In early April 2015, the New York Times reported on Leonardo DiCaprio’s recent purchase of Blackadore Caye, a small island off the coast of Belize that has faced significant environmental degradation and erosion. A patron of several environmental projects, DiCaprio is partnering with Paul Scialla, CEO of the Delos real estate and wellness platform, to create an eco-resort intended to serve as the latest model of cutting-edge, environmentally-responsible tourism development. The development plans include a row of floating guest suites built over the water, 48 private villas (ringing in at $5-15 million), human health and anti-aging wellness programs, and a conservation area. The project is advertised as meeting the ambitious green building standards of the Living Building Challenge and the WELL Building Standard®.
Many Times readers in the comments section sardonically noted that the private jets and the shipment of building materials and daily resources for island development come with large environmental and social price tags that far outweigh the conservation efforts associated with the resort. On the other hand, a few commentators pointed out that the development will employ local labor and save the island from complete degradation. The discussion surrounding the pros and cons of “eco-tourism” development is not a new one, and not one that is easily settled.
But beyond the (important) discussion of the impacts of eco-tourism, the development raises questions about the emergence of alternative green building market standards, which ostensibly aim to transform the building industry by setting measurable targets for the environmental and social effects of the places we live and work.
Perhaps the most well-known green building standard, LEED®, was introduced by the US Green Building Council in 2000 and has since gained significant traction in real estate markets around the world. Since LEED®’s development, standards such as the Living Building Challenge, developed by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), and the WELL Building Standard® (WELL), founded by the Delos Institute and released in 2014, have emerged and take arguably even more ambitious approaches to positively changing the built environment. For example, the Living Building Challenge is an ambitious and laudable standard that calls on projects to create more energy than they consume, eliminate reliance on district water utilities, and foster equitable and inclusive communities.
The goal of these standards is noble – create healthier places and buildings that focus on the people and society which they are intended to serve. However, the green-building movement has at times found itself vulnerable to the same type of architect-as-celebrity syndrome that is pervasive in mainstream architecture, and which often results in disjointed designs that lack a sense of social responsibility or community. The goal of standards such as WELL is to improve the environmental and human health of a community, and yet, right now, the benefits of the standard appear to focus only on those who can afford it. For example, among the handful of WELL projects certified-to-date is the 66 East 11th St boutique condo building in Manhattan with units selling for upwards of $14 million dollars, and condo unit owners already include Delos Advisory Board members Leonardo DiCaprio and holistic health guru, Dr. Deepak Chopra. The exclusive real estate agent for the condo building is Dolly Lenz, real estate broker for the ultra-wealthy, and also a Delos Advisory Board member. Among WELL champions, there seems to be a lack of self-awareness that, thus far, the call for increased health and well-being is largely being portrayed as confined to the rich. Right now, wealth appears to buy health.
“There are fundamental questions we ask with every project,” declares Jason McLennan, key founder of ILFI, Delos advisory board member, and lead architect of the Blackadore Caye project: “Is the building worth protecting? Is it worth the input of energy and materials to create it? When it’s completed, will it make people’s lives better? Will it inspire us to be better people?”
When applying this criteria to projects such as Blackadore Caye, it is difficult to see how an eco-tourism resort for the ultra-wealthy is making people’s lives significantly better than simply restoring the island as an educational preserve and foundation, or how it is breaking new ground in a tourism industry that has already explored eco-tourism to varying degrees of success. It is challenging to grapple with how various green standards can justify the energy and materials expenditures required for projects that are only intended to be inhabited by an extremely small, privileged portion of the population. Many of these coastal resorts would not even technically comply as full Living Building Challenge projects, as one of the first mandatory requirements prohibits development within 15 meters (50 feet) of wetlands or within 100-year flood plains.
On the one hand, if a resort is to be created, making it as “good as possible” is desirable. Green standards common in the marketplace, such as LEED®, understandably reward this type of approach. On the other hand, shouldn’t issues of sensitivity to local environment, size, and scale, and low-impact innovation take priority when being held up as the leading edge of green building design?
In a recent interview, McLennan argues that exposing celebrities and CEOs to the progressive designs of the Blackadore Caye resort will eventually drive down the costs and extend the reach of green design and states, “We should experiment on the rich. Let them drive down the costs of things.” However, the effectiveness of a trickle-down theory of architecture is unsubstantiated to-date. Are these types of high-end projects, sometimes sanctioned by green building standards, only perpetuating the perception that sustainability is mainly for the wealthy?
With Blackadore Caye, has the green building movement officially jumped the shark? The green-building community constantly struggles with the idea of not just doing “less bad," but doing “more good," a concept popularized by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in Cradle to Cradle (2002) and adopted as the essential aim of the Living Building Challenge. In this instance, what would result in the most good for the island - setting it aside for conservation, or building an oversized, high-end resort? If the goal of building standards such as the WELL standard is to promote and recognize positive environmental and human health impacts, it seems that they have strayed with Blackadore Caye. Yet, the project’s celebrity status could make it the poster child of the very standards it undermines.
Tanya Mejia, LEED AP BD+C, is a sustainability specialist at Perkins Eastman, where she develops firmwide sustainability programs, manages all third-party green market standards, and works with project teams to maximize the social, economic, and environmental value of designs. Her previous experience includes several years at GBCI as part of the LEED Certification department.