The seven-word maxim in my title (inspired by Michael Pollan’s maxim for healthier eating) could be a way for our community to take a big leap in climate action. The COTE Top Ten measure “Design for Economy” states that “Space should be seen as a resource to conserve, just like water or energy.” This sounds like common sense, but is unrewarded by our green building rating systems -- and, indeed, by our entire real estate economy.
Designing a building to be used more – by more people, more of the time – makes it harder to achieve LEED, Living Building Challenge, or Net Zero standards. I know of a net zero certified school that couldn’t let the local community use its auditorium in the evenings, or it wouldn’t make its energy balance. This makes no sense, but as an architect who has designed net zero buildings, I understand. In the assumptions I put together when designing a net zero environmental center, I had to determine how many coffees could be served and whether food would have to be premade and served off disposable dishware. We had to fit the café’s energy use within the energy budget provided by the solar roof. Getting to net zero energy would have been easier if we increased our footprint and roof area, limited the occupancy of the building, and outsourced as many impacts as we could. But would that really have made the project more sustainable?
It is often stated that the built area of the world will double by 2060, and to reduce the impact on the environment, the industry is aiming to lower embodied carbon, and increase energy efficiency. These are both incredibly important, but shouldn’t we first aim to build less? I had the opportunity to ask Mahesh Ramanujam, CEO of USGBC, what he thought. (See minute 44:40 of event video.) He questioned the need for the 70,000 SF lobbies he saw in some buildings he visited. He thought LEED was good at promoting efficiency but not at reducing consumption through downsizing and optimizing. I think this is a problem with metrics.
Green building rating systems measure energy use per area. If they measured energy per occupant-hour, a building with a 70,000 SF lobby wouldn’t be able to achieve LEED. (In contrast, GBCI’s Arc performance score factors in occupancy and hours to calculate its energy score.) Similarly, barely occupied luxury apartment buildings in New York City wouldn’t be able to achieve the city’s newly mandated energy targets. NYC is in a building boom to try and keep up with the rising demand for housing, yet the Regional Plan Association’s Fourth Regional Plan noted that we could create a quarter of a million new homes without building anything! Even when measuring embodied carbon, there is typically no credit for making better use of space and reducing the size of a building. (As a low carbon design is compared with a reference building of the same size.) One report that does call for building less is the UK’s 2013 HM Treasury Infrastructure Carbon Review. Their graph (below) shows how opportunities to reduce carbon are greater the earlier in the design process you start.
We need to start advancing concepts from the Circular Economy in our practices (and start rewarding them in our green building standards). One of the core principles of Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ReSOLVE framework (The Circular Economy in the Built Environment, Arup, 2016) is sharing. The Zero Waste Design Guidelines, developed through the AIA New York COTE, detail how sharing can be applied to architectural design. One strategy is to “maximize asset utilization through programming”. Providing flexible spaces that can perform multiple functions, or be used by others in the neighborhood is one option. According to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, the average office is used only 35-40% of working hours. In contrast, co-working spaces report utilization rates 2.5 times higher. I work out of restaurants that are closed during the day, and part of a citywide network of shared workspaces.
Recently an engineer told me that he was consulting for a prestigious university that was planning a new highly sustainable building. He pointed out that they wouldn’t need a new building if they just held lectures on Fridays and before 11am in the mornings. But they had a donor and he designed the building.
As design professionals our compensation is based on building more. It would be different if instead, we were paid for the value added by our design. Then we could design buildings which were smaller, but were used more, reducing the resource use of the larger system. We don’t add value if we skimp on the dishwasher and then truck disposable plates to landfills 350 miles away. We do if we realize the building doesn’t need its own auditorium because there is one next door that the client could share. It’s not a secure, self-sufficient solution; it requires collaboration. But as we can learn from ecosystems: resilient circular resource loops come from mutual collaboration, not from self-sufficiency.
I love the seven word maxim Michael Pollan came up with for a healthier diet: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Following this is healthy for people and healthy for the planet. I came up with the following maxim for architecture: Build less. For more people. Design Circular. Build less: reuse and repurpose existing buildings; right-size the building; consider sharing spaces within a district. For more people: design and program a building so that most spaces are fully occupied most of the time; design for the local community; consider the people affected by the upstream and downstream consequences of resources used within the building. Design Circular: make best use of the natural cycles of energy and water; design for circular material use; and consider how urban systems can be woven into the cycles of the local ecosystem.
Clare Miflin AIA, LEED BD+C, Certified Passive House Designer, Certified Biomimicry Professional Weaving together sustainable strategies into architecture throughout her career, Clare has designed buildings to Living Building Challenge, Passive House, LEED Platinum and AIA COTE Top Ten standards. Clare led the development of the Zero Waste Design Guidelines, to address the crucial role that the design of buildings and cities play in achieving circular material loops. She is the founder of ThinkWoven, which develops design strategies to weave urban systems into ecosystems, and is setting up a non-profit Center for Zero Waste Design. Clare is also co-chair of the AIANY’s Committee on the Environment; a member of NYC’s Living Building Collaborative and Sustainability Coordinator for her local food cooperative.