AIA Committee on the Environment Awards Turns 25

The world of green design has changed so much in that time.

Kendeda Building
Kendeda Building.

Greg Willet

In 1997, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Committee on the Environment (COTE) debuted its award program to honor projects that deliver both quality design and environmental performance. At the time, many thought sustainable design was weird — or, at least, different or no more interesting than plumbing. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry called it "bogus" and American architect Peter Eisenman said, “‘Green’ and sustainability have nothing to do with architecture.”

Flash forward 25 years and much has changed. The AIA adopted a Framework for Design Excellence that "seeks to inform progress toward a zero-carbon, equitable, resilient, and healthy built environment." And where green buildings used to look very different, as I noted last year, now it's really hard to tell sometimes.

The recipients of the 2021 COTE Top Ten Awards range from commercial office buildings and a health care clinic to a family residence and higher education projects. Below is more information on five of the 10 winners.

Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design

Kendeda Building in the evening
Kendeda Building.

Jonathan Hillyer

One building that absolutely screams green is Atlanta's Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design at Georgia Tech. Most obviously with its "regenerative porch" — the giant solar array provides shade for outdoor spaces, reduces cooling loads, and meets the requirement of the Living Building Challenge (LBC) for generating more electricity than it needs in a year. Designed by Lord Aeck Sargent in collaboration with The Miller Hull Partnership — the architecture firm also worked on another LBC building, Seattle's Bullitt Center — it is described as "the greenest building in the Southeast."



In fact, the framework for the COTE awards looks very much like the LBC, with categories going beyond the usual energy and water, and into categories like Discovery, Change, and Equity — the latter shows up in the Nail Laminated Timber (NLT):

"During construction, the contractor partnered with Georgia Works!, a local workforce development program. Six formally homeless clients were hired and trained to construct the nail-laminated timber decks, providing marketable skills to prevent risk of future recidivism."
connections and roof
Beautiful steel connections and beautiful woodwork.

Lloyd Alter

We learned in our tour of the building that every second board in that NLT is recycled; the different sizes and colors make it look terrific, reduces the amount of new wood by half, and creates good jobs. It may just look like NLT but hits five COTE buttons at once and should get a prize on its own. More on the Kendeda building at AIA/COTE.

Ryerson University Daphne Cockwell Health Sciences Complex

Ryerson University Daphne Cockwell Health Sciences Complex.

Tom Arban Photography

This Toronto structure by Perkins & Will is a very different university building than the Kendeda building. It is built on a tight site, hanging over and blocking all the windows in the studio of the Ryerson School of Interior Design where I teach — they now look into the atrium. It is "a new typology: a vertical campus that celebrates density, urbanity, and a radical mix of uses while exemplifying a holistic approach to health, inclusion, and sustainability in the downtown core."

It is an unusual building in Toronto in that it is not just a glass box, but has "a high-efficiency R25+ envelope, detailing for enhanced airtightness, and a 33% glazing ratio" that allows it to "stand out among a field of fully glazed residential towers." This is something that architects in Toronto have not yet learned how to do well, to keep it simple.

Collaboration area with a view
Collaboration area with a view.

Tom Arban

In many ways, this is perhaps a better example of the future of green building than the Kendeda. It doesn't have a big solar hat because rooftop solar doesn't do much on a tall skinny building. It looks and feels like a mainstream building; other than the lack of a glazed curtain wall, it looks pretty normal. It is all concrete and steel because you can't build so tall with greener materials, although there were some interesting tricks to reduce the amount of them:

"A system of two-story A-frames sequentially distributes the tower load down and out over the podium’s nine stories, reducing the need for structurally inefficient cantilevers while providing the necessary clear spans at large classrooms. Post-tensioned concrete beams further reduce structural weight, increase spans, and maximize future flexibility."

Perkins & Will were pioneers in material science with their precautionary list, but I was pleased to see that they got their neighbors involved and "worked with students from Ryerson’s School of Interior Design to review the ingredients and health impacts of more than 250 building products."


Tom Arban

I was not pleased to see a bunch of massive commercial gas ranges in the nutrition lab, as more and more commercial kitchens are going with induction and getting off gas. This could have been a good demonstration project. In the not too distant future, it may well be part of the definition of green building.

Treehugger will follow up with more detail on this building in the near future.

Market One

Market One Exterior
Market One.

Integrated Studio

Treehugger has always quoted architect Carl Elefante and said that "the greenest building is the one already built." But Neumann Monson Architects have a different motto: "Nothing is more sustainable than breathing new life into an existing resource."

That's exactly what the group did to Des Moines, Iowa's Market One, according to AIA's website:

"Market One tells an important story about the role historic buildings can play in anchoring urban revitalization with sustainable principles. With pragmatic intent and a sensitive touch, Market One harnesses a 1901 manufacturing facility’s inherent flexibility to guide open-ended infill strategies"

It also tells an important story about how attitudes toward sustainability and historic buildings have changed. It used to always be a fight, with preservationists complaining about new windows ruining the look of buildings and endless fights over solar panels. Things have calmed down as new technologies like heat pumps provide more heat and cooling with less energy, a better understanding of the importance of airtightness vs insulation, and most importantly, the realization that embodied energy is as important as operating energy in an efficient building.

As Carl Elefante wrote for Architect Magazine:

"Existing buildings are a resource for tackling climate change. Buildings represent 'embodied carbon.' Keeping and using existing buildings avoids the release of massive quantities of greenhouse gases, emissions caused by needlessly demolishing and replacing existing buildings. Retrofitting existing buildings to meet high-performance standards is the most effective strategy for reducing near- and mid-term carbon emissions, the most important step in limiting climate disruption."
New stuff on old roof
New stuff on old roof.

Integrated Studios

That's why Market One is significant: "This project exemplifies the sympathetic integration of new technologies into old structures. The combination of geothermal and solar renewable energy allows this project to significantly reduce energy use compared to a baseline without dramatically changing the existing building’s envelope and losing the building’s historic character."

The engineer on the project notes:

“Market One’s net-zero design means it was engineered to produce more energy than it consumes,” said Josh Nielsen, principal at Modus, the project’s consulting engineer and a building tenant. Nielsen notes that the building's Energy Star Rating of 94 means that Market One performs better than 94% of buildings nationwide."

Nobody would look at this building and say "that looks green!" – it looks like an old building. Nor can you say, as I heard from one architect say about a building that looked similar, "you can't fix these buildings, the wind just blows through them, tear it down!" Architects, engineers, and building scientists have figured it out.

More on Market One at AIA/Cote.

Arizona State University Hayden Library Reinvention

Arizona State University Hayden Library Reinvention
Arizona State University Hayden Library Reinvention.

Gabe Border

Few buildings are under greater threat than those modern buildings from the '50s and '60s, as they are often unloved and extremely hard to fix. This one was so unloved that they don't even bother mentioning Weaver and Drover, the architects who originally designed it. Arizona State University (ASU) is actually full of interesting buildings, including one by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The judges say:

"Fantastic example of what can be done on an existing building, and the addition is beautifully integrated into the larger context. Interior references back to mid-century instead of trying to go super trendy, which fits its origin and the external façade much better."

More at the 2120 COTE Top Ten.

University of Washington, Life Sciences Building

University of Washington, Life Sciences Building
University of Washington, Life Sciences Building.

Kevin Scott

This is an interesting idea for buildings with more walls than roofs: photovoltaics as fins or brise soliel.

"LSB’s design team used solar glass in previously unseen ways: to both cool the building and generate electricity without emitting carbon. First-of-its-kind building integrated photovoltaics, or BIPVs, are installed on the southwest façade, reducing unwanted solar heat gain in the offices, providing expansive views, reflecting daylight, and producing enough electricity to light the offices on all four floors of the building throughout the year."

Perkins & Will might have tried this on their Toronto building, an interesting approach for taller buildings. More at 2120 COTE Top Ten.

It really does seem that after 25 years of looking at green buildings as being distinct, they really have finally become mainstream. Outside of the Kendeda building, none of these seem to pop out as unusual or unexpected. Perhaps this is one reason we are showing fewer buildings on Treehugger than we used to; we have come to expect it. And that is the way it should be.