Sustainable design is finally gaining ground
Have you noticed the many lush, vine-covered walls around Santa Barbara, such as the one on the Ortega Street parking garage along Anacapa Street? Yes, they’re beautiful, but many people’s first response is, “But rats!”
The latest technology in living walls, also known as bio-walls or green walls, is quite different than what is currently seen around town. The plants on these newer walls are not vines. They do not harm the architectural finish of a building the way vines can, nor are they jungle gyms for rodents.
With the green building movement finally gaining ground, numerous companies offer proprietary systems that are typically square modules with a soil-like substrate and internal drainage system that can support various types of plants, even edible options. Denser than vines, the plants often completely hide the wall behind it. If designed correctly, they are low maintenance and require minimal water.
Green roofs are seeing an even bigger resurgence than walls. Both living roofs and walls can enormously benefit our cities’ air quality and overheated microclimates, save energy with their insulating properties, help manage water runoff and provide parklike settings for the enjoyment of building occupants.
Green roofs are not new. They’ve been around for thousands of years. But in modern times, flat roofs have been covered in tar, asphalt and equipment that needed a lot of maintenance, but architects didn’t worry much about them since nobody could see them. Now, many of these roofs are being converted into gardens, a relatively inexpensive and easy undertaking.
These roofs, sometimes in the form of half-buried buildings with public parks on top, are helping buildings get approved by cities that otherwise would be impossible to get through the political process. They have turned into planning tools to help put buildings where no building has gone before, and are radically changing the architectural form of buildings, and the respective roles of architects and landscape architects. Architects are using green roofs to make buildings become part of the landscape with the line between architecture and landscape architecture disappearing.
What are architects to do when they come to realize that the product of their livelihood is destroying both our planet and our health? Most architects went into the profession to change the world for the better. When designed well, buildings enhance and improve lives. Yet buildings account for about half of all carbon emissions and energy consumption, more than any other single contributor to our environmental woes. Moreover, one quarter of what is in our landfills is construction waste.
The challenge has been that most American developers don’t want to pay the additional upfront cost that green buildings require. Fortunately, this upfront cost is decreasing with better technology and design. Moreover, the initial cost of constructing a building is only about 10 percent of the overall cost of maintaining the building over its life. We can no longer afford not to build green buildings. Europeans have known this for some time, and have led the way.
Many architects have accepted the challenge to design only “net-zero” buildings — buildings that have no negative environmental impact — by the year 2030, and governments have finally started to mandate some form of green design for new buildings. But existing buildings, not new buildings, are responsible for the vast majority of energy consumption. Therefore, renovations are crucial to the cause.
Since 1992, federal law has required that all existing commercial and multifamily residential buildings be upgraded to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, enabling access to buildings by the disabled. Why isn’t there a federal law mandating that all existing buildings be upgraded for energy efficiency, enabling a healthy lifestyle for all?
Green remodels have become trendy, but it is not green to rip out materials, most of which will end up in a landfill, only to install new “green” materials that used some, although perhaps minimal, energy to produce. It is greener to live with existing materials as long as possible with a few exceptions. If materials are off-gassing hazardous chemicals, as many carpets, paints, cabinets and fabrics do, they should be removed. Replacing insulation, appliances, HVAC systems, lighting, windows, faucets and toilets for more efficient models is absolutely worth doing. Numerous government and utility rebates can assist with the upfront cost of doing so.
Although hugely important, green buildings alone cannot solve our environmental and health problems. Adopting alternative modes of transportation such as rail systems, walking and biking is also critical in redesigning not only our buildings but our cities for increased livability with less dependence on cars.
Our culture’s short-sightedness and disposable mindset helped create an economic landfill — the worst recession in 80 years. Now that we’ve seen the error in our way of thinking, our country has finally started to embrace the idea of sustainable design.