Designing to Face the Biggest Challenge of Our Time

Green building means so much more than energy and thermal performance, a sentiment made clear during the Facades+ architectural conference held Feb. 5-6 in Los Angeles. To truly build green—to consider the lifetime environmental impacts of a building from material extraction through construction, use and eventual destruction—demands consideration of durability, sustainability, recyclability, preservation and more.

These green building considerations are top priority for designers, builders and materials suppliers, as the design and build community increasingly works to addresses climate change, according to numerous speakers during the Facades+ conference. “Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time. There are ways we can affect change in our design, at the scale at which we work,” said Emilie Hagen of Atelier 10.

“The dialogue is still so tightly focused around energy, and in many ways, rightly so,” said Mic Patterson of Enclos. “However, as we continue to address the big problem that is threatening civilization, we start to peel it back and see issues like the embodied energy in these systems, and the life cycle costs that are not trivial considerations. We start to recognize that durability is a critically important thing. And we remember that recycling is not free—it takes real energy and real water use.”

Pulled from my more than 14 pages of notes from the invigorating and exciting conference are 10 top considerations for the building community as it begins to address climate change in a bigger and bigger way. Green building is moving beyond a trend  to an expectation, and even to a necessity. And the entire building chain is needed to successfully execute it.

  1. Net zero building.
    Net zero will be a future performance expectation of buildings, according to several speakers. “One could look at net zero as the next speed bump,” said Kevin Kavanaugh of CO Architects. This trend is well underway at the federal level, with the General Services Administration requiring all new buildings to achieve zero net energy by 2030. 
  2. Net zero ready.
    When net zero isn’t in a project budget, many architects are targeting a middle step: net zero ready. For new and existing buildings, net zero ready allows owners to prepare for additional investments, such as renewables, that can be added at a later point to make the building fully net zero. 
  3. Material transparency.
    Health Product Declarations and Life Cycle Assessments are becoming a more critical part of design for architects, particularly as they work to achieve more stringent performance criteria, like those required in the Living Building Challenge. “Material transparency, material selection, is one of our greatest challenges right now,” said Stacey Hooper, an architect from NBBJ and one of the conference organizers. “I really encourage [material suppliers] to do an HPD and LPD. It makes us all a little more able to make decisions,” added Margaret Montgomery, also of NBBJ.
  4. Durability and Sustainability.
    Energy-efficiency and thermal performance have dominated the focus of green building. However, building and building material durability and sustainability need to become equally important aspects of the conversation. Increasing attention to life cycle is bringing this issue to the forefront. 
  5. Preservation.
    One of the greenest ways to build is to renovate and preserve existing spaces. Preservation architects are becoming an increasingly important segment of the design community as they transform existing buildings into spaces that preserve historic appearance while providing levels of energy and thermal performance expected in new construction. 
  6. Value.
    Tied closely to durability and preservation is how we value our built spaces. “The things we love, we take care of. We value them. It means we maintain them and extend their service life,” explained Patterson. “It’s easy to see this in Europe, but we haven’t gotten around to doing a lot of these things here. I was recently in Rome, and I saw the Pantheon, a 2,000-year-old building. This durability in construction, this care and maintenance, these things contribute to sustainability.” 
  7. Updatability.
    A next-level conversation topic for green design should be future retrofits—considering the updatability of materials at the time of original construction, according to several speakers. The expected lifespan of a building will surpass the expected lifespans of individual building systems. Considering future retrofits at the time of construction will not only ease the retrofit process, but will also maximize performance during each building life phase. 
  8. Dynamic and integrated facades.
    Critical to a high performance building, particularly one capable of achieving net zero goals, is a dynamic façade—specifically, a dynamic façade that is integrated into building controls and adapts to air, light, temperature and other factors. “Everything around a building is dynamic, but most envelopes have no capability to evolve or adapt. Façades need to be adaptive and upgradeable,” said Alex Korter of CO Architects. 
  9. Human health.
    Building performance should also consider occupant performance, in addition to energy factors. “We need to consider what about a building makes a human healthy—that allows for thriving occupants,” said Atelier 10’s Hagen. “Factors like lighting and natural ventilation are not just energy savers. They can be tools for helping people in the environment thrive.” 
  10. Water.
    While there is a lot of talk about energy, the energy/water nexus is not being talked about nearly enough, according to NBBJ's  Hooper. “Half of the water we consume in the U.S. is used to cool energy power plants. This is staggering. Then consider that the energy used to heat and cool buildings is 45 to 50 percent of total energy use in the U.S.,” she said. Reductions in energy consumption in the built environment will lead to reductions in water consumption.

Katy Devlin, editor, Glass Magazine
The opinions expressed here and in reader comments are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Glass Association, Glass Magazine editors, or other glassblog contributors.


This is a thought provoking and very well written article. Katy, you have done a great job with presenting the logic behind some of the driving forces of the construction industry. As a member of this industry, what we have observed in the past few years with the LEED dominated building plan, has been no cohesive results from all their requirements. This has added tremendously to the cost of building, and now we have many buildings that are only marginally improved over buildings that are 10 to 20 years old. Somewhere in this process, too much was being made of the people behind the scenes ramming this down everyones' throats, and not enough attention was being paid to the real benefits vs the costs of the so called improvements. It was a lot like a politician "grandstanding" on an issue. Lots of hot air, but no real benefit. We need more people like you writing, and more logic applied to the issue at hand. Keep up the good work.
Great coverage, Katy. Thanks!
Katy, thanks for the excellent and informative article!
A very insightful, revealing article. It's good to know that there are dedicated, thoughtful, hardworking professionals looking out for our children and grandchildren.
I was at this conference, and it was truly great and inspirational. There is just so much to talk about with the building facade and its role in architecture. But your coverage, Katy, is equally awesome! It really captures the spirit as well as the content at what went on at the conference.
Nice summary - thanks for sharing.