attack these critics for being presumably unsophisticated, nostalgic, or unwilling to accept the inevitable progress of a dynamic culture. This “battle of stylistic preferences” rages on, with the Neo-Modernists claiming the avant-garde high ground, where they tend to dominate the media, critics, and schools.

Of course, fashions come and go, and architecture is no different: in a sense this is just another phase in the more or less continuous waxing and waning of architectural Modernism for almost a century now, along with raging debates about its aesthetic merits. Those debates have never really died down. Critics like Buchanan are not new: in the 1960s and 1970s equally vociferous critics like Christopher Alexander, Peter Blake, Jane Jacobs, David Watkin, and Tom Wolfe made withering critiques, but little has changed.

What has now changed, however, is that we are asking newly urgent questions about the resilience of this kind of structure, at a time when we need to rigorously assess and improve that resilience. As this discussion suggests, it is not only the particular and practical issues of expansive glazed curtain walls, bulky and transparent buildings, and exotic assemblies overly reliant on petrochemical products that are the root of the problem. It is perhaps the very idea of buildings as fashionable icons celebrating their own newness, a quintessentially Modernist idea, which is fundamentally at odds with the notion of sustainability.

As they age, these buildings are destined to be less new and therefore less useful, not more so. The pristine Modernist (and now Post-Modernist and Deconstructivist) industrial surfaces are destined to mar, weather, and otherwise degrade. The eye-catching novelties of one era will become the abandoned eyesores of the next, an inevitability lost on a self-absorbed elite fixated on today’s fashions. Meanwhile the humble, humane criteria of resilient design are being pushed aside, in the rush to embrace the most attention-getting new technological approaches — which then produce a disastrous wave of unintended failures. This is clearly no way to prepare for a “sustainable” future in any sense.

Courtesy of Nikos Salingaros

Modernism is more than just a style

In this light, why have the form language and design methodologies of Modernism proven so stubbornly persistent? The answer is that Modernism is not merely a style that one may care for or not. It is part and parcel of a remarkably comprehensive — even totalizing — project of aesthetics, tectonics, urbanism, technology, culture, and ultimately, civilization. That project has had a profound effect upon the development of modern settlements, for better or worse, and (especially visible in the light of resilience theory) made a huge contribution to the current state in which we find our cities, and our civilization.

The origins of architectural Modernism are closely affiliated with the progressive goals of the early Twentieth Century, and the humanitarian ideals — even the utopian zeal — of well-meaning visionaries of that day. Those individuals saw a promising capacity, in the dawning industrial technology of the age, to deliver a new era of prosperity and quality of life for humanity. At their most credulous, its leaders were clearly enraptured by the seemingly infinite possibilities for a technological utopia. From that they developed an elaborate — and in surprising ways, still poorly-evaluated — theory about the necessary new tectonics and form languages of the civilization of the future. Their followers today still argue that it is, unquestionably, Modernism that is best positioned to don the mantle of sustainability.

Many things did improve under this technological regime, of course, and today we can cure diseases, reduce backbreaking toil, eat exotic foods, travel fast in comfortable motoring and flying craft, and do many other things that would astonish our ancestors. But along with that new regime has come a calamitous ecological depletion and destruction of resources, and an erosion of the foundation on which all economics and indeed all life depends. So today, in an age of converging crises, it is well worth our asking hard questions about the assumptions of that industrial regime — and the complicity of architectural Modernism as a kind of alluring “product packaging” within it.

The story goes back to a remarkably small group of writers, theorists, and practitioners in the early 20th Century, and notably the Austrian architect Adolf Loos. We will need to look more closely at this history — and what its ongoing legacy means for us, and our very daunting design challenges today.

Passive House. Image courtesy of Karawitz Architecture

Michael Mehaffy is an urbanist and critical thinker in complexity and the built environment. He is a practicing planner and builder, and is known for his many projects as well as his writings. He has been a close associate of the architect and software pioneer Christopher Alexander.  He is a Research Associate with the Center for Environmental Structure, Alexander’s research center founded in 1967, and Executive Director of the Sustasis Foundation, a Portland, OR-based NGO dedicated to developing and applying neighborhood-scale tools for resilient and sustainable development. 

Nikos A. Salingaros is a mathematician and polymath known for his work on urban theory, architectural theory, complexity theory, and design philosophy. He has been a close collaborator of the architect and computer software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Salingaros published substantive research on Algebras, Mathematical Physics, Electromagnetic Fields, and Thermonuclear Fusion before turning his attention to Architecture and Urbanism. He still is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is also on the Architecture faculties of universities in ItalyMexico, and The Netherlands.

Cite: Michael Mehaffy & Nikos Salingaros . "Why Green Architecture Hardly Ever Deserves the Name" 03 Jul 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 21 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=396263>
  • eMay

    “Modern Architecture is not a style. It’s an attitude.”
    -Marcel Breuer

    I think the same can be said of Sustainability….

    • http://muhammadfirdhaus94.blogspot.com Muhammad Firdhaus

      Hmm , I’m Ungku Omar Polytechnic Malaysia . .
      Can I ask about Architecture Style more detail . .
      I really excited to study that things !
      Thank You =D

  • archshen

    Some very interesting insights, excellent read.

    Questioning Modernism is ok, but what about solutions?

    • Richard

      It’s a sugestion to think.

  • Tung Cab

    Because everything about it is hypocrisy, more is spent rather than saved and Canada and Siberia remains the coldest regions on earth.

  • Doug Wittnebel

    Some very good points in this article about resilience, and I really appreciate the suggestions that current architectural designs ala modernism are out of date. We need to push for new efficient solutions and wider broader thinking.

  • MAd Ge

    It is true anyone who has dealt with a couple or more of these advisory or regulatory (as they should be) systems will know they are like games – get the points you need, to be recognised, or to qualify. And anyone involved in the ‘techy’ architecture world will have some awareness of a degree of ‘spin’ involved in some of the claims. It can’t be a surprise if they sometimes fail – crude tools facing a complex network problem – but at least they are trying to do the right thing. But sadly the core problems of sustainability are not as described here, and are not due to the ‘style’ of modernism, though of course the early buildings did not embody much environmental wisdom. Just as modernism has become the efficient modern way in building technology, the argument here is that better/different technology is the answer. But there will likely not be a technological solution if you take the message of David Owen’s book ‘The Conundrum’, and the tech wunderkind voices within. The real solution instead must involve changes in politics and economics, and ‘an unprecedented change in human behaviour’. Two problems to sustainabilty: first, as everyone should now know (see the new book ‘The Burning Question’), there is perhaps five times more available fossil fuel than can safely be permitted to be burned if an environmental catastrophe is to be avoided (forget peak oil etc, we already have too much). For these trillions of dollars worth of resources not to be used may be an insurmountable political and economic problem (we are doomed!), but as Obama just said, there is no more time left. So, problem 1, until there is a fixed cap every step towards better efficiency makes the problem worse, as it increases the value of the fuel, and thus the motivation to find and burn even more. Efficiency ONLY matters if there is a cap. This is the real meaning of the Jevons Paradox (or the more recent – and cool-sounding – Khazzoom-Brookes postulate). It is what we’ve done through history, from camp fires to Mars missions, exploit resources more efficiently, and that has become our problem. It is prosperity and economic activity that has grown us and is now killing us. So, problem 2, if ‘sustainability’ means ‘of the planet, for humans’, then ANY new building of any form (at least in developed world) must be regarded as NOT ‘sustainable’. You may say, what about ‘housing’ for all the people moving to cities, to be together, the increased intellectual resource and economic growth this creates. But isn’t this the same story, the concentration and efficient exploitation of resources, of people in cities, of wealth to the few, of poison in the air? This is why it is a conundrum, and why it will need profound changes in human nature, and why then the change is unlikely. And hey, I don’t like this story at all – I want my fun too – but there is nowhere left to hide.

    • Luke M

      Mad Ge and Steven have some interesting points. And I can’t disagree with them since the facts of, say, the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate are hard to contest. But, it’s bearing on sustainability issues at this point is correlative, and intrinsically linked.

      For example– I work in the world ‘sustainability’ every day, and I work on exceedingly large houses. What I find frustrating about articles and conversation about sustainability here is that I find the metrics all wrong.

      I’d like to see someone argue that a 12,000 sq.ft. house is itself inherently unsustainable. There’s something very important left out of that statement…

      And… I simply do not and cannot find a way (yet) to care about issues around embodied energy and operational energy as an inherent environmental issue. As a proxy metric– sure, I get it.
      But can’t we actually talk about what we care about? That is– if it’s climate change, then let’s talk about embodied GHG emissions. That’s a metric I think we can all get behind. Embodied energy is thermodynamically challenging to talk about. At least let’s talk about exergy, and not energy.

      Meanwhile– as for efficiency mattering only if there’s a cap– I understand the notion from a macroeconomic level, but it also belies an inherent market failure. We are find examples where increased energy efficiency results in higher service. Our cell phones are a great example. The built environment is no different. Inefficiency often makes us uncomfortable.

      Back to macroeconomics–At this point, we still have a notion that increased energy consumption results in higher productivity and higher welfare. And, now to microeconomics–perhaps I work enough on the bleeding edge to see the concavity of that curve– the projects I work on, increasing energy intensivity reduces service and comfort and substantially increases cost. These are built in ‘caps’, but of a non-market kind.

      As for myself, I don’t drive an electric car, but I do drive one that gets 40 mpg, and I’m sure happy about that relative efficiency (maybe up to 2% efficient as opposed to 1%). And there’s a reason I don’t drive with the parking brake on. Do I drive more with an efficient car than an inefficient one? yes– I suppose I do. But I also find driving to be something that makes other choices more ‘bearable’ and the driving itself is by no means an added value in itself.

      Thus I’d hypothesize that perhaps Jevon’s paradox (etc.) is simply an artifact of our built environment and how it makes increasing energy consumption more preferable than decreasing (at our current levels).

      • Mike Greville

        If you want an argument that large houses are ‘inherently unsustainable’ there are convincing examples (they are not mine – they are David Owen’s, and others). First, a big new house is likely not embedded in a city, so the transport needs it creates will wipe out any potential green savings. But in any case these Green ‘savings’ are not savings at all – it is what Owen calls the ‘Prius Fallacy’, the belief that consuming greenly is an environmental positive. It is not, it remains (unnecessarily large) consumption. Like favouring expensive but locally ‘home-grown’ food from small markets, this is a ‘toy for rich people not an environmental solution’. Or it is to assuage guilt.
        In the bigger picture, if sustainability does mean ‘of the planet, for humans’, then you need to consider workers in Bangladesh whose lives have been improved by lighting from solar panels – they don’t need to burn fuel for light, so can work longer in much better conditions, and are happy to earn more (ie. to consume more, buy luxuries etc). First part very good, extra consumption not so good. Choose: should deprived millions be stopped from improving their lives, or rich people from getting their big houses? Can’t we have both? It seems certain the answer is no. So if the amount we can consume is limited, which do you do decide to do without? According to the argument the solution to sustainability lays not in technology but in human nature – in the developed world a dramatic reduction in consumption is required. This seems unlikely – acceleration, historically, is the way to go. But from this point of view, where all new buildings become questionable, big houses would be the one type that might definitely be called inherently unsustainable.
        You shouldn’t feel too bad by saying you don’t care – this probably applies to all of us (almost by definition, if you are someone who looks at archdaily). We all share human nature.

  • Steven Lamb

    As to Mies Seagram building, in all fairness to him, it was not built as he designed it. Orginally it was to have triple glazed glass walls, radiant heating and a very sophisticated for its time and for now, air conditioning system. The developer (as always) Cheaped out. Then they did it again during the “restoration” . The article fails to discuss the father movement of Modern Architecture, Organic Architecture as practiced by Furness, Sullivan, Wright, Goff and many others. Organic Architecture by relating to the site and using a mix of wall materials, actually can and often performs very well, even if it doesn’t answer the LEED checklist. Its too bad that class action suit was stopped because LEED is nothing but a scam and should die. People are not asking the correct question yet. The question asked now is “How can I have my 12,000 square foot house and be “green”? The real question should be “What do I really NEED” A 1500 square foot Neutra modern is going to consume less energy that a 12000 sq ft LEED certified monstrosity, but it wont get any LEED points. A insane situation!

  • Anne Whitacre

    I think this demonstrates that “green” components need to be planned from the start and not considered add-ons to get points, and that includes a good look at the building form.

  • Mason

    As eMay pointed out with Breuer quote, Modernism was not intended to a stagnate set of specific design elements, and as such, should not have been considered an architectural style. It a general idea of leaving behind the outdated historized past and developing a new architecture to deal with the current needs and desire for spaces. While I am big fan of high Modernist architecture, constantly relying on it an example or even ascribing a set of specific attributes to it is completely contrary to what it was. I think if Mies, Gropius, Nuetra, or Koenig were alive and practicing today, they would embrace green methods of design and the new technologies that aid in that. Many of high Modern architects, Nuetra and Koenig in specific, used passive solar design ideas in their work already. Thus saying that Modernism is an outdated mode is to show a lack of understanding as to what Modernism was.

  • Brook

    The transportation is out to the automobile department to make it more efficient. In this case the author must have traveled quite a few times in order to publish this article. And that must have costed him indirectly and the car too must have emitted some harmful gases into the environment. So it applies to everyone. In a way this doesnt make a whole lot of sense all the time. We have to accept the fact that Nothing is perfect. What we need to do is to bring out our best contribution. And moreover client or the contractor always tend to change things after execution. We just have to keep working to get better.

  • Toe Toe

    Thanks

  • Michael Norris

    I’m in agreeance with many of the points that are made in the article. Much of the current green trending is just that. It is too much of a short term satisfaction to have lasting effects. Changes in lifestyles and changes in larger scale systems have to evolve, granted of course there are some benefits to small scale solutions. What many have assumed to be the answer, especially outside the architecture profession, I don’t think is. Every system of this scale is ultimately far more complex than we give it credit for and this is no different.