Architecture’s Great Divide

05/17/2017 11:28 PM ET
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Updated Jul 18, 2017

It’s way past time for standards of “good design” and “green design” to come together.

Stanford University Central Energy Facility, Palo Alto, CA. Winner of both a 2017 American Institute of Architects (AIA) Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten Award and a 2017 AIA Institute Honor Award.
(Matthew Anderson)

“Awards should not be bestowed on buildings that boast sustainable credentials but lack other design merits,” declared architecture critic and educator Aaron Betsky last week in Dezeen. “If a thoroughly mediocre building uses less energy and is made in ways that are more ‘sustainable,’ should it receive an award? The American Institute of Architects (AIA) apparently thinks so. This spring, they gave their so-called Top Ten Awards through their Committee on the Environment (COTE).”

Since it launched in 1997, the “so-called” Top Ten Awards have become what the AIA considers “the industry’s best-known awards program for sustainable design excellence.” Ironically, last October Betsky lamented the fact that American architecture awards don’t get much national attention: “Other than architects, who ever hears about these prizes?” In fact, the Top Ten Awards garner significantly greater attention in the general media than possibly any other award or activity related to the AIA, regularly featured in USA Today, TIME, Newsweek, the Atlantic, Fast Company, National Geographic, Wired, Scientific American, PBS, and many other outlets. If Betsky wants to spur greater national interest in design awards, his money should be on Top Ten.

I won’t debate the “other design merits” of this year’s winners, although I will point out that every one of them has won several awards focused on architecture separately from sustainability. By my count, so far these include two national AIA Institute Honor Awards—“the profession’s highest recognition of works that exemplify excellence”—as well as two dozen local or regional AIA design awards and nearly 50 design awards from other organizations. Excluding Top Ten, the median number of awards each project has won is five. So, if Betsky feels they are “thoroughly mediocre,” his beef is with the industry’s standards of design, not sustainability.

Given this, let’s reverse his question: Should awards be bestowed upon buildings that boast “other design merits” but lack “sustainable credentials”? In other words, if we’re forced to make a Sophie’s Choice—a false premise, as I point out below—which is more acceptable: to look good to one critic but perform poorly, or to perform well but look bad to that critic?

Milken Institute School of Public Health, Washington, DC. Winner of both a 2017 AIA COTE Top Ten Award and a 2017 AIA Institute Honor Award.
(Robert Benson)

In 2015, after criticism from me and others, Betsky insisted, “I believe that whatever we build has to be sustainable.” If he really believes that, why doesn’t he rage against projects he feels are architecturally inspired but environmentally irresponsible? Why doesn’t he demand that design awards never be given to energy hogs?

When he made that statement, he didn’t clarify what he meant by “sustainable,” a term whose popularity has muddied its meaning, which is why the Top Ten Awards are based on a rigorous set of specific criteria that Betsky doesn’t mention and may have overlooked. But in last week’s article, he offered advice about how to practice sustainable design, suggesting that the Top Ten winners are misguided with both aesthetics and performance. “[I]f you want to reduce your energy costs,” he contends, “it pays to let in more daylight … which means larger windows”; in actuality, over-consumption of energy usually results from too much glass, not too little. Betsky also derides “lots of gizmos and gadgets,” a tired complaint that has never accurately described the most influential exemplars of high-performance design, and the most egregious instances of this habit are committed by architects with strong reputations for design but seemingly little understanding of sustainability, as I pointed out seven years ago. In any case, the 2017 Top Ten Award winner that most obviously wears technology on its sleeve—elegantly, I might add—is the Stanford University Central Energy Facility, whose primary image is a hovering canopy of solar panels. The project has won a 2017 national AIA Institute Honor Award, as well as a dozen other design awards, and Betsky praises it as “impressive, at least from photographs.” So, conspicuous use of technology isn’t really his concern, after all.

“The most sustainable architecture,” Betsky asserts, “would start by using existing structures,” which can be true when suitable existing structures are available and appropriate for intelligent reuse, but this isn’t always the case. For example, research by Terrapin Bright Green reveals that the mid-century modern glass office tower, a staple of American urban environments, often cannot be adapted effectively to out-perform a new, more efficient building. In 2012, the National Trust for Historic Preservation found that a new building with average energy efficiency can take 10 to 80 years to make up for the impact of having built it in the first place, but the study was explicit that this did not apply to low-energy, low-impact construction, which is exemplified by many Top Ten winners. So, while embracing the existing building stock is essential whenever possible, common sense dictates that we can’t rely on it exclusively. As I pointed out in 2013, even if we ceased all new construction to focus on adaptive reuse, population would outgrow the existing building stock relatively quickly. If “whatever we build has to be sustainable,” it must apply to both renovations and new buildings.

Since Betsky trips up when he attempts to school the reader about the meaning and mechanics of sustainability, he’s better off sticking to his personal opinions about aesthetics. But even then, he’s not consistent. Last year, when Alejandro Aravena won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel, Betsky defended the choice against complaints that the Chilean is “‘just’ an activist and not a ‘real’ architect.” He calls Aravena’s social housing “stunning in photographs,” but personally I don’t see how some of that architect’s best-known buildings, such as the Monterrey Housing project, look significantly different from similar Top Ten winners, many of which are affordable housing. More importantly, Betsky describes the purpose of the prize: “In many ways, the Pritzker Jury is quite conservative... It awards a collection of built masterpieces, not experiments. Should we have an award for the latter? Absolutely….”

In short, last year he championed giving awards to socially experimental architecture that some might not find aesthetically appealing, and this year he condemns giving awards to environmentally experimental architecture that he doesn’t find aesthetically appealing.

Monterrey Housing, Monterrey, Mexico. By 2016 Pritzker Prize winner, Alejandro Aravena.
(AP)

“Good architecture,” wrote Betsky in 2014, “can be startling, or least might not look like what we are used to. It sometimes stretches the technology of building to the point that it creates problems... The fact that buildings look strange to some people, and that roofs sometimes leak, is part and parcel of the research and development aspect of the design discipline. Experimentation can sometimes look weird at first, but it is a necessary part of figuring out how to make our human-built world better.” Again, he endorses experimental architecture that “stretches technology,” even if it may not appeal to many, it creates problems, and the roofs leak, as long as it appeals to him personally. But he eschews experimental architecture that stretches technology to solve problems, simply because it doesn’t appeal to him personally. “Strange” and “weird” are okay if he likes the building, regardless of its technical problems. They’re not okay if he doesn’t.

Betsky has dismissed the idea that there can be “some sort of widely-held community standard” for design, implying that good taste is an exclusive property, yet he maintains, “I do not believe that architecture should be the province of the elite, either of taste or of money.”

“‘Sustainable architecture justifies itself,” Betsky complained in 2010, “by claiming to be pursuing a higher truth–in this case that of saving the planet. The goal justifies many design crimes, from the relatively minor ones of the production of phenomenally ugly buildings … to the creation of spaces and forms that are not particularly good for either the inhabitants or their surroundings.” Back then, he seemed to think that “phenomenal ugliness” was a “minor crime,” and now he wants to get rid of awards for any project he believes has committed such a crime. Failing to meet his aesthetic standard isn’t justified by trying to “save the planet,” but, as quoted above, “looking weird” is justified by trying to “make our human-built world better.” Bettering the human-built world is an acceptable “higher truth,” but bettering the entire world isn’t?

As for these buildings not being good for their inhabitants, he has provided no proof, and research often shows the opposite. Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment’s ongoing studies of user enjoyment show that “green buildings” typically have exceptionally good satisfaction rates. The benefits for health and wellness are well established, with various studies demonstrating that design can reduce the incidence of headaches, asthma, flu, and fatigue, by up to 50%, and a 2015 Harvard study showed that better indoor air quality can more than double cognitive performance. Post-occupancy studies for the Milken Institute School of Public Health, a 2017 Top Ten Award winner, found that 87% of occupants feel the building supports their health more than other campus buildings.

The primary purpose of design awards should be to celebrate exemplary work that can provide a model of practice for other architects. Otherwise, the industry is just patting itself on the back. Looking at energy performance alone, on average the 2017 Top Ten winners don’t just “use less energy,” as Betsky claims; they achieve nearly triple the reduction of the average “green building.” The Brock Center is a LEED Platinum, net-positive energy, carbon-neutral, zero-waste, closed-loop-water “Living Building” whose performance makes it possibly the most advanced building ever built. Its innovations include becoming the first building in Virginia to gain approval for the potable use of rainwater. Betsky might think these projects are “ugly,” but can he truly claim they’re not as motivational a model of practice as, say, Pterodactyl, a “train wreck” of a structure that won a 2016 AIA Institute Honor Award for design?

Pterodactyl, Culver City, CA. Winner of a 2016 AIA Institute Honor Award.
(Eric Owen Moss Architects)

When COTE was founded in 1990, one of its chief goals was to include performance criteria in the AIA Institute Honor Awards, as Mary Ann Lazarus, the current chair of the COTE Advisory Group, pointed out to Dezeen today. Bob Berkebile, the founding chair, recounted last year, “During 1994-95, there were a series of conversations between COTE and the Committee on Design about modifying the Awards program to include performance standards. After two years without success, the conversation moved to the AIA President and board in ’96, but they too felt that performance was too great a burden to impose on AIA members working to deliver beautiful buildings.” The Top Ten Awards were introduced in 1997 only because the AIA would not embrace sustainability in other design awards. “Originally,” Berkebile explains, “COTE agreed that the awards program should sunset in 5-10 years, once all architects understood that great design is not possible without great performance. Two decades later, there remains a need for the program to demonstrate this truth.” In 2014, entry forms for the Institute Honor Awards began to request basic performance metrics for energy, water, and other topics. However, this is not required information, and the juries are not obligated to consider it in their evaluations. Performance metrics are not published with the winners, so there is little evidence that sustainability is a significant factor in the choices.

Here's where architects stand. In 2005, the AIA wisely adopted the 2030 Challenge, which seeks a series of successive targets toward carbon neutrality by that year, and in 2009 it launched the AIA 2030 Commitment to give architects a framework for reporting their efforts. But progress remains slow. This Spring, for the first time, the AIA released a powerful statement supporting greater action: “Climate change clearly is one of the biggest global crises of the 21st century.” Buildings account for nearly half of all energy and emissions in the U.S., so climate change cannot be addressed effectively without retooling the building sector. “Designing and building resilient buildings is not a choice,” the AIA declares; “it’s an imperative.” A survey I recently conducted for Architectural Record showed that 87% of architects and designers feel it is urgent to take action, and Betsky himself insists that “whatever we build has to be sustainable.”

But we shouldn’t celebrate the most ambitious examples of good performance if Betsky thinks they’re “ugly.”

“The COTE Top Ten unfortunately seems to me to give the wrong message,” he declares. In truth, the wrong message is that image always matters more than impact, that form always trumps performance. As I argue in my book, The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design (2012), this is a false dichotomy. Following the principles of sustainability to their logical conclusion inevitably requires the reshaping of buildings in ways that are smarter with resources, better for people, and, yes, more aesthetically satisfying. We can blur the lines between how things look and how they work. Design has as much to learn from sustainability as the other way around.

By and large, designers, critics, and awards juries have yet to figure this out. To date, including this year’s winners, only 15 projects have won both a Top Ten Award and an Institute Honor Award. This represents only seven percent of the 210 projects that have been eligible for both awards. It’s way past time for the profession to bring these standards together.