November 20, 2003
Designing with nature in the balance
By TOM VON SCHRADER and LAURA PREFTES
SvR Design Co.
Sustainable, low-impact, green design. These words put names to design philosophies that influence the built environment in a manner that seeks balance with natural systems.
Although unarguably a positive development in the design industry, these words and phrases now face the danger of becoming overused, marketing and industry jargon before the comprehensive benefits of sustainable design are fully realized.
What we mean when we talk about sustainability is ecologically compatible design, a natural systems approach based on a dynamic system of values that will continually redefine itself over time. The challenge for today's project owners and designers is to look beyond the words and hype to design approaches that respect the earth's natural processes and are at the core of ecologically compatible design.
Still in its infancy, the success of sustainability relies upon designers to be advocates and educators, bringing about an inclusive design process and communicating the true costs of sustainable design.
A natural systems approach
By following the simple laws of physics and biological principles, we can create systems that mimic natural processes and have a positive impact on the environment. We need to look at each project not just as a single site, but as an integral component of a larger system that defines our quality of life and well being. From the beginning, we need to evaluate how the site development and design contributes to the environment's greater good.
Within the Puget Sound region, the architectural and engineering design professions are recognizing that good design and ecological performance are not mutually exclusive products of the process. They need to occur together.
What we do to one site impacts the entire ecosystem, and this presents us with the opportunity to use the site as a catalyst for ecological change. Working together, the design team can develop designs that are both site specific and regionally beneficial.
The High Point Natural Drainage System is one such example. A 129-acre dense urban redevelopment project, High Point comprises 10 percent of the Longfellow Creek watershed. SvR is working with the Seattle Housing Authority, Seattle Public Utilities and the architectural design team to develop a natural drainage approach to reduce pollutant discharge, decrease erosion and stabilize the creek water temperature.
The system will be integrated into the street grid, creating a network of connected vegetated and grass-lined swales that will mimic predeveloped conditions and provide a balance between neighborhood green space, pedestrian safety and water quality improvements.
The true costs of sustainability
One of the biggest challenges to creating sustainable designs is the perception of upfront costs versus long-term operations and maintenance costs. Some green products are more expensive than their less sustainable counterparts. In some cases, design costs can be higher when specifying new technologies that require more time to evaluate quality and durability. In reality, design and construction only represent a small portion of the building's lifetime costs.
Ecologically compatible practices can reduce life-cycle costs, saving on long-term energy and operating costs. According to an October 2003 report, “The Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Buildings,” issued to California's Sustainable Building Task Force, a minimal increase in upfront costs of about 2 percent would result in life cycle savings of 20 percent of total construction costs.
This is 10 times the original investment. When owners and stakeholders understand this, they are more receptive to higher upfront capital costs. Recognizing this, the city of Seattle recently adopted an ordinance that specifies city-owned buildings to be designed and constructed to meet sustainable design (LEED) requirements.
Intangible benefits should also be considered when evaluating costs.
“It is difficult to quantify dollar value on quality of space — how do you quantify the intangibles such as sense of pride, better performance and comfort? This is a huge issue,” said Darrell Turner, architect at Boxwood and project manager for the city of Seattle's Joint Training Facility, a project that is being designed to meet the requirements for a silver LEED certification.
Craig Curtis, a partner with the Miller/Hull Partnership agrees. “There's not enough emphasis on worker productivity and comfort. The focus should not only be on lowering operating costs but also on increasing productivity through an environmentally friendly building.”
One of Miller/Hull's design directives for the Pierce County Environmental Services Building was to create a more humane place to work. With innovative technologies in natural light and ventilation, the facility has not only been a tremendous success as a workplace, but also saves energy by reducing the need for artificial light and air conditioning. Initial investment in these sustainable practices is expected to be being recouped within the first five years of occupancy.
These same concerns were expressed for the site, which included contemplative areas for people to enjoy and learn about their environment
Inclusion means everyone: from the division head to the maintenance staff, from the facility users to the community stakeholders, and from the politicians to the permitting agencies.
“You must have early integration of ideas — thinking about sustainable design, materials and approaches early in site design,” said Joe Chauncey, a principal at Boxwood.
From the planning stage, Boxwood has used a charrette approach for the design of the city of Seattle's Joint Training Facility (JTF). When completed, the JTF will be used by three separate city agencies: Public Utilities, Fire Department and Transportation.
Boxwood guided the JTF design team and stakeholders through a series of eco-charrettes to define opportunities for sustainable and low-impact program elements. Each group had their own needs and priorities, but they all agreed on one thing: they wanted JTF to be a model of sustainability.
During each eco-charrette, everyone had the opportunity to vote on four to six favorite “eco-elements,” which were compiled into a prioritized list of 20 to 30. As the project continues, the prioritized list created in the charrette process has become a guideline for design.
SvR has also been working with city agencies in a charrette format to develop new standards for the High Point project. This inclusive process produced proactive dialogue rather than the standard back-and-forth, propose-and-review process.
The result was to focus on performance rather than on application of standard practices to meet the overall goal of developing the natural drainage system at High Point. This dialogue also helped to expand the scope to include support for sustainable demolition, water and energy-efficient buildings, rainwater harvesting, and long-term “healthy homes.”
With the modern green building movement a little over a decade old, this is only the beginning. We have incredible opportunities to positively impact our planet by doing what we love to do — design.
But it's not just about design any more. Sustainability has made designers better educators, facilitators and integrators. It's not just about making a facility beautiful; it's about making it ecologically and economically functional. It's about looking at the budget not just in terms of initial costs, but also the total costs and benefits to society and the environment.
It's essential not to lose sight of what sustainable, low-impact, green design really means.
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