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Art & Architecture

It Can Be Easy Building Green

An architect finds 13 buildings that are kind to the environment

June 09, 2002|VIVIAN LeTRAN

In "Ten Shades of Green" at the Orange County Museum of Art, architecture follows a new dictum: Form follows function--and global survival.

"Buildings are one of the biggest polluters of the environment," said guest curator Peter Buchanan, an independent London architect and writer who proposed the show in response to the potential threat of global warming. "Green design is building with a conscience," he said.

Fifty percent of energy consumed and greenhouse gases emitted in the world are from buildings, Buchanan said, adding that the United States alone contributes up to one-fourth of the planet's emissions.

Promoting green building design has become an important cause for the Architectural League of New York, an organization that presents exhibits and public education programs on architecture and design. The league accepted Buchanan's proposal and produced the 12-stop traveling exhibition, which will continue on to Boston and Las Vegas.

Rosalie Genevro, league executive director, said Buchanan was commissioned to guest-curate the show because he is a green issues advocate and has broad appeal to technical and lay audiences. Buchanan selected 13 buildings, based on aesthetics and environmental friendliness. Most are European projects, and most were built within the last five years.

The exhibition's title comes from the 10 criteria it establishes for assessing greenness. Primary among them is energy efficiency: the use of "natural" air-conditioning or solar heat, for example. Buildings are also judged on their use of recycled materials and renewable resources, and on the way they react to and operate in their environments. Buchanan says one way to summarize green principles is to think in terms of thermodynamics, the way heat can be transferred into other kinds of energy and vice versa.

Each project is represented by photographs, drawings and a scale model in cross-section, which allows a visitor to see, for example, how the University of Nottingham in England uses wind power and its lakeside site to create a cooling system. The architects discuss their projects on interactive computer displays.

What's crucial to Buchanan is that these buildings accomplish green goals without compromising style.

"Green design is not a straitjacket," Buchanan said. "American architects have complained that green buildings are ugly. We want to show people that green architecture can be beautifully designed and conceptually sophisticated."

In his view, the Commerzbank headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany, has it all. Designed by British architect Norman Foster, the silvery triangular structure is covered in reflective glass. It's 53 stories--the tallest skyscraper in Europe--and among its most important green elements is an atrium, a hollow core that fills the bank's offices with natural light from all sides while creating better air circulation. Foster also added atrium "sky gardens" on some floors to freshen the air and provide public gathering places.

Another building in the exhibition, the Beyeler Foundation Museum in Basel, Switzerland, is embedded in a park-like landscape. The classical design by Renzo Piano features an all-glass roof and perforated steel panels that control the natural lighting in the galleries.

The Minnaert Building in Utrecht, Netherlands, by the Dutch firm Neutelings Riedijk Architecten, is a wave-like horizontal structure made of insulated concrete. The building collects rainwater on the roof, and the water drips into a pool in the building's central hall. In the summer, the rainwater is used to cool the building. It is pumped through a circulatory system, absorbing heat, which it then releases on the roof.

Four homes are showcased in the exhibit: three in the United States and the fourth in Nova Scotia. The Wescott/Lahar House in west Marin County uses thick, well-insulated walls made of bales of straw to conserve energy. The Cotulla Ranch House in La Salle County, Texas, is built to recycle rainwater by collecting it in cisterns. The Palmer House in Tucson manages temperature with thick walls, uses native landscape and has an economical evaporative cooling system. The Howard House in West Pennant, Nova Scotia, recycles local materials, such as corrugated steel from boat sheds and barns.

Why are most of the exhibition's projects from Europe? Genevro says that in general, Europe is ahead of the curve on green design because its natural resources are more limited and architects are more aware of the problem and more motivated to find solutions. But, she adds, an increasing number of U.S. buildings are beginning to meet green standards.

"The exhibition is consistent with our own mission," said Peter Templeton, a program manager with the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Buchanan's criteria are similar to those the council uses to certify buildings. In the last two years, 20 buildings nationwide have been granted green status and 350 others are being considered for approval.

At UC Santa Barbara, the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, designed by Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership, received one of the council's highest ratings.

"The current interest of green design isn't a passing fad," Genevro said. "Our resources are limited, and we can't go on with the sprawl and consumption of land the way we have been."

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"TEN SHADES OF GREEN," Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Dates: Open Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Ends June 30. Prices: $5, adults; $4, students and seniors; children younger than 16 and members, free; free Tuesdays. Phone: (949) 759-1122.

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Vivian LeTran is a Times staff writer.

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