Hypocrisy, thy name is the National Renewable Energy Lab

Parking Garage
© RNL/ Parking garage

They give away free parking in a LEED Platinum parking garage at a suburban campus.

The National Renewable Energy Lab has a great new green building at their Golden, Colorado, offices. Joe Cortright of City Observatory describes its green goodness:

It’s festooned with arrays of photovoltaic cells to generate electricity on site. Because it’s one of the lab’s newest structures, they’ve extensively modeled the daylighting of the building to minimize lighting requirements, and made extensive use of recycled (and re-cyclable aluminum). The building’s lights are mostly on only at night, and only when motion detectors recognize occupants. This new $31.5 million building is shooting to be LEED Platinum and even be a “net zero” energy structure.

There is only one minor issue: It's a parking garage. It has 1,800 spaces for 1500 employees. And they give away the spots for free.

TreeHugger has discussed this issue before, making the point that the use of a building matters as well as the design, and that you can't call a parking garage green, even if it is made "from site-grown bamboo and ventilated by flapping butterfly wings." Chicago architectural critic Blair Kamin wrote (in an earlier time) that a green parking garage was an oxymoron, like a "kosher ham, a peacekeeping missile, or the World Series-winning Cubs." Kamin wrote about another garage:

Even if you add up all the energy-saving features, they would likely pale in comparison to the energy being expended by the cars that use the building each day. The greenest thing you could do would be not to build the garage at all. It's a classic case of "greenwashing," tacking a few energy-saving features onto a building whose function is inherently unsustainable.

But Joe points out that if you build an office building out in the 'burbs like this one, with a walkscore of 30 and the nearest shop or restaurant a half mile away, people are gonna drive. If you give away the parking instead of charging a fair price (like at least the cost of transit,) people are gonna drive. As Joe notes, this is rather odd for an organization like the NREL.

Promoting renewable energy (and energy conservation and greenhouse gas reductions) is a matter of both technology and incentives. An agency that’s supposedly dedicated to these tasks ought to do a better job of aligning its policies with its mission. There’s little hope that people will use a non-polluting bicycle or take transit to work, for example, if they have free use of parking.

Joe Cortright criticizes the NREL for its choice of suburban location and their free parking, and rightly so. It's just more of that suburban office park mentality that we have seen in Apple and other companies. But they are not the only hypocrites here.

plug-in parking© RNL/ parking for electric cars

The Garage is designed by RNL, which claims on its website to be taking sustainability to a new level. (It has an entire website called Design2Thrive.) It is a Certified B Corporation, which are defined as "for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency." They claim on their site:

Sustainability has become personal, from the office workstation to the bus stop to the community power plant. The core definition of sustainability is no longer enough to meet the demands of our communities. We think we can do better – and not just for our environment, but for people. We believe that guided by the right values and driven by a commitment to development new solutions, the future can be brighter.

Then they describe the garage:

This net zero energy parking structure supports the nearly 900 workers at NREL’s Research Support Facilities on the Table Mountain Campus. Designed for maximum sustainability it is an open, five level concrete frame with a tensioned, recyclable aluminum panel wrapping and a steel roof canopy for the mounting of a photovoltaic array. All sides of the garage are open to the elements to allow natural ventilation throughout and preclude the need for a mechanical system. The aluminum panels augment the openness for control of daylight, wind and headlight glare.

It's clear from their Design2Thrive site that they understand Net Zero Energy better than most firms:

In theory, any project can reach net zero energy if you buy enough photovoltaics (PV) and find somewhere on the site to put them. Is that the right way to approach it? Absolutely not.... Instead, the key to NZE projects is reducing your energy use as much as possible first, and then making up the difference with on-site renewables.

That is a really important point. But again, this is a parking garage, where the real energy hogs are the cars parked in it. If you are going net zero on a house, you are putting enough photovoltaics on the roof to accommodate the needs of the occupants. Here, the occupants are cars, and the energy generated on the roof is a drop in the ocean by comparison to their energy needs.

monumental stair© RNL/ Monumental Stair

The two halves of the structure are separated by a dedicated pedestrian circulation area with a monumental stair connecting all levels. This stair encourages pedestrian safety and activity while reducing the energy used by the elevators, and provides protected connection to the campus shuttle waiting area.

A "monumental stair" to encourage people to walk and get some activity, connecting parking spaces to shuttle buses! Really.

As a former practicing architect who had a big payroll to feed, I know how hard it can be to say no. But I wonder how one squares the circle, how one can go B Corp and make such a big deal about sustainability and still design a concrete and aluminum structure to store gasoline powered cars. Or as I wrote years ago:

You can only make so many rationalizations before admitting that anything that makes it easier and more convenient to drive is going to lead to more carbon emissions and is ultimately counterproductive.

Tags: Architects | Denver | Green Building

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