How to Design a Healthier Planet

The green movement is so much more than a referendum on what kind of car we drive—or don't. In a post-McMansion age, our homes, offices and community facilities have become a reflection of our newly green values, whether that just means replacing incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent, or redoing our entire living spaces with solar panels, compost heaps and hemp wallpaper.

Each year the American Institute of Architects singles out the nation's Top Ten Green Projects, based on the incorporation of so-called sustainable design concepts. Is the project energy-efficient? Does it employ natural light and conserve water? Is the building designed to promote community interaction? In short, how does what we build have an impact on the world around us? Here, we spotlight four of 2006's winners.

A headquarters building is more than a roof over the head of the CEO; it's a three-dimensional billboard advertising corporate values to the world. Which is why software companies build "campuses" to evoke the shady quads of Harvard or Stanford. For Alberici Corp., an international construction firm based in Missouri, the message it sought to convey with its new 200-person headquarters was environmental sensitivity. The firm did it, in part, by adapting and reusing an existing factory building on a 13-acre site that was mostly paved for parking. It's now been redesigned as a park, with native trees and shrubs. This had the advantage, environmentally speaking, of saving on construction materials and transportation—the company made a point of purchasing from suppliers within 500 miles of the site—and the corresponding disadvantage of having to retrofit a building that was designed and built decades ago when profligate energy use was the norm.

The renovated building is designed to wring every drop of light from the sky. The architects, Mackey Mitchell & Associates, were confronted with the problem that the long axis of the building faced southwest, directly into the late-afternoon sun. Their solution was to add a series of angled sawtooth bays whose windows face south, letting in plenty of light but blocking the afternoon's heat and glare. An interior courtyard brings daylight to as much as three quarters of the inside area, which is configured as mostly open space. "We had a lot of naysayers before the move," says architect Angela Heinze, "but it's been an incredible transformation. This isn't just about efficiency. People love this building."

Despite some high-profile examples like Chicago's city hall and Ford's renovated River Rouge plant, "green" roofs—ones planted with vegetation—are still a novelty in America. If they are ever to become more common, they will have to prove themselves in everyday buildings constructed on a budget, like the new Ballard branch of the Seattle Public Library, designed by the firm of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. The 18,000-square-foot roof bears about four inches of soil planted with native grasses and succulent groundcover, designed to absorb and filter rainwater, remove carbon dioxide, insulate the building in both summer and winter—and last longer than a traditional hard roof.

The building employs a novel photovoltaic film applied over the windows, reducing glare and heat from the sun while producing as much as five kilowatts of power—about as much as a large house uses. "We wanted this to be more than just a repository for books," says architect Robert Miller. "We wanted the public to experience how the building works in the environment."

It took an architect who was designing her own home to think of something as sensible as this. For all their environmental virtues, shiny glass solar panels tucked in among the gables of a shingled roof present what could politely be called an architectural anomaly. But in renovating a 1920s bungalow near the beach in Venice, Calif., architect Angie Brooks made the radical decision to treat solar-energy panels as a design element in their own right: "beautiful reflective panels," she says, shading the outdoor deck and then wrapping down the wall. The Solar Umbrella House, as the project was dubbed, achieves both a striking design and maximum solar efficiency. "People think they're ugly, but actually they're very beautiful," says Brooks—and they supply as much as 95 percent of the building's electricity needs.

On sunny days, the panels feed energy back into the grid and Brooks's electricity meter runs backward. She estimates the $34,000 system will pay for itself in as little as seven years. Elsewhere in the house, rooftop solar panels preheat water for the pool and make the gas-fueled water heater more efficient. Although the renovation more than doubled the house's size, natural-gas consumption was halved. The home was designed to do without air conditioning year-round, and without electric lights on all but the cloudiest days. "You try for good cross-ventilation, protection from the western sun, overhangs to shade your big glass areas," says Brooks. "You design for the environment, and you have a better house that actually costs less."

The most obvious fact about the environment of Las Vegas is that it is hot, with more than 300 sunny days a year. But unknown to visitors who view the city only from inside a glass-walled hotel, Vegas can be surprisingly breezy in the summer. Architect Randy Spitzmesser of Tate Snyder Kimsey took that fact into account in designing a new home for the Animal Foundation Dog Adoption Park. He sited and oriented the long, low "dog bungalows" to catch the wind through shaded windows, cool it by evaporation and exhaust it through high chimneys. The whole system is powered by wind and convection, making mechanical air conditioning or ventilation unnecessary. Compared with a conventional (or "baseline") design, the buildings are intended to reduce energy consumption by as much as 81 percent.

Besides being hot, Nevada is dry. "Animal facilities use a tremendous amount of water every day to wash down the kennel areas," says Spitzmesser, "and usually it all just goes into the sewer system." He designed a system to recycle more than 20,000 gallons of water a day through "vertical-flow tidal wetlands," modeled on the action of nature's own water purifier: the swamp. The system comprises a 5,000-square-foot network of sand and gravel filters and native plants, through which water is fed by a solar-powered pump. The water that emerges is more than clean enough for washing floors and walls. "We use the sun," he says, "which is our most abundant commodity, to conserve our most precious one, which is water." And that's about as good a definition of being green as anyone could hope for.

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