Code Green: Are Sustainable Buildings Sustainable?

Photo Courtesy Pomona College

What do buildings mean? How do their volume, mass, and detail convey their subject and significance? How do their materials evoke and provoke, or signal what we should see and think about their form and function? And should residences or commercial structures or civic centers or skyscrapers stand for something?

The U. S. Green Building Council (USGBC) believes so. Since its founding in 1993, the non-profit organization has been a relentless promoter of the idea that a building's level of sustainability is a key indicator of its value and meaning. USGBC's incentive-based metric by which to assess these outcomes is its rating system known as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). For architects, developers, and contractors--and their clients--LEED has become a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

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It has also become a way of keeping score: the more points a structure earns towards its LEED certification, the more lustrous the medal bestowed upon it--there's nothing wrong with securing Silver or Gold, but Platinum is the ultimate benchmark, a shining example of how the construction industry might help make the world a more habitable place.

Photo Courtesy Pomona College
Or not. LEED's many critics are wary of the system's low bar for certification, arguing that it asks too little of its applicants and that its grade-inflated set of outcomes undercuts the values the organization seeks to promote. Count among its doubters the inimitable Frank Gehry; last year he argued that LEED certification has become "fetishized," likening it to "wearing an American Flag pin."

His is not the only criticism to have stuck: others are skeptical about LEED's failure to require post-construction assessment of how certified buildings function (are they as good as advertised? as efficient? As low impact?). Perhaps an even greater lack is a requirement to analyze how people interact with these certified buildings in real-time. All that glitters is not gold.

Yet in this vein the debate is healthy, especially if it compels producers and consumers to ask sharper questions about the built landscape we inhabit, about why it looks, feels, and operates as it does. I had the chance briefly to enter this larger discussion last weekend when I spoke at the dedication of Pomona College's two new dormitories, currently under consideration for high-level LEED certification. They'll earn it too; they're not fool's gold.

Actually, for those of us of a certain age the Sontag and Pomona residential halls are more than a little bedazzling. Let me put it this way: if you graduated in the last century, and if, as was then the case, cinder-block construction was the height of your dorm's fashion, then these well-appointed buildings are almost incomprehensible. If a thin coat of institutional-bland paint was slapped on your residential hall, inside and out, then you'll be baffled to know that these once-utilitarian structures now come complete with a color scheme.

Color us green with envy.

That's the right hue in another sense: these two buildings could not be greener, more technically sweet, or more sustainable. Rooted in the physical landscape, they will also make an essential contribution to the human ecology of this particular academic community.

Naturally, the college takes a lot of pride in these upscale buildings, and has posted online an extensive list of their more remarkable attributes. I want to point out one of them that, I confess, speaks to my inner wonk: stormwater control.

Hardly as sexy as the array of solar panels; lacking the cachet of the green roof and garden; not nearly as cool as the energy efficiencies that are built into the halls' every design element--the stormwater system is arguably more revolutionary than any of these other features.

Photo Courtesy Pomona College

To understand why, imagine a single raindrop hurtling down during one of Southern California's furious late-winter storms. The moment it hits the ground, according to those who have engineered the Los Angeles basin since the late nineteenth-century, it should be captured as quickly as possible behind a dam or in a ditch or culvert, then swiftly channeled into the concrete-lined Santa Ana, San Gabriel, or Los Angeles rivers before being flushed ignominiously into the sea.

This complex system, designed to prevent flooding, has wreaked havoc with riparian ecosystems, destroying the once-robust regional runs of steelhead trout. It also has severely limited the capacity of nature to replenish local groundwater supplies. We have compensated for this loss--thanks to William Mulholland and his ilk--by expropriating snowmelt from as far away as the northern Rockies.

Sontag and Pomona dormitories embody a much smarter, because locally framed, approach. Any precipitation that falls within, or flows through, their catchment area will be retained onsite, and filtered down to a large underground detention basin in the alluvial wash that runs along the campus' eastern edge; there it will slowly percolate into the aquifer beneath our feet, recharging the Pomona Valley's groundwater. In doing so, these dorms will benefit and befit their environment.

Yet will they be as integrative as human habitats? How will generations of students occupy these halls and make them their own? How will they respond to these buildings that teach sustainability every time they flick a light switch, open a window, or flush a toilet, but that also require their active participation to insure its realization?

These are some of the questions my students and I wrestled with in late September as we read Alain de Botton's compelling text, The Architecture of Happiness (2006). Among his suggestive insights is this gem: "Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or worse, different people in different places--and on the conviction that it is architecture's task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be."

We won't know whether Sontag and Pomona halls will serve this beneficent role until we study how these buildings are used, how they are reimagined through the students' daily interactions with them. (Though one wag offered this early critique in an essay in which he employed de Botton's typologies to critique the buildings, dubbing them "upper-class housing where lonely seniors go to graduate").

Photo Courtesy Pomona College

Examining this range of reactions--from hopeful to hyperbolic--is a pair of current seniors who are writing theses for the Environmental Analysis Program on the new dorms' social dynamics and structural innovations, and the interplay between them.

Their work, when combined with three other research projects assessing different aspects of the relationship between Pomona's built landscape and its lived reality, will deepen our understanding of how this Claremont campus actually functions for those who call it home.

There is another reason why the logistics and operations of these edifices must be interrogated. Pomona College has asserted that sustainability is integral to its modern mission. One mark of its commitment has been the establishment of its Sustainability Integration Office--the middle word is of prime importance--that inculcates sustainable concepts into new construction and the rehabilitation of older facilities; and infuses them into the college's curricular goals and extra-curricular activities.

It is thereby incumbent on the community to measure the steps it has taken--or should take--to fulfill its convictions. That includes turning the intellectual tools and analytical methodologies that its professors teach in their classrooms on the very buildings in which so many abide and work.

But this will only succeed if these bright-eyed investigators remain mindful of what de Botton cautions are architecture's limitations (and which apply with equal force to the concept of sustainability): "even at its most accomplished architecture will only ever constitute a small, and imperfect (expensive, prone to destruction and morally unreliable), protest against the state of things."

There is nothing academic about this exercise. Whatever the results, they will help us calibrate our capacity to sustain ourselves on this planet of swelling population and finite resources.

Such calibrations may be especially meaningful at the local level. How apt, then, that my students' probing analyses of sustainability as fact and fancy--like the munificence of the donor families that made these two dormitories possible--is fully consistent with, indeed is ineluctably linked to, Pomona College's century-old charge to its graduates, emblazoned on its gates: "They only are loyal to this college who, departing, bear their added riches in trust for mankind."

With the Sontag and Pomona residential halls, the college has reframed that sense of individual social obligation, acknowledging that it too has a responsibility to redeem this historic pledge.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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