Going green in the Forest City

People have encouraged us to address the potential role of renewable energy and efficiency in the roughly $400 million of publicly funded construction planned for the Rockford area over the next few years. The new federal building, jail and Hope VI projects make up the majority of spending.

A good starting point might be a recent article by Edward Mazria, “It’s the Architecture, Stupid.” While the title repulsed us, we recognized the author’s name from a 1979 book, The Passive Solar Energy Book. Perhaps the article’s title reflects the author’s frustration that not more of what has been known since the 1970s and 1980’s has actually been implemented by architects in our society.

The same might be expressed about the latest rounds of planned construction in the Rockford area. Very little is being said about green architecture.

Mazria is calling for a new paradigm in architecture because buildings are our biggest source of energy consumption, carbon emissions and other forms of pollution. With their long life, what we are building today will have a major impact on future energy demands and emissions. A building’s design largely determines its lifetime energy consumption and pollution.

Most modern buildings are designed to isolate the interior space from the surrounding environment, necessitating an unending supply of energy to maintain internal temperatures, air quality and lighting. The most extreme designs are emerging in prisons. We wonder if the massive structures are designed to frighten members of the public with criminal tendencies while reassuring those with a law and order focus that no one will ever escape from such a place. Is the urge to threaten and punish overriding intelligent design?

We know from examples in the 1970s and 1980s that buildings can operate on half the energy used by an average U.S. building at no additional costs. Mazria cites a library in Mt. Airy, N.C., as an example. We have also visited numerous energy-efficient buildings. The home and office of energy guru Amory Lovins in Snowmass, Colo., operates without a furnace. It is heated by the sun and uses thermal mass to capture and distribute the sun’s energy throughout the day. The National Renewable Energy Lab’s thin-film photovoltaic research building is solar heated and makes effective use of solar day lighting.

The dominant architectural paradigm in place today is no longer valid in a world of diminishing supplies, escalating prices and rising levels of pollution. Mazria believes our government buildings, whether new or renovated should be designed to consume half the energy used by a similar building in the region.

A new building paradigm is gaining nationwide acceptance. The LEED Green Building Rating System is the most prominent accepted standard for certifying healthy, smart green buildings. The rating system assesses sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy efficiency and atmospheric impacts of energy use, indoor environmental quality, materials, resource impacts and innovative design.

Chicago recently joined a growing list of states and municipalities who have been awarded the highest LEED rating for renovating a building which improves the economic and environmental health of the community and its citizens. The project involved a Green Tech Design Team with appropriate specialists to successfully implement the green design strategy. In that sense Mazria is right: it all starts with the architect.

Rockford area construction programs need to consider the green option and hire an architectural team that can deliver on the vision.

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