Taxonomy Term en 19367 The Cover Image That Set Off a Firestorm

The divide between the worlds of design and sustainability is persistent, but returning to core values can bridge it.

By Nadav Malin

For me, the creative tension between beauty and green performance came to a head in 2006, when I began working with the staff of Architectural Record on their new magazine: GreenSource. (GreenSource is no longer a separate magazine; it’s now an insert in the products magazine SNAP. And I’m no longer involved with it.)

Pictures first

As GreenSource’s executive editor, I was the “technical guy” who could help make sure that we’re talking about sustainability topics in a meaningful and defensible way. I learned a tremendous amount from that team, beginning with the power of using images to tell a story. I had always been a words-and-data kind of guy, so when I saw how they developed a story by leading with the visuals, it really blew my mind. That was quite a shift from the early years of Environmental Building News, when we tended to write an article first, and illustrating it was sometimes just an afterthought.

At GreenSource it went more like this: Here’s the topic, here are the images, here’s how they’ll flow, and, oh, ok, looks like we can fit in about 800 words of copy, so that’s what you get to write.

Beauty or performance?

We spent a lot of time selecting the case studies for each issue. As you can imagine, the conversations typically involved two narrow perspectives. They would suggest projects that would look good on the page. I would suggest projects that had good performance data. We’d haggle back and forth, until we had a set of projects that we were all happy with—or at least that we could all live with.

One of the most interesting of those debates was about this building—Jeanne Gang’s Aqua tower in Chicago. As you can see, it’s quite compelling visually. The Architectural Record folks really wanted us to cover it.

I had some concerns—it doesn’t look particularly energy efficient, and the designers couldn’t get us energy use data—not even predicted energy use. That had me squirming quite a bit.

But there was a broader sustainability story here, about connection of occupants to the outdoors, an enormous green roof in Chicago, redeveloping a brownfield site. Finally, I gave in and agreed that we could include it. “Just don’t put it on the cover,” I said…

Balconies as radiator fins

Having this project on the cover touched off some interesting conversations. The choice was justifiably attacked in online forums such as the Society of Building Science Educators, as well as on the GreenSource website. Anyone with an engineering mindset doesn’t see beautiful, biophillic forms in those curvaceous balconies: they see radiator fins releasing heat into the cold Chicago air. And no, there are no thermal breaks separating the balconies from the interior slabs; products that could do that do exist, but using them was deemed too expensive.

I love how this example illustrates how our understanding of an object’s performance affects our perception and colors our aesthetic choices.

Bridging the beauty–sustainability gap

I’ve had a couple of opportunities recently to facilitate great conversations on how to bridge the divide in the design world between beauty and sustainability. In March, I helped Interface organize and host a two-day workshop that brought together design leaders and sustainability leaders from 20 architecture firms to explore this question. The conversations there were framed by Lance Hosey of RTKL, who shared ideas from his book The Shape of Green, and Bob Harris of Lake|Flato.

The second opportunity was at this year’s Living Future (un)Conference in Portland, Oregon, where I organized a session on the topic with Julie Hiromoto of SOM. Participating with us as panelists were Joann Gonchar of Architectural Record and Susan Szenasy of Metropolis. These comments were first presented during that session.

3 lessons from the field

From the wide-ranging and thoughtful conversations that happened in both these settings, I see a few key opportunities:

  1. Beauty is more than skin deep, and not just a visual thing. As Paula Melton describes so well in “Green is Beautiful,” once we expand our understanding of beauty to include all the ways in which occupants—and others—experience a building, there is much less separation between beauty and sustainable performance. In fact, as Amelia Amon of Alt.Technica explains, beauty is a core aspect of performance.
  2. Most designers care about sustainability. When they fail to integrate it into their designs, it’s usually because they lack the know-how and confidence to do it well. They need better tools to support their efforts in this regard.
  3. One way to improve outcomes all around is to improve collaboration throughout the design and construction process. That collaboration has to start with an exploration of values and move into accountability for goals that are derived, collectively by the whole team, from those values.
2014-06-09 n/a 11875 The Great Passivhaus Face-off
The low energy use of the first Passivhaus in Bremen, Germany, is surprising, especially since the house has neither solar collectors, nor a PV array, nor a boiler.
I've been a big fan of building scientist John Straube for a long time. And equally as big of a fan, for just as long, of deep-energy engineer Marc Rosenbaum. To see the two of them face off over the ultra-low energy use Passivhaus concept is a green-building wonk's dream. Our always enlightening (and often entertaining) sister site,, has a pro/con pair of articles under the banner "Does Passivhaus Make Sense Over Here?" Gold. Start with John Straube's "con" article first: "Comparing Passivhaus Standard Homes to Other Low-Energy Homes." It handily describes the Passivhaus standard as it goes along, in case you're not familiar with it. Then read the "pro" rebut, "In Defense of the Passive House Standard," by Marc Rosenbaum and David White (who I don't know, but am going to keep my eyes open for). Passivhaus or not? Yes and no.
2009-10-21 n/a 11809 Northeast (U.S.) Natural Building and Living Colloquium

The Northeast Natural Building and Living Colloquium is a "conference" I go to every year. It's not everyone's cup of tea. No continuing education credits are offered. There's no high-power, big-project architectural, engineering, interior designing firm reps to hobnob with. There isn't a product expo in a cavernous auditorium. No suits, no ties, no shiny shoes. It takes place outside. You bring a tent to sleep in. Meals are provided (vegan). You get to be with good, mostly laypeople who care deeply about sustainability in the built environment, learning from world-class practitioners about things like strawbale, cob, cordwood, timber framing, straw-clay infill, permaculture, community-supported agriculture, small-scale living roofs, thatching, natural plasters & finishes, and more. You get your hands in the dirt. You go swimming. Evening presentations as good as any I've seen at mainstream green-building conferences — and often better — are given in a circus tent. Then, exhausted, you either relax around a bonfire or hit the sleeping bag to get ready to do it again the next day.
The sixth annual family-friendly Northeast Natural Building & Living Colloquium — Seven full days! — Sunday, July 26 through Saturday, August 1, 2009 — once again hosted by The PeaceWeavers :: Thunder Mountain — Bath, New York A hands-on event with an emphasis on natural building and sustainable living in the northeastern climate. From natural building and permaculture to water and energy conservation... from alternative fuels to sourcing your food locally... this event is for everyone concerned about how their lifestyle impacts our Earth.

The weeklong, camp-on-site, meals-provided colloquium offers very full (and very fun!) days of teaching, learning, building, and networking. World-class experts, authors, educators, innovators, designers, and builders offer hands-on experience with and educational presentations about "close to the earth" building materials and lifestyle choices. On-site camping and all meals (vegan) are included. Register early for a discount. What some of last year's participants had to say: "When I heard about this I knew it was going to be cool, but I've had ten times more fun than I ever thought I was going to. It's like nothing I've ever experienced. I'll definitely be back." — Matt M "I've been getting very interested in natural building, and this was recommended to me as sort of an overall vision of that. It's been great, very useful." — Sue J "Awesome. The timber framing project is great. Great instructor. Incredible group of people. And I had a ukulele lesson! It's very embracing." — Liz J "With fuel depletion, peak oil, and climate change happening, it's easy to understand the many compelling reasons for natural building. This is where it's at for a sustainable future in housing, building design, performance, community design... the whole thing." — Dan M "Connections — connections to people, connections to the natural methods, and ways to learn and grow." — Dave M "The presenters are really awesome — they've got a lot of great information and really seem to know their stuff." — Chris M "This is great! I was sort of expecting 'hippies.'There are people here with progressive ideas, but still planted in reality. People I can really identify with." — Clay D "This is my second year here at this gathering. For me it's a combination of inspiration and vacation, retreat and refuge. Being around people who are thinking the same thing as me ­ mostly ­ except for the crazy stuff ­ is such a gift. I can't imagine not getting here. It would take a pretty big blizzard." — Georgie D "No matter what age you are, or if you have children or not, this is a great place to come and play, or let your inner children come and play." — Alison B "I worked on the strawbale a lot, and I'm really inspired to go home and try it out. I've been really enjoying the company of the people I've been working with." — Emily A "It's out of my own skin a little bit — but this is a place to grow into some new skin. Very refreshing." — Aaron V "I've been coming up here every year, learning a lot about natural building and community. I enjoy the food, and sitting around the campfire is really nice in the evening, talking to people. I just love being up here." — Janice B "The best people in the world are on Thunder Mountain today." — David L
2009-06-16 n/a 11643 Living Future 08 'Unconference' Proceedings Online Back on May 6, Jennifer Atlee posted here on this blog:
"If I could adopt a conference, it would be the USGBC Cascadia chapter's Living Future 'Unconference'. As someone who generally prefers to stay behind the scenes talking shop, it was a delight to find myself surrounded primarily by the obsessed of the green building world..."
She went on to briefly describe some highlights of the event, and even provided her notes from the presentation she gave, "Be a Product Detective: Sleuthing the Truth About Building Materials". Now here's some great news for those of us who weren't there: The Living Future 08 conference is now online. Follow these links to audio tracks, powerpoint files, program descriptions, and presenter bios: · Living Building: Energy and Carbon Neutrality
· Wholistic Engineering: Applied to a Living Building Water System
· Be a Product Detective: Sleuthing the Truth About Building Materials
· The Birds, the Bees, the Flowers and the Trees: Biodiversity in the Urban Environment
· Living Buildings and the Precautionary Principle
· Green Land Development of the Year, LEED-H Platinum. . .Now What?
· BIM and Sustainable Design: Current Abilities and Future Possibilities
· Design for Deconstruction and Zero Waste
· Big Barriers — Financing and Codes
· Sustainable Design: Ecology, Architecture and Planning
· 15 Minutes of Brilliance: Transformative Solutions for the Next Generation
· New Tools to Assess and Alter the Carbon Impact of Development
· Carbon Markets: How Communities and Buildings are Supplying and Buying into Tradable Offsets
· Green Building Materials Through the Pharos Lens
· Successfully Sourcing Local FSC Products
· Crafting a One Planet Community: What Does Zero Waste and Zero Carbon Really Look Like?
· Charting a Course Towards Water Independence: Achieving Net-Zero Water in Living Buildings
· Residential Remodeling - Model Remodel: Renovating for Massive Change
· Scaling it Up: Beyond Buildings to Low Carbon Communities
· Living Cities — Remaking Our Cities One Neighborhood at a Time
· Alternative Ownership Models and Housing for the Homeless
2008-10-09 n/a 11539 Notes from "Be a Product Detective: Sleuthing the Truth About Building Materials" Jennifer Atlee has posted notes from the session she co-presented at USGBC Cascadia chapter's Living Future 'Unconference'. See them here. 2008-05-30 n/a 11560 The Unconference If I could adopt a conference, it would be the USGBC Cascadia chapter's Living Future 'Unconference'. As someone who generally prefers to stay behind the scenes talking shop, it was a delight to find myself surrounded primarily by the obsessed of the green building world. Even better, as presenters we were encouraged to bring our own big challenges to the table and get attendees to help us address them — which is exactly what we and many other presenters did. (More about that later, I hope.) First, this is the only conference I've been to where I left with less stuff than I started with! Yes, you could buy a conference T-shirt (lovely, organic, low-impact dyes, made in the USA), and I did get some green building playing cards, but there was no bag full of conference papers and booth swag. Instead, at registration we were each given a paper nametag and a single tri-fold with the conference schedule. For details, you had to wrest control of one of two computers hooked up to a screen set to scroll through sessions. I, of course, lost my tri-fold, and there didn't appear to be any spares. Paul Hawken's keynote speech set the tone for the conference with kudos, encouragement, and warning for the audience; kudos for the work going on to transform the world for the better, encouragement that we are not alone (visually demonstrated with an endless scrolling list of nonprofits that can, by the way, all be found on WiserEarth) and a warning of radical changes to come that'll put green practitioners on the front-lines. "I just want to caution you. I think your star may rise faster than you'd want it to... I'm not saying this to flatter you. I'm saying this to warn you." Jason McLennan's talk after breakfast on Day One got down and dirty with a no-holds-barred discussion on shit. Really. This wasn't the euphemistically delicate "waste-equals-food" conversation, but a tell-it-like-it-is that we need to better handle our own wastes, followed by an equally blunt rallying cry to those of us in the industry to get out our ideas out there "three-quarters baked" because we don't have time to make things perfect. This conference was not for the faint of heart. The hour set aside for "15 minutes of brilliance" was a delightful twist. With echoes of TED, this was a platform for "innovative ideas both big, and small with big consequences." I was pleased to see district energy covered, and delighted by a tiny comic called LUZ about a little girl awakening to peak oil. Another great one: David Eisenberg's idea of getting insurance agents to include a building's contribution to climate change in pricing premiums. If implemented in concert this could change the game fast. (OK, so that wasn't one of the presentations... but in the session on Big Barriers: Financing and Codes, Eisenberg mentioned that he wished he'd submitted the idea — and in deference to a great idea from a long time master change agent, I had to put it up here.) Major themes: the interconnectedness of issues, the need to really scale up fast, and as noted in the DJC's much longer real-time blog on Living Future: "It seems everybody, in sessions or personal encounters, is repeating the main message: things are changing quick, we need to help facilitate that and we need to be prepared for a new world."
UPDATE, 5/21/08: Notes from the Living Future session "Be a Product Detective: Sleuthing the Truth About Building Materials"

What do experienced practitioners want to know about green products? What questions aren't being answered? Where do you actually get green products? What would the ultimate evaluation tool look like? What product improvements would make the biggest change overall? What is key for real market transformation? Each of these questions formed the core of a lively small-group discussion that took about half of the two hour session. The first part of the session was a rapid-fire overview of issues relating to assessing products — targeted for an advanced audience, which was what we had. Presenters: Tom Lent, HBN; Eden Brukman, CascadiaGBC; and me. We had a delightfully engaged group but now it seems so long ago that it is a little hard to get back into, even though the issues discussed are still the basis of much of my work. The report-back flip-charts don't do justice to the conversations, but they're here for the record — and because I promised to get them on LIVE (finally):

What's my Question/Issue? (these questions were asked in a brainstorm in the beginning of the session)
  • Cabinet materials: what is in these products — how do I trust manufacturer info?
  • Assessing competing claims
  • Shipping impacts? How to evaluate learning about toxics beyond the common culprits and what new hazards are in replacements?
  • Whether LBC red list is comprehensive?
  • What is the govt. role via regulation?
  • Rating system for products?
  • Finding alternatives — for example PVC: how to find them?
  • ACTUAL alternatives not hypothetical ones
  • Weighing performance with other green attributes
  • Social implications of products (e.g. Chinese granite) and other elements not transparent?
What is not being answered?
  • EOL
  • Do you really need it?
  • Cradle to Gate understanding
What product improvements would make the biggest change?
  • Fundamental building blocks: concrete, steel, fenestration/windows
  • Bioproducts; wood, ag-fiber etc.
  • PV, Clean Energy! — thin films, etc.
Sourcing — how do you find stuff?
  • What IS the stuff?
  • BuildingGreen, HBN,...
  • Contractors: It's their job to find the stuff, help them (and spec it)
  • Colleagues, coworkers...
Keys to Market Transformation
  • Big organizations with clout and buying power can TASK manufacturers with creating new products according to green specs!
  • Create a forum inviting manufacturers and others to discuss how to provide what we're looking for — to set up the competition
  • Spread the word! The ripple effect works; talk to customers, educate!
Addressing Durability
  • What's the objective?? Replacability? Durability? (It may be that low-impact replacability is what we're really after)
  • Performance, more than durability, is the issue
  • Change the paradigm — not just quick obsolescence
What is the ideal product?
  • Using nature in lodging...(biomimicry)
  • Highest and best use for each situation (not generic)
  • How can you make a decision without consumption?
  • Redefine goals to avoid consumption
What is the ultimate evaluation tool?
  • Transparency
  • Documentation > show your work!
  • Should the tool give info — or a value judgement?
  • Comprehensive
  • Visual! (pharos, ingredient label)
  • Q: 3rd party vs. public verification?
2008-05-06 n/a