AIA/COTE Awards This Year Redefine Sustainable Design

©. Stanford University Central Energy Facility/ ZGF Architects LLP

Every year around Earth Day the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and their Committee On The Environment (COTE) release their list of the top ten green projects of the year, and we make a big deal of it. They take their green building very seriously, looking at many different aspects of sustainability and do an incredible amount of work putting it together. (Links to each of the top ten shown here are below the photos.) This year also sports a terrific jury with architects well known to this site, including Steve Kieran, David Lake and Amanda Sturgeon of the Living Building Challenge.

This year they have done what they call an extreme makeover of the criteria:

Some elements of previous measures have been merged together, and issues that have gained prominence in recent years—health, comfort, resilience, and economy—have been brought to the forefront. Metrics have been updated to reflect what current tools enable designers to track, with carbon emissions associated with construction, building operation, and occupant transportation earning special attention.

Categories/Screen captureA review of the short-form application (PDF here) explains what these categories are, and really could stand on its own as a legitimate building standard much like One Planet Living or the Living Building Challenge. There are some that are straightforward and some that are tough, as shown in these snippets:

Brock Environmental Center

© Brock Environmental Center/ SmithGroupJJR
Design for Integration: “Describe the project, program, and any unique challenges and opportunities. Specifically explain how the design is shaped around the project’s goals and performance criteria, providing both utility and delight.”

Milken Institute School of Public Health

© Milken Institute School of Public Health/ Payette
Design for Community: “Describe specifically how community members, inside and outside the building, benefit from the project. How does this project contribute to creating a walkable, human-scaled community inside and outside the property lines?”

R.W. Kern Center

© R.W. Kern Center/ Bruner/Cott & Associates
Design for Ecology: “Sustainable design protects and benefits natural ecosystems and habitat in the presence of human development. How does the site relate or respond to the surrounding ecosystem? “

Chatham University Eden Hall Campus

© Chatham University Eden Hall Campus/ Mithun
Design for Water: “Describe strategies to reduce reliance on municipal water sources. Does the project recapture or re-use water?”

Ng Teng Fong General Hospital & Jurong Community Hospital

© Ng Teng Fong General Hospital & Jurong Community Hospital/ HOK
Design for Economy: “Providing abundance while living within our means is a fundamental challenge of sustainability. How does the project provide “more with less”?”

Bristol Community College John J. Sbrega Health and Science Building

© Bristol Community College John J. Sbrega Health and Science Building/ Sasaki
Design for Energy: “The burning of fossil fuels to provide energy for buildings is a major component of global GHG emissions, driving climate change. Sustainable design conserves energy while improving building performance, function, comfort, and enjoyment. How did analysis of local climate inform the design challenges and opportunities?”

Discovery Elementary School

© Discovery Elementary School/ VMDO Architects
Design for Wellness: “Sustainable design supports comfort, health, and wellness for the people who inhabit or visit buildings. Describe strategies for optimizing daylight, indoor air quality, connections to the outdoors, and thermal, visual, and acoustical comfort for occupants and others inside and outside the building. How does the design promote the health of the occupants?

NOAA Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center

© NOAA Daniel K. Inouye Regional Center/ HOK
Design for resources: “Describe efforts to optimize the amount of material used on the project. Outline materials selection criteria and considerations, such as enhancing durability and maintenance and reducing the environmental impacts of extraction, manufacturing, and transportation.” -this criterion includes a mandatory requirement for “Estimated carbon emissions associated with building construction, including the extraction and manufacturing of materials used in construction (lbs CO2/sf).“

Manhattan Districts 1/2/5 Garage & Spring Street Salt Shed

© Manhattan Districts 1/2/5 Garage & Spring Street Salt Shed/ Dattner Architects
Design for Change: “Reuse, adaptability, and resilience are essential to sustainable design, which seeks to maintain and enhance usability, functionality, and value over time. Describe how the project is designed to facilitate adaptation for other uses and/or how an existing building was repurposed. What other uses could this building easily accommodate in 50-100 years? “

And finally, Design for Discovery: “Sustainable design strategies and best practices evolve over time through documented performance and shared knowledge of lessons learned. What lessons for better design have been learned through the process of project design, construction, and occupancy, and how have these been incorporated in subsequent projects?

It is a wonderful, well rounded list that covers so many aspects of sustainable design; It’s also seriously out there in terms of most architectural practices where even thinking about saving energy is pushing the envelope.

I wonder if that is why I find the actual top ten a bit disappointing this year, with no single building jumping out as being seriously great architecture. There are so few buildings around that would meet such tough criteria as COTE has set out, so few architects around who could even fill out the application form. There are many architects out there that think that nothing matters but carbon dioxide; there are others are now into wellness. There are many others that just don’t care about sustainability at all.

Perhaps it’s just too much information. Perhaps there should have been an eleventh category, Beauty. In his book The Shape of Green, architect and writer Lance Hosey noted that it is an imperative for sustainable design:

Long term value is impossible without sensory appeal, because if design doesn't inspire, it is destined to be discarded. "In the end," writes Sengalese poet Baba Dioum, "we conserve only what we love." We don't love something because it is nontoxic and biodegradable – we love it because it moves the head and heart.... When we treasure something, we're less prone to kill it, so desire fuels preservation. Love it or lose it. In this sense, the old mantra could be replaced by a new one: If it's not beautiful, it's not sustainable. Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern – It's an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet.

We should never lose sight of that.