Towards an Ethical Architecture: Sustainability and Green Building

This section will review different sustainable approaches to architecture including LEED and the Living Building Challenge. Examples will mainly focus on the Pacific Northwest and will include the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building (Portland, OR), Desert Rain House (Bend, OR), and the Bullitt Center (Seattle, WA).

To Read/Watch/Review

The first two resources posted below are designed to give you an overview of two paths towards sustainable architectural design: LEED and the Living Building Challenge. The third resource below features 10 recent projects that were honored by the American Institute of Architects as having “social, economic, and environmental” value. The final three resources below investigate the intersection of sustainable architectural design and the global Covid-19 pandemic.

To Watch

The videos embedded below complement the case studies presented in this chapter.

EarthFix Media, “Seattle’s Bullitt Center: The World’s Greenest Office Building” (YouTube, 6:43)

TEDMED, “Using biophilic design to heal body, mind, and soul” (YouTube, 13:57)

Key Terms

The terms below are bolded throughout the chapter; please pay special attention to each to ensure you understand its definition.

  • Biomimicry
  • Biophilia
  • Green architecture
  • LEED
  • Living Building Challenge
  • Net Zero

A Focus on Practice: Sustainable Building

In the United States alone, buildings (this includes homes, offices, and stores) account for 40% of the overall annual energy consumption, 70% of the electricity demand, and emit ⅓ of the total greenhouse gas emissions (E.I.A.). These are startling statistics, so it’s becoming more and more necessary to build greener, or to find ways to reduce a building’s enormous carbon footprint. Green architecture is an umbrella term used here to describe various ways buildings can become more sustainable and aid in the creation of healthier environments.

This process happens both during the construction phase (by sourcing lower toxic, more environmentally friendly materials, for example), by engineering ways for the building to respond to its environment (through a solar array that offsets the power for the building, for example), and through the way a structure interacts with its inhabitants (low-flow toilets or energy-generating elevators, for example).

Architects today must think about designing buildings that minimize energy requirements and use renewable energy systems. In fact, the one of the tallest buildings in the world, the Taipei 101 (pictured below) is also the world’s tallest LEED Platinum certified building. So what does this mean?

LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It is a rating system established by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2000. LEED is based on points, which various construction projects can earn to achieve LEED certification. Projects can receive Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum designations depending on the type of project and how many points they get during the process. You can read more about LEED on the U.S. Green Building Council’s website.

A tall skyscraper seen from a distance. The tower (Taipei 101) is a blue-green in color, made of glass, and moves upwards like blocks, rather than a smooth tower.
C.Y. Lee and Partners, Taipei 101, Taipei, Taiwan, 2004 (with LEED retrofits completed in 2011). Photo by Heeheemalu CC BY 4.0 International.

For example, Taipei 101 (pictured above) is a LEED Platinum project; this means that it received the highest rating under the LEED standard. Some of the energy efficient elements of this 2,088,842 square foot project include:

  • Installation of energy efficient lighting, and lighting and temperature controls (for example, sensors that turn the lights on or off depending on occupancy and thermostats that are able to adjust operating temperatures according to actual need).
  • Introduction of low-flow water features and a water management system that reduces water usage and recycles wastewater.
  • Implementation of sustainable landscaping practices, including the restoration of a nearby city park, which protects wildlife and allows native plants to flourish.

The Living Building Challenge

A building seen from the corner; it's white in color with a large array of solar panels on the roof. These panels extend out over the sidewalk.
Miller Hull, Bullitt Center, Seattle, WA, completed 2013. Photo by Joe Mabel CC BY 3.0 Unported.

Another tool to measure green building is with the Living Building Challenge, which was established as an alternative rating system to LEED in about 2010. A Living Building is one that is net-zero, which means that it produces energy from renewable sources, releases zero greenhouse gas emissions, and is designed, operated, and managed to have no negative health impacts upon occupants. Construction materials must also be locally sourced and non-toxic. Oh, and the building must be beautiful, integrate into its surroundings in a way that is sensitive to native flora and fauna, and responsive to its built environment! Remember to read more about each petal to achieve Living Building status on the website.

Living Building Challenge compliance is based on actual, rather than modeled or anticipated, performance. This means that projects, such as the Bullitt Center pictured above, must be operational for a full year at a designated capacity before they can be verified as net-zero. This is a bit different from LEED where you can earn points as construction progresses.

As discussed in the video, there are several ways the Bullitt Center is a new kind of office building for the future. What features stood out to you? Please review some of the structure’s key sustainable features on the Bullitt Center’s website. Think about, how does this building aim to change the future of office design?

Two other terms we can introduce when discussing the Bullitt Center are: biophilia and biomimicry. Biophilia is a term introduced by the American biologist, Edward O. Wilson in is book, Biophilia, published in 1984. In this book, Wilson suggests that biophilia is our innate tendency as humans to seek connections with nature. You might think of how you feel when you’re moving through a sun-dappled forest, or the sense of being close to the ocean, or near a waterfall, feeling the water’s mist. To simplify Wilson’s argument just a little, we feel good when we are connected to nature. This could be when we’re physically outside, as in the examples cited earlier, but it could also be the addition of plant life and other reminders of the natural world that are brought into our built environments. For example, the use of wood on the interior of Bullitt Center is a good example of biophilia, as are the large windows, letting in ample natural light and providing views of the sound; we feel good when connected to nature.

Biomimicry is the science of applying nature-inspired designs to solve human problems. Those involved in biomimicry or biomimetic design seek to solve human design challenges by learning from natural systems. In addition to the longer TEDMED talk, embedded above, below is a brief (2:03) video with Janine Benyus, the president of the Biomimicry Institute, which helps to further define and describe biomimicry. Benyus is an American biologist and writer who is credited with popularizing biomimetic design.

What is Biomimicry?” (YouTube, 2:03)

If we return to our example of the Bullitt Center, we can see the application of biomimicry in the design of the cantilevered roof. This design is directly inspired by the tree canopy, which used to exist before the concrete and steel of the built environment took over. In the natural world, tree canopies provide the necessary shade and protection to the forest floor. In the built environment, the roof canopy of the Bullitt Center has a twofold purpose: it helps support the vast solar array, which powers the building’s electrical systems, and it creates shade and rain protection for passerby’s on the sidewalk below. We could also apply the idea of biophilia to this large cantilevered roofline, as its small openings create the effect of dappled sunlight on the building and pavement it protect.

Additional Green Building Examples to Consider

There are two more examples of sustainable structures to consider as we conclude this chapter. The Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Building in Portland, OR is a modernization project completed by the General Services Administration (GSA) in 2013. It is an 18 story, 525,000 square foot LEED Platinum structure. Read more about its use of green technologies on the GSA website and more about the modernization process on SERA Design’s website.

A glass and steel skyscraper seen from afar. The roofline is at a diagonal. The building has texture from vertical metal reeds that cover its facade.
SERA, Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building, Portland, OR, renovated in 2013 (original building completed in 1974). Photo by M.O. Stevens CC BY 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic, and 1.0 Generic.
Base of the Wendell-Wyatt Federal Center with green vines growing up from its base.
SERA, Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building, Portland, OR, renovated in 2013 (original building completed in 1974), detailed image shows base of structure with public art and native plantings. Photo by Steve Morgan CC BY 4.0 International.

In the images of the structure above, you can see tall, vertical “reeds” that soar up from the base on the south and west elevations. These reeds seem to part on the left of the structure, opening up to the building’s entrance to the street. These vertical bars not only provide visual ornament, they also help reduce the amount of solar gain into the building. There are also sunshades on windows that form a grid like pattern on the facade. Both the vertical reeds and the sunshade help keep the interior cool, yet maximize daylight for the people inside.

At the top of the building, there is a rainwater-collecting roof canopy that also supports a 180-kW photovoltaic array. You can see how the solar array tilts at a diagonal, adding dynamism to the roofline and ensuring the panels are operating at an efficient angle. In the basement of the building (in a former FBI shooting range) is a 165,000 gallon cistern that collects and re-purposes rainwater from the roof canopy, entrance plaza, and landscape.

Finally, in addition to the energy improvements, let’s consider how the design reveals the history of the structure and site. Inside, remnants of the concrete from the 1974 Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill  building are repurposed to support the new structure. Native plants surround the new building, crawling up the vertical metal reeds, providing habitat for native species, and responding to sun, soil, and human activity at the site. These plants were selected from the local bio-region for their tolerance to drought, adaptability, and visual interest.

The Wendell-Wyatt Federal Building seen from the corner.
SERA, Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building, Portland, OR, renovated in 2013 (original building completed in 1974), detail of the panels on the facade. Photo by M.O. Stevens CC BY 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic, and 1.0 Generic.

A final example to examine is the Desert Rain House, which is part of a residential compound in Bend, OR. The house, completed in 2014, was designed by Tozer Designs and is a certified Living Building. In fact, it is the first residential Living Building! What does it mean to be a Living Building? This means that the structure is net-zero in terms of energy and water, constructed of locally sourced, non toxic materials, and is designed to reflect and respond to the surrounding community. You can read details of how this home achieved each “petal” of the Living Building Challenge by visiting the project’s website.

To conclude, please read the article, “Going ‘Deep Green,’ Office Buildings Give Back to the Planet” from the New York Times (published July 14, 2020). This article is especially relevant as it addresses the role of green architecture in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learning Objectives

At the end of this chapter, learners should be able to:

  • Define LEED and the Living Building Challenge.
  • Describe key features of green architectural design.
  • Compare and contrast the strategies of LEED and the Living Building Challenge using specific examples from the text and any outside readings.
  • Evaluate the benefits of sustainable design.
  • Differentiate between a standard structure and one that uses green building techniques.


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Introduction to Architecture Copyright © by Kelsey Ferreira is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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