In all of this, we’re talking about the modern green movement from the perspective of the building professional. What do you think the role of the building professional should be?
In the early years of the environmental movement, it was grassroots-activist based, and often not terribly well informed. It was air pollution, water pollution, solid waste, radioactive waste, oil spills, freeways, and what have you. The response was a wave of legislation that immediately followed that first Earth Day: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, Forest Protection Act. President Nixon set up the Environmental Protection Agency to pull together the regulatory responsibilities of a variety of departments and agencies into one place. These were the golden years.
With the passage of time, the movement has become more professionalized with engineers, scientists, lawyers, and economists. And there are a number of business executives that are trying to figure out ways to improve how they do business. There are really tough environmental regulations in some other countries; and they [the business executives] don’t want to build one car for Germany and a different car for the United States or Japan. They want to build a car that’ll meet the toughest standards that are out there.
In that context, the role of builders and contractors becomes one of enormous importance. A building that is [merely] built to code is the worst building that you can build without breaking the law. Also, the building industry has now found itself, both because of enlightened builders and developers, and changes in the tenant mix, moving increasingly to LEED buildings. That’s voluntary. That’s all beyond code. The Living Building Challenge takes all of that and puts it on steroids. It has no prescriptive standards at all, other than you can’t have any toxic chemicals in the building. It’s all about performance. You have to generate as much energy as you’re going to be using on a regular basis in the building.
What do you think about eco-districts?
One of the huge things today in downtown areas are 2030 districts where you try to convert existing buildings to start reducing energy consumption by 50 percent by 2030. You can take advantage of efficiencies of scale: Collect energy wherever the optimal collection place is and collect water wherever the optimal collection place is. Not every building would be self-sufficient, but the neighborhood would have a high degree of self-sufficiency. It’s difficult, though, to get that much land for 2030 districts unless you move off into new green spaces to develop new towns. But we’re finding that cities often want to put in new sewers and power lines. And, sometimes, you can create a collection of owners with shared values who will work on a common vision of a neighborhood. Here on Capitol Hill [in Seattle], there are a handful of developers who moved into automobile-repair shops and former retail outlets and have turned them into office space, residential space, and markets of a variety of kinds. It’s become a charming place because there’s this business association.
From the client perspective, how can you push buildings forward while working with architects?
If you’ve got a client who wants to have a very green building, you’ll have no great difficulty finding an architect that wants to push it as far as you’re prepared to go. In fact, when we began this project [the Bullitt Center], we interviewed about 30 interested architecture and engineering firms. We were interested in brilliant solutions to problems, but we didn’t think architects had all the solutions, so we wanted an integrated planning process. We wanted the architects, engineers, and the general contractor working together. Typically, you get an architect and he or she designs a beautiful piece of sculpture. And then, generally, the architect hands it off to an engineer. Then it’s handed off to a contractor. They thrash it all together and the vision gets blurred. We put the architects, engineers, and contractors together in the beginning, and they all met once a week for more than two years.
On the flip side, how can design teams better engage clients on sustainable initiatives if the clients aren’t necessarily interested or are more worried about costs?
That’s the eternal frustration of green architects. They find clients who want to do something that’s pretty green. In the end, value engineering comes in and kills them [the green initiatives] at the last minute. The only answer I have is to have the contractor, engineers, and the architect in it from the beginning. If you get a problem coming in, then you can discover it six months before it arrives. As the client, there are various elements of the Bullitt Center that I can point to with pride as being mine. I wanted people not to default to elevators when they walked through the door, so I got this glass-enclosed staircase with views in both directions. To get to the elevator you have to walk around; it’s not easy. You’re not going to automatically choose the elevator. So clients can make occasional contributions. It’s important for them to learn what’s going on—more important than the architect making a pitch to the client.