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Home arrow Blog arrow 5/16/07-SETTING A HIGHER GREEN STANDARD

Written by John King   
Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Stanford's ecology center earns kudos for it's low impact.

A walk around the Global Ecology Center at Stanford University shows why it's no surprise the small research building is one of the American Institute of Architects' "2007 Top Ten Green Projects."

The outer walls include redwood salvaged from century-old wine casks. Galvanized steel sheets keep the afternoon sun off west-facing windows. The lobby is cooled by moistened air that gravity pulls down a chimney-like shaft.

The only surprise is what's missing: a "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design" certification from the United States Green Building Council.

LEED is becoming the construction industry equivalent of organic food, touted by developers and government alike. But researchers at the Global Ecology Center didn't see the need for a semi-official stamp of approval, so they didn't even apply.

And the success of their new home is a reminder that following a checklist isn't the point for an issue such as global warming. The challenge is to push further -- exploring how to make buildings as sustainable as possible.

The ecology center is a branch of the Carnegie Institution, a scientific organization with an outpost on the Stanford campus since 1928. In 2002, Carnegie created the center on its Panama Street site to research the links among topics including biodiversity, water use and climate change.

For the center's home, the faculty wanted a design that would reflect these priorities. The architectural firm they selected was San Francisco's EHDD -- best-known for its Monterey Bay Aquarium, but a leader in the profession for its efforts to weave environmental concerns through all aspects of design.

Visually, EHDD has produced a handsome structure that looks more like a barn than the Spanish-flavored landmarks for which Stanford is known. The 10,000-square-foot structure is two stories high, a narrow box with labs on the ground and offices above. There's a porch-like foyer clad in wood siding, and a pitched roof punctured by windows on the west to let natural light illuminate the open second floor.

It's a simple design with an ambitious goal: to create a building that consumes as few resources as possible. The clerestory windows, for example, stand 19 feet above the floor but can be opened to allow air. How? With hand-cranked cables.

Another tactic comes after dark, when water is sprayed from small sprinklers onto the steep metal roof. The water cools as it spills down to the gutters, the liquid's heat radiating into the cold night sky. The runoff is stored in an insulated, 12,000-gallon tank -- and used the next day to serve the building's chilled water needs, a holistic approach that consumes one-quarter of the energy a conventional cooling system would require.

In keeping with the environmental theme, the EHDD design incorporates recycled materials each step of the way.

Often the result is invisible, as with the concrete foundation and floors: the mix includes gravel from the remnants of other projects and fly ash, a byproduct of coal-burning. This diverts waste from landfills while reducing by 50 percent the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere during production of the cement.

The most obvious flourish is the redwood siding covering the tower and the building's facade -- wood salvaged from 20-foot-high tanks that were used for decades to store wine in Sonoma County. This sort of old-growth timber not only shrugs off the elements with ease, it looks great.

With all this, winning LEED certification would have been a snap. But the credentialing process requires hiring consultants and filling out paperwork to make sure that a building has the proper number of measurable achievements in six distinct categories.

This could have added $30,000 to the $4 million project. The center's faculty told EHDD not to bother.

"LEED is great for setting priorities for people who aren't experts, but these researchers know more about sustainability and ecology than any of us in architecture ever will," says Scott Shell, a principal at EHDD. "They did their homework."

Besides wanting to emphasize a low carbon footprint throughout the building's life, Carnegie researchers were skeptical of the LEED rating system, as are some architects. It's a checklist approach where a building's green credentials are established by how many points it accumulates.

The results can be ludicrous. Install a landscaped roof as part of an integrated program to filter impurities from storm water? You get one point for the entire effort. Set aside a few parking spaces for hybrid cars? That's one point, too.

Despite the imperfections, LEED is now a credential that developers tout and governments demand. According to a recent survey by the Green Building Council, 16 states and at least 75 cities and counties now require LEED certification for at least some publicly funded projects. It is also used as an incentive -- San Francisco is among the cities that offer to speed up the permit process for developers who pursue LEED certification from the start.

At this point, Shell is comfortable with the LEED system even as he sees its flaws.

"People disagree about the point system -- it has a little bit of everything in it -- but it has been embraced beyond anyone's imagination," Shell says. "It tries to quantify a very complex thing. ... They've taken an enormously difficult thing to measure, and they've made a start."

That's the value of the LEED ratings: They impose discipline on an industry that badly needs it. The quest for bragging rights also spurs the development of smarter building products, such as carpets made of recycled fabric.

In the long run, though, it won't be enough to tweak the standard product. Reputable science makes it clear that the Earth's climate and environment are changing with ominous speed. The way our society builds needs to be rethought from top to bottom -- and as the Global Center for Ecology shows, approached with environmental care each step of the way.

Online resources
View the American Institute of Architects' Top Ten Green Projects for 2007 at:

For information about the Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology, go to:

To read EHDD Architecture's case study of the Global Ecology Center, see the "research" section at:

Learn more about the United States Green Building Council at:

The LEED standard
Since 2000, when the United States Green Building Council, an industry trade group, established its first rating system for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, 6,415 buildings have registered to qualify.

In addition to basic construction, there are certification systems that concentrate on such niches as homes and building maintenance, with a neighborhood-wide rating method in the works.

No matter the niche, the approach is the same: A project is judged by the number of points it tallies on a checklist. For new construction, there are 69 benchmarks in six categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation and design process.

A project that receives 26 points wins LEED certification; the highest ranking, Platinum, requires 52 points.

-- John King

Green Building Resources
Buildin Design & Construction
Common Sense Design, resource page
Environmental Building News
Frank Lloyd Wright
Get into Green, at the National Building Musem
Green Affordable Housing
Green Building Community.Com
Green Sage
International Initiative for sustainable built environment
LEED for Homes, energy certification from the USGBC
List of recycled building products from the Ca.Integratd waste management board
Marin County Green Building Program
Marin Max Reuse
National Renewable Energy Labratory Homepage
Oikos Green Building Source

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