Green is Good

Feb. 24, 2008
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For some reason when I hear the term environmental architecture it conjures up dour-faced buildings with shaggy grass roofs. It likewise transports me to dimly lit lecture halls full of students watching slides of stick men wantonly perspiring and thereby contributing to the untenable levels of humidity in their office environment. Shame on those stick men, and shame on me. Sitting through a lecture Paul Stoller (Atelier 10) on environmentally sustainable design at UW-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning (part of a series of public lectures SARUP hosts each week), has got me thinking. Not only are buildings green buildings easier on the planet and it’s resources – they can also look pretty damn good. In our image-conscious culture that’s as important as whether the building stands up.

Take Alpine House in London’s Kew Gardens for example, a small greenhouse built to accommodate mountainous species of plants. It’s a sexy, high-tech sort of building; a kind of Foster/Calatrava hybrid but with a conscience. To think the design of this greenhouse is inspired by a termite hill!

Only problem is this building confirms environmentally sensitive design can be heavy on the purse strings. Apparently it’s among the most expensive buildings built in Britain per square foot. It makes me wonder: Can’t green buildings rely more on basic and elegant solutions rather than on high-tech gadgetry? Think of Hassan Fathy’s designs inspired by indigenous Egyptian architecture.

Mind you, another example he held up was an elementary school in Essex, England, which is shaped in a triangle to optimize the sunlight that reaches south and west facades. It’s a modest, earth-hugging little thing which proves earth-friendly design doesn’t have to break the bank. There’s something satisfyingly platonic about its triangular shape with the rectangular gym nestled in its heart.

Stoller’s lecture served it’s purpose well though: a rallying call to the next generation of architects, some of whom were likely enough sitting before him in that lecture hall. He gently urged them to start thinking in terms of sustainable, place-sensitive, efficient design without resorting to grave chastisement. There was no “end of the world is nigh” speech, just well-meant advice. Start playing around with how daylight and ventilation will enter your buildings at the early design stage, he suggests. Almost made me want to go back to the drawing board myself…

SARUP's next guest lecture takes place on Friday, March 7,in Room 170 at the SARUP building, 2131 E. Hartford Ave., at 4:30 p.m. The speaker will be architect Vincent James.


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