Practicing What They Preach, Quietly
It makes perfect sense that the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is treating its new headquarters [page 25] as a showcase for sustainable materials and design strategies. Potentially thousands of architects, contractors, and developers will pass through the USGBC offices each year, and each visit will allow the organization to demonstrate its mission in the most concrete of terms.
What makes less perfect sense, on the surface, is the USGBC's decision to make the design of its headquarters appear to be entirely conventional. There's little on display that “looks” green, aside from a few elements such as a conference room wrapped in reclaimed timber and some planters around workstations. The project's sustainability is so subtle, in fact, that the USGBC actually commissioned a signage system to indicate green features that would otherwise escape notice.
It's easy to dismiss this sustainability-by-stealth design (which is the work of Perkins+Will's Washington, D.C., office) as a lost opportunity, the result of a cop-out or a failure of vision. After all, the ever-growing possibilities for green materials and building strategies may amount in time to a new architectural language, as indicated by the work of such leading architects as Thomas Phifer and Renzo Piano.
On the other hand, not every client has the progressive sensibility or deep pockets of The New York Times, which hired Piano to design its New York high rise using the latest (and arguably risky) green techniques. The USGBC seems to be aiming for a broader common denominator—the average building-industry denizen, who may not be as ready as the Times was to enter the brave new world of sustainable architecture.
In this more inclusive context, beyond the narrow world of the commercial and creative elites, it ultimately makes sense to assume that a showcase of sustainable design should be as nonthreatening as possible. Many patrons of green building will want to eat their cake and have it too: the performance of sustainable design without the assumption of risk, whether it be financial or aesthetic.
A big part of me wishes that every sustainable project could be a high-performance, high-design symphony of louvers and green roofs and recycled materials. But an even bigger part of me wants to achieve a more sustainable world, regardless of what form it takes. Ultimately, taste is a personal issue. The environment is a collective concern.