It isn’t easy defining ‘green’

As an architecture student in the mid 1990s, I had to endure the verbal lashes of critiquing professors. One semester, we had a lone—gasp!—“tree hugger” professor. He drove a Ford Festiva, would mention phrases like “toxic off-gassing,” “urban heat islands” and “recycled materials.” When he was judging our studio design work, we’d perform acrobatics, desperately trying to save all of the trees on our fictitious building sites. We’d mention “native plants” in describing our designs. Looking back, we were just a tad naïve, but little did we know.

“Green” design or sustainability and modern architecture have a rich history. The famed architect Le Corbusier’s Weiessenhof house, resplendent with a grass-covered roof, was completed in 1927. Like other schools of thought, sustainable design sometimes begins with the avant-garde, and over time its perception has become vague, misinterpreted or not holistically executed. For example, in the energy crisis of the 1970s, energy efficiency was synonymous with the misguided concept of boarded-up windows and miniscule daylight.

One organization that is structuring the Wild West of green design is the U.S. Green Building Council. USGBC is the foremost coalition of leaders in the building industry working to promote buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy places to live and work. Developed by the USGBC, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System is a consensus-based, building rating system designed to accelerate the implementation of green building practices. Individuals may become LEED accredited professionals by passing an exam.

The best way to describe LEED is as a whole process. It’s not solely using recycled products or solar panels, but an interconnected design process divided into six categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality and innovation and design. Simple ideas such as thoughtful daylighting, recycling of construction material and low-flow water fixtures can be incorporated into almost any design. For local examples, visit the paragon of green building—the Chicago Center for Green Technology or the Burpee Museum’s exciting incorporation of a vegetated roof.

We are learning that green design is not only for the “Birkenstock-wearing granola eaters.” This movement will continue to develop, not just for the leaders, but for all who are interested in personal responsibility, health and the best green of all—saving money!

Jennifer McInnis is an architect at Bradley & Bradley Architects/Engineers.

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