Deep Green Architecture on the Green Building Spectrum

Evolving Architecture aspires to produce Deep Green architecture. But, what is Deep Green architecture? That is a question I have been exploring for years. This exploration has taken me to classrooms, to building workshops and to a tent platform, where I lived for a summer. Often Deep Green architecture is associated with terms such as net zero energy or off-grid. But, there is no quick, definitive answer except to say that Deep Green architecture aspires to move past the threshold of green. So, I will first look at what makes a building green.

If you consider green architecture a broad spectrum, a great many buildings can fall within the definition. However, most of these simply have what I consider to be green features. These can be fixtures easily changed by the owner after construction, like energy saving light bulbs and appliances. Green features can also be those that require more involvement to implement.  Many are incorporated during a renovation, like double pane windows or a high-efficiency furnace. Expanding a construction project to include green features is cost effective. Contractors have already incurred mobilization costs. And, the green upgrade is simply that, a cost above what is expected to replace fixtures with conventional technology. Often the cost increase can be paid back in a short time with operational cost savings. I heartily support any energy and cost saving fixture, especially those that are easy to implement.

Incorporating green features does not make a building green.

Using a more strict definition, simply incorporating green features does not make a building green. My definition of a green building is one that is holistically designed, where each system is optimized and all systems work interactively to efficiently and effectively produce the desired environmental goals.  There are even components in addition to building systems that help the building operate more efficiently. For instance, optimally placing the building on the site can minimize solar heat gain, which reduces cooling cost.  It is very important to understand that buildings operate as a whole system. And, every part of the system affects and interacts with every other part of the system. Therefore, creating a green building is most effectively done at the building system level.

Understanding and optimizing a building at this level takes a team of experts working together. The architect, the individual creating the energy model and the mechanical engineer must all design responsively to each other. For instance, using windows that operate efficiently to keep heat in and out allows the building to utilize a smaller, more efficient heating and cooling system. Using daylight sensors and shading devices further allows the building to utilize a much smaller solar panel array. Each of these elements must be designed and sized respectively to the other elements. And, these are just a few parts of the whole system.

Creating a green building is most effectively done at the building system level.

So, what makes an optimized building system? Is there even a standard measure for such a system? I had a mentor that loved to explain how each piece of architecture is a custom design. Each sits in a different place in the environment and serves different goals. And, with custom design there are inherent flaws, which could be worked out if the design were repeated. Given the incredible number of variables? How can you approach optimization or even comparison?

There are several organizations that have been successfully answering that question for many years. The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) has not only brought the green building discussion to mainstream construction. It has driven an incredible change in the green fixtures available on the market. At the onset of their Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building certification program, dual flush toilets had to be ordered from Europe. Now, they are available at your local building supply store. LEED is the most well-known of what are considered prescriptive programs. Prescriptive programs tell design and construction teams exactly how to achieve established goals for the project. LEED is a point based system that has several levels of certification. Therefore, the design team can select the points best suited for the project.

Here arises the primary complication, no project can optimize every variable. Therefore, it is critical to determine what variables are most important for each project. If every piece of architecture is a custom design, it follows that each project sets its own values and goals. This is where the design team becomes folded into a much larger, project team. Included are the owner, building users, building manager, construction manager and various experts. Each building design project designates the project goals and defines goal achievement. The goals must be agreed to and actively pursued by all members of the project team. It is easy to see the level of complexity this adds to a project. It does not necessarily imply added cost or time. But, it definitely requires additional communication. Clear goal setting early in the project is imperative. Therefore, all project participants can make their individual decisions in a way that always supports the overarching project goals. In some communication styles this can be seen as setting an intention for the building.

Project goals must be agreed to and actively pursued by all members of the project team.

Viewed as primarily communication, the daunting task of optimizing a project becomes achievable. Each project I have worked had clear project goals. Sometimes it was maximizing scope or minimizing cost. Whatever the goal, it was imperative that the goals be understood early for success to be achieved. This is why Programming, the pre-design phase is so critical. It is imperative to properly identify the project goals before beginning design. Using a loose definition, designing a green building could simply mean the project goals incorporate environmental goals. But, all smart projects incorporate green features and optimize systems where possible. Green buildings view the building as a whole system. The more holistically the project team pursues environmental goals, the deeper green the project becomes. I see green building as a spectrum of depth. And, Deep Green architecture aspires to the deepest dive possible into the broadest goals.

Some projects that reach the highest LEED certification levels can be considered Deep Green. And there are many other certification programs that can offer guidance to the design team. Each of these programs systematize a whole systems thinking. Not only is the building seen as a fully integrated system, to varying degrees the building system is viewed respective to the larger systems in which it operates. For instance, each material incorporated into the project can be assessed for its carbon footprint, the ecological impacts of its extraction / manufacturing, the health impacts of its placement within the built environment and so many more considerations. I earlier referred to this as a daunting task and stated that no project can optimize every variable. It is up to each project team to determine the whole systems approach to take, the priority of each variable and how deeply each will be allowed to drive the project direction.

The more holistically the project team pursues environmental goals, the deeper green the project becomes.

Where I see green building as a spectrum of depth, I see Deep Green architecture as a spectrum of values. At this level of systems thinking, decisions are based less on economic and visual criteria. Deep Green project values reflect the project ramifications at ecosystem, global and multi-generational levels. For instance, optimizing on-site resource harvesting may be more important to the owner than minimizing the carbon footprint of each material used. There are innumerable trade-offs during design and construction that weigh the project values. So, there are as many ways to pursue Deep Green architecture as there are shades of green. Therefore, pursuing Deep Green architecture means embracing the many discussions that are sure to follow.

Adopting a green building certification programs can guide the project team during their discussions to set goals and values. Some programs define parameters more than others. I described some building certification programs as prescriptive—they prescribe methods to use and benchmarks to reach. Other building certification programs are more values based. They describe a value or goal and allow the designer to determine how it will be achieved. Of course, an owner can also choose to not use a building certification program and build only according to their values and goals. Most often I see this when owners chose to build with shipping containers or strawbales, which can be viewed as waste products.

Deep Green architecture is a Spectrum of Values

However the project team arrives at the values and goals, it is the holistic nature of the goals that will make a building green.  The more holistically the project team pursues environmental goals, the deeper green the project becomes. And, a Deep Green project will uphold values that reflect the project ramifications at ecosystem, global and multi-generational levels.

Pursuing green and Deep Green architecture is a daunting task that not every project will undertake. The process will take the project team through many discussions that will both inform and challenge each project member on many levels. Green and Deep Green architecture cannot be pursued lightly. Though many find it an enriching endeavor to undertake.