Solving Climate Change at 35,000 Feet, and Below

What looking at the recent renovations to LAX airport-and the lack of sustainable design thinking that went into them-can teach us about saving the planet.

I am looking down at the beauty of Alaska on my journey from Los Angeles to Beijing. In China, we will consult with some old clients who have a new zeal for sustainable design in the face of global climate change. They are looking to us to help show them the way. The shrinking fields of snow and ice 35,000 feet below me are clear evidence that there is some urgency to this effort.In his widely-read book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman challenges us to pick our "easy eight" from his shortlist of 15 ways to save the earth. In order to save it, he states that we need to accomplish eight of the 15 goals. He is also clear that none of these "easy eight" is actually easy or likely to get done anytime soon. Number 15 on his list of goals is to cut electricity use and carbon emissions from buildings by 25 percent (1). I am not an expert in the politics, economics, or technical feasibility of most of Friedman's 15 solutions. However, we in the real estate professions know that this challenge to our industry, in the form of Goal 15, is achievable. The technology and design expertise exist to achieve this goal, and our clients will save hundreds of millions of dollars annually if we do so. But too often, basic principles of good (sustainable) design are set aside for other goals.I departed from the international terminal at LAX. Tens of millions of dollars are being spent to improve the experience of international travelers arriving in the United States. At our gate area, the construction was complete. Everything looked new and clean. Indirect fluorescent lighting reflected off a sculpted metal ceiling plane. But something was wrong here. Just six or so feet above that dropped ceiling, the brilliant skies of Los Angeles glowed with the 10,000 foot-candle power of the sun. None of that light found its way through the ceiling and into the remodeled gate area. At noon every light fixture was turned on. The well-detailed space looked good, but can it be called good design? Is it even acceptable design? Is this the best we can do in constructing the gateway to the self-proclaimed "Greenest City in the U.S."?We have an intermediate stop at Incheon, just outside of Seoul. The architecture of the new terminal, designed by Fentress Architects Ltd. of Denver, is characterized by soaring glass curtainwalls, clerestories, and skylights. These light the entire main level of the terminal and allow the cultivation of its peaceful and welcoming Korean gardens. Outside of the retail and service areas, there are no light fixtures turned on and consuming unneeded electricity.Our final destination is Beijing. Its new Terminal 3, designed by NACO, Foster and Partners, and ARUP, is one of the greenest terminals in the world. Its main spaces are also characterized by beautiful and effective daylighting.In these facility examples, the commitment of public officials, architects, and engineers to address the basics of sustainable building design and building performance are evident. They have taken obvious steps to reduce electrical power usage through effective daylighting (reducing not only the lighting power load but, more importantly, the air conditioning load that results from the use of artificial lighting). It is important to note that the traveling public rates these two facilities, with their daylit terminals, among the best large airports in the world. LAX has been rated among the worst by surveys conducted by Reuters and published in Dwell.In the United States, we say that we are past the tipping point on green development-even Walmart sees value in being green. But are we? New museums by our "starchitects," for example, grace the front pages of the architectural press. Their focus seems to be stunning sculptural shapes that ignore the basics of natural lighting that is so evident in great museum architecture from the daylit galleries of the Louvre to the Kimball.Ultimately we have an issue on our path to Goal 15. This issue is not a lack of knowledge about green design principles or the availability of green technologies. Design that works in harmony with natural forces and that minimizes its environmental impact can be found in projects of almost any scale and almost anywhere around the globe. However, accountability for building performance is the issue.ULI touts the benefits of green design and so does the American Institute of Architects which adopted the 2030 challenge. The problem is that I don't see either organization, or most of the press that we support, holding owners, developers, architects, engineers, and institutions accountable for the performance of their buildings. We need to begin using a language of sustainability whenever we talk or write about building design. Energy intensity can be measured. Water use intensity can be measured. Carbon footprinting of development is more complicated but we need to develop metrics that can be applied to a variety of project types.Meeting basic levels of sustainable design is not the sole measure of great design and development. Great design has to accomplish so much more than that: providing functional spaces, inspiring spaces, and a reasonable return on the dollars invested. Without achieving performance through sustainable measures, can any 2009 development be called great, good, or even professionally acceptable?We have the tools, technologies, and knowledge to achieve Friedman's challenge in Goal Number 15. But we will not do so unless we begin to demand that part of good design is demonstrable project performance.Guest blogger John Quiter (AIA, LEED, A.P.) is Chairman of the Board of Cuningham Group Architecture, P.A., an international architecture, interior design, and urban design firm delivering inspired and sustainable design solutions for the places where people live, learn, worship, work, and play. A version of this article appeared previously at ULI LA. Photo (CC) by Flickr user ken mccown. (1): The only practical way to get to and from the LAX terminal is to drive, park, and then ride a shuttle bus. Goal Number 2 on Friedman's list is cutting carbon emissions by halving the number of vehicle miles traveled. From Incheon Air, travelers can board a train to downtown Seoul that connects with the extensive metro rail transit system and to a bullet train system that connects major cities in Korea. Similarly, in China we were able to take a bullet train from Beijing to Tianjin, 90 miles away. A network of such trains is also under construction to connect the major cities of China and its other transportation systems. Voters have approved the first stages of design for a bullet train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 20 years, it might be constructed, but what do you think the chances are? I trust that someone sees the path to success on this and Friedman's other goals. My focus will be Goal 15.
via Alan Levine / Flickr

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