What Is "The World's Greenest Building?"

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"Netherlands home to world's most sustainable office building"

credit: Geelen Counterflow

Engineering and Technology Magazine (and Gizmodo who picked up the story) call the head office of Geelen Counterflow in the Netherlands “the most sustainable office building in the world.” And it is a nice little building, all made of wood and cradle to cradle approved materials, with a big green roof in the middle. Its solar array generates 50 percent more energy than it needs for heating, air conditioning, lighting and computers. It is declared most sustainable because it got “ 99.94 per cent score from the BREEAM certification system, the longest established method of assessing, rating, and certifying the sustainability of buildings.” So we get it, it’s sustainable. But does a high BREEAM score, from a sort of European LEED for commercial buildings, make it the most sustainable building in the world?

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"Is the Bullitt Center the World's Greenest Building?"

credit: Lloyd Alter/ Bullitt Center

Take the Bullitt building in Seattle. It’s an office building built to the Living Building Challenge standard, which is a lot tougher than BREEAM. It is described as:

..a cohesive standard, pulling together the most progressive thinking from the worlds of architecture, engineering, planning, landscape design and policy. It challenges us to ask the question: What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place? What if every intervention resulted in greater biodiversity; increased soil health; additional outlets for beauty and personal expression; a deeper understanding of climate, culture and place; a realignment of our food and transportation systems; and a more profound sense of what it means to be a citizen of a planet where resources and opportunities are provided fairly and equitably?

The Bullitt Center is not only net zero energy and built out of wood, but it captures its own rainwater and has composting toilets. It is designed to last 250 years and is built from materials that exclude a lot of common stuff that are on the LBC Red List. Many call this the greenest office building in the world.

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"Inside CIRS at University of British Columbia -- "North America's Greenest Building"

credit: CIRS Courtyard

There’s the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) at the University of British Columbia (UBC), also called the greenest building in North America. Peter Busby’s wood wonder has a living roof and pretty green walls inside too. It also produces more energy than it needs. It’s better than sustainable, it’s regenerative!

While sustainable design seeks to create balance between the positive and negative impacts of buildings and development, regenerative design seeks to affect human and natural systems positively by bringing them into integration.
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"See the World's Greenest Office Building: The Edge"

credit: Edge

The Edge, an office building in Amsterdam, has also had the greenest building accolades, Bloomberg writes:

The Edge is also the ­greenest building in the world, according to British rating agency BREEAM, which gave it the highest ­sustainability score ever awarded: 98.4 percent. The Dutch have a phrase for all of this: het nieuwe werken, or roughly, the new way of working. It’s about using information technology to shape both the way we work and the spaces in which we do it. It’s about resource efficiency in the traditional sense—the solar panels create more electricity than the building uses—but it’s also about the best use of the humans.

But its BREEAM rating is now surpassed by the Geelen Counterflow building, and again, there are other sustainability standards.

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"The greenest building in the world?"

credit: David and Lucille Packard Foundation

The Packard Foundation Headquarters have been called the greenest building in the world. It is certainly up there with it’s Living Building Challenge certification and it too is the real Net Zero.

Our green building was designed with a net zero energy goal of producing at least as much power as it consumes each year. Its technological and structural features come together with a beautiful, functional design to create a workspace that is good for the planet and for our employees. Through its energy-, water- and resource-conserving characteristics, the building has achieved Net Zero Energy BuildingTM and LEED® Platinum certifications.
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"Is The Bank of America Tower "The World's Greenest Skyscraper"? "

credit: Bank of America Tower/ Cook +Fox

Probably not. A few years back New York’s Bank of America tower was called “the world’s greenest skyscraper.” It was “the first skyscraper to attain LEED Platinum, and is loaded with green gizmos from high-tech glass to slag concrete to co-generation to a giant Calmac icemaker that makes ice at night and cools by day.” There were always questions about this one, such as Can an All-Glass Office Building Really Be Considered Green? In the end I became a big defender of it, when It got in the middle of a big greenwashing controversy, after it got rented to an energy-sucking tenant, but it is still up there on the list of great green buildings, even if it is no longer considered the greenest.

Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park from COOKFOX Architects on Vimeo.

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"Thatch-covered Enterprise Centre may be the world's greenest building"

credit: Passive House +

Personally, I have called Architype's Thatch-covered Enterprise Centre the greenest building in the world. It’s "70% bio-based materials, a threshold for embodied carbon, passive house certification, a Breeam Outstanding rating, and local sourcing and supply of materials." It’s covered in thatch, what more could you ask? I wrote:

The Enterprise Centre looks almost edible. I am still shocked. Forget being the greenest building in the UK; it might well be the greenest building anywhere.
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"Is the Powerhouse Kjørbo "the world’s most environmentally friendly office building"?" (and do our poll at the bottom)

credit: Snohetta

And don’t let’s forget Snøhetta’s Powerhouse Kjørbo, which makes those BREEAM buildings claiming to be so green look totally silly. It is not only Net Zero on its energy use, but this:

During the course of its anticipated life expectancy of 60 years, Powerhouse Kjørbo will generate enough energy to cover the total amount of energy used to produce the building materials, construction, operation and disposal.
This goes beyond anything anyone is doing. I concluded that this obscure building and its unknown certification system is probably meeting the toughest standards anywhere.
Conceptually the PowerHouse concept makes sense; we should care about the embodied energy of our buildings and how long it takes to pay it back. We should have to justify our choices in materials and the carbon footprint of their manufacture. There should be a bonus for refitting old buildings instead of knocking them down.

If carbon is your thing, then there is no question, Powerhouse Kjørbo is probably the world’s greenest building and BREEAM just doesn’t cut it in comparison. But of course, there is more than just energy and carbon in green building. So it's probably safest to say that none of these are actually the greenest building, because they are all judged to different standards. So it is a tough call.