LIVE image
I've been involved with the AIA Top Ten Awards Program for a long time. In the early years, when Gail Lindsey started it as an informal program to generate some recognition for a handful of green projects, Environmental Building News was one of the very few media outlets available to provide that publicity. Later we participated in conversations with the national Advisory Group of AIA's Committee on the Environment (COTE) as they worked to refine the metrics and formalize the program. In recent years, BuildingGreen has provided technical support to the AIA Top Ten Awards. Because we manage US DOE's High Performance Buildings Database, which also hosts the Top Ten online submission forms, we've supported those submission forms — updating them with changes each year, providing technical support to applicants, and then editing and preparing the winning projects for publication on the website. As we edited and published the winning entries each year, I thought it would be great to sit in on the jury process and learn more about how they make their selections. So when I was invited to join the jury for 2009, I was thrilled. I'd finally have a chance not only to observe the process, but to participate! The jury that assembled in March to pick the winners was high-powered and diverse. Before diving into the projects themselves, we spent a little while talking about each of our priorities and intentions. That, in itself, was a fascinating conversation. Jurors talked about looking for projects that are "aggressively innovative," that have integrated the aesthetics with green performance, that don't rely on tacked on technologies — dubbed "green bling" — to achieve their results. There was an active conversation about whether the purpose and function of the building was a relevant criterion. After a while the AIA staff who support the program began suggesting ways for us to start making some decisions, but their concerns were unfounded. We had a team of leaders used to getting results, and it didn't take long for us to come up with some approaches to honing in on our top picks. It also helped that everyone came in well-prepared, having spent hours with the online submissions, making notes and identifying favorites. Before long a couple of key tensions emerged that stayed with us through the day. One was the fairly predictable push between energy efficiency and other aspects of design quality (primarily aesthetics and functionality). The other reflected differences of opinion on the jury about the best ways for a building to engage with its immediate surroundings. On a few projects we simply disagreed about whether the way a building met the street represented good design or not. In the end, there were a handful of projects that we all felt really good about, and others that we selected only after one or two jurors agreed to go along with a choice they wouldn't have made on their own. But the story doesn't end there. Last week architect Bruce Coldham asked me about the jury's process, and then circulated a letter questioning whether the jury had its priorities right. I've done some soul-searching in response to that letter. As someone who has a better grasp of energy data than architectural styles, I was a likely advocate for energy efficiency. And I wasn't the only one focused on energy efficiency as a priority — nearly everyone expressed how important it is. We set out to find projects that did it all — great design and great performance (at least as predicted by models). So how did we end up with a bunch of projects that are only moderately efficient, while passing over some better performers? I think it comes down to the fact that the jury as a whole was more confident about judging the aesthetics of the projects than their green performance. Of all the sustainability measures, energy was the only one on which we had a decent grasp, but unfortunately, the data we had to work with didn't inspire confidence. Not all projects reported their numbers consistently or reliably. In trying to find projects that inspired on all counts, we ended up, as a group, more willing to compromise on the energy performance than on the aesthetics. Do I wish we had done it differently? Perhaps — although I think that our best alternative might have to pick fewer winners. Maybe this was the year that should have only had a top five. But as someone who looks at data on green performance of buildings all the time, I was more interested in understanding the values of design — what makes for projects that people will love and care for — than in recognizing some high-performing buildings that are otherwise uninspiring. In the end I may have been too quick to indulge that fascination instead of drawing a hard line on energy performance. I had my chance — next year's jury will have another chance to declare its values.

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for BuildingGreen email updates:



1 The subject came up on the CO posted by Phil Henshaw on 04/30/2009 at 12:08 pm

The subject came up on the COTE forum as to why many of the top ten winners were not top energy performers. I added what I have been saying for years, that relative performance is not really a measure of sustainability at all. We have a basic problem with using what amounts to a marketing claim to determine our impacts on the earth. Relative performance tells you how much better you're doing compared to the next guy, but nothing about whether the project increases or decreases either the near or long term impacts of development on the earth.

I think the reason that's been avoided, and my methods for measuring totals among others are not used, is that development usually increases both the local and global impacts as well as the total rates of increasing impacts. People have known that all along, but it’s just “never been the right time” to mention it publically or respond with better indicators. Benchmarks are good for comparison, but totals are needed to tell if impacts are increasing or decreasing.

To measure totals you need to consider the whole project as a choice and include everything that goes along with that choice. Measuring totals for whole systems is made easier by starting with an estimated share of environmental impacts corresponding to the project’s share of the commerce involved. Starting from the 6000btu/$ average energy cost of GDP, a $4M project amortized over 40 years for a $20M business would have an annual energy impact of 21M*6000btu. You count it as adding to the regional impact if not replacing some other, and to be *sustainable* only if then accompanied by compensations that would overtake that increase by effecting decreases in other things over time. That provides a very quick way to quickly estimate the scale of relative contributions to a total impact budget, and then make choices and refine. In refining you’d use an exploratory search to adjust the estimate for over and under counted impacts, and devise compensations or change plans, somewhat like nature works. Best, fyi my whole systems design process model is at

2 If we are to be taken serious posted by Peter Papesch on 05/04/2009 at 01:13 am

If we are to be taken seriously as a profession, we will need to practice - and train future architects - to think sustainably, i.e. adopt a Green Mindset. Without having had a chance to look @ Phil Henshaw's model, it sounds like a valuable tool. While we are learning to apply that, readers might also be interested in the national campaign by the Boston Society of Architects Architectural Education Committee, which is recommending that NAAB add as a Condition for Accreditation that every US architecture school’s curriculum provide all graduates with the tools, skills and methods, i.e. competence, to consistently design high quality architecture whose performance is carbon neutral/zero net energy.

The point is this: high quality architecture has just been redefined by the outside circumstances of global climate change, and high quality architecture henceforth needs to encompass aesthetics, functionality and energy efficiency (amongst all the other parameters that architecture has previously attempted to span or embrace). Without energy efficiency, the fabric of the architecture is rent, as it is if a lay person is dismayed when looking at a super-efficient building which is oblivious to its natural or man-made context or devoid of aesthetic features.

High quality architecture must have it all, or become sidelined as irrelevant and effete in a world that has become aware of climate change conditions and requirements.

— Share This Posting!

Recent Discussions

posted by atwilson
on Feb 3, 2016

I believe the Viridian decking we installed is 15/16" thick by 2-1/2" wide; I'm not seeing those dimensions on the Viridian...

posted by Meredith_1
on Feb 3, 2016

Hi there! I've been sourcing reclaimed exterior deck material for a client, and am interested to know:

The thickness of the material you...

posted by tristan
on Jan 29, 2016

Erica, 3-way LED bulbs are sold in stores and online. Just do a search or ask at your local hardware store.

Recent Comments

Saving Wood from the Landfill, Without the Supply Issues

Alex Wilson says, "Meredith, I believe the Viridian decking we installed is 15/16" thick by 2-1/2" wide; I'm not seeing those dimensions on the Viridian website now,..." More...

Meredith Williams says, "Hi there! I've been sourcing reclaimed exterior deck material for a client, and am interested to know: The thickness of the material you used..." More...

Beat the Bulb "Ban": LED Replacement Lamps in a New Light

Tristan Roberts says, "Erica, 3-way LED bulbs are sold in stores and online. Just do a search or ask at your local hardware store." More...

Erica E. Tactical says, "Anyone know a way to replace incandescent 3-way light bulbs with LEDs? My table lamps are all 3-way and I like the ability to have ambient or..." More...

Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (AAC): Will the U.S. Ever Lighten Up?

Simon Hatton says, "Merhis Projects are an Australian Developer and Construction company and have been using their patented Merhis Building System for the last 4 years...." More...