Architects accustomed to focusing on form, space, and image complain that the most familiar goals of “green building”—energy efficiency, renewable resources, indoor air quality, etc.—do not exactly ignite the soul or excite the spirit. On the other side, advocates of the environment claim that designing a building that looks good but wastes resources is like putting lipstick on a pig.

As green becomes more mainstream, the second argument seems to be winning. For instance, some communities and organizations that have no general design guidelines are adopting the popular LEED rating system as their only benchmark for judging the quality of a building. But what of the first argument? Sustainability need not hamper innovation—in fact, it requires it—but green architects have focused their ingenuity almost exclusively on materials and methods. As a result, the work is not always easy on the eyes. The ugly truth about green building is that much of it is ugly.

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's Ballard Library and Neighborhood Service Center in Seattle was chosen as an AIA Committee on the Environment Top Ten Green Project for 2006.
Nic Lehoux Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's Ballard Library and Neighborhood Service Center in Seattle was chosen as an AIA Committee on the Environment Top Ten Green Project for 2006.

This should not be surprising, since accepted standards of sustainable design focus on the science of building and neglect the art of architecture. Not a single LEED credit deals directly with appearance, which historian Nikolaus Pevsner felt distinguished architecture from buildings. “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture,” he famously wrote. “[T]he term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal.” If it doesn't please the senses, a green building is a glorified bicycle shed.

Aesthetic delight is not a superficial concern—it is an environmental imperative. How long will buildings last if they fail to stir the imagination? No matter how efficiently something is designed, if people don't love it, it's likely to be rejected. To paraphrase environmental educator David Orr, if it's not beautiful, it's not sustainable.

Independent columnist Lance Hosey is a director with William McDonough + Partners.

Not Just Seeing Green

Many architects still think of sustainability as something that shows up in the specifications, not on the napkin sketch. Technically oriented standards such as LEED could learn from alternative models such as those listed here. Only by embracing aesthetics as well as ethics will sustainable design live up to its true potential.

Top Ten Green Projects

American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment (AIA/COTE) hosts an annual competition that encourages regional responsiveness and architectural innovation. “Great design includes environmental, technical, and aesthetic excellence.”

Living Building Challenge

The Cascadia Region Green Building Council recently introduced its Living Building Challenge, a voluntary guideline that expands on LEED with “a new vision” of sustainability. Two of its 16 requirements are devoted to “beauty and inspiration” and “design features intended solely for human delight and the celebration of culture.”

Sustainable Design Awards

Cosponsored by the Boston Society of Architects, the New York chapter of the AIA, and the Environmental Protection Agency, the first criterion of this biennial awards program for projects worldwide is “design excellence” that contributes to “an aesthetic compatible with sustainability.”