Forget About Green Gizmos: Buildings Need To Be Healthy and Durable Too

lyle scott green gizmo cartoon image

Mechanical engineer Lyle Scott of Dialog showed this wonderful cartoon that captures so much about Gizmo Green, the approach where designers keep adding things that can break down quickly instead of thinking about the three most important issues: Durability, Health and Energy.

lyle scott green building photo flatiron building

every window had an awning in the Flatiron building in 1912 via Shorpy

Lyle Scott was speaking at the Green Building Festival in Toronto; the title of his talk, Sustainability: Lessons from the Past and a Vision to the Future had immediate appeal. Opening with images of very old and effective technologies like wind-catchers and awnings, he suggests that we are looking to the wrong places for inspiration, that we have to learn from our mistakes and learn from the past. He then blames Willis Carrier for making it easy to seal up and air condition everywhere and ignore natural, simpler methods. (We have variously blamed Carrier for everything from our water crisis to Republicans)

lyle scott green building photo windcatcher

Windcatchers: Free ventilation in hot climates, via Travelpod

The key thing about simpler, more traditional systems is that they are durable, and do not rely on complicated technologies to keep going. If you have good ventilation you may not require air conditioning in more temperate climates. Currently the mechanical systems in buildings are the systems with the shortest lifespan, and have to be replaced and upgraded about every 15 years. Yet Lyle is working on a project where the client is demanding a hundred year lifespan on everything. That means you have to design with simple, natural systems and durable materials.

More on durable, simple tech in TreeHugger:

Big Steps In Building: Make Natural Ventilation Mandatory
Building the Green Modern Home: Looking at Windows
Keep Cool with Awnings
Be Cool and Plant A Tree
Tune Your Windows; They are not just holes in the walls.
Awnings: Time to Bring Them Back
Windation Generator Inspired by Ancient Wind Catchers

lyle scott green building photo tom tomorrow

From a 1992 Tom Tomorrow cartoon. See the whole thing here.

Lyle describes how in 1973, in response to the oil embargo, the amount of fresh air required for office buildings was cut in half. The result: sick buildings, mould, humidity buildup. This was what happens when you focus on energy alone. We are smarter about ventilation now, and the latest standards require even more fresh air than people got pre-1973, but codes and even green building standards like LEED and BREEAM still permit the use of many products that are considered harmful.

He points to the (pdf here) Living Building Challenge Red List which includes flame retardants, formaldehyde, phthalates and PVC, all still in common usage.

TreeHugger has covered many of these chemicals, and why they are still around:
Big Steps In Building: Ban Formaldehyde
Put Sprinklers in Every Housing Unit
Koch Industries Backs Formaldehyde Council, Fighting Regulation of Carcinogen
Polystyrene Insulation Doesn't Belong in Green Building
How Not To Present Vinyl as an Environmentally Sound Choice
Greenwash Watch: 12 Ways Vinyl Siding is Green
Do Babies Exposed to Phthalates Have Smaller Penises?

lyle scott realpac


Here Lyle talked about the different initiatives and programs that have been established to save energy including LEED and Architecture2030, but also some I had not heard of, like the 20 by '15 Challenge, a worthwhile Canadian initiative from REALpac, the Real Property Association of Canada, where building owners are working to "to achieve the target of 20 equivalent kilowatt hours of total energy use per square foot of rentable area per year (20 ekWh/ft(2)/year), in office buildings, by the year 2015."

This is not some outside agency or big stick, but the actual owners of buildings, looking to save energy and at the same time, probably significantly reduce operating costs.

It was such a pleasure to listen to a mechanical engineer who gets it, who understands that there is more to green building than just throwing equipment at it, who is willing to learn from the past instead of ignoring it. After the presentation I asked Lyle a few questions about old versus new.

Lyle Scott at Green Building Festival from Lloyd Alter on Vimeo.

More on Green Building Standards

The TH Interview: Edward Mazria, the Man from 2030 (Part One) New Website about Sustainability
The Four Sins of LEEDwashing: LEED Green Buildings That Perhaps Aren't Really Green
Greenwash Watch: HSBC Headquarters

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