Cruise around any major city at night and you’re likely to see something that might not fly in your own home—someone forgot to turn out the lights. Skyscrapers are ablaze with lights even when workers have gone home, and it’s likely their AC, computers, and other energy-sucking equipment is still plugged in or running. So it comes as no surprise that in the United States, buildings account for 72 percent of electricity consumption, 38 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, 30 percent of waste output, and 14 percent of potable water consumption, according to the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). The houses, schools, libraries, and hospitals we build are what have the greatest impact environmentally, more than the food we eat, the clothes we buy, or even the cars we drive. That’s why the USGBC, a non-profit organization formed in 1993 by architects, contractors, and owners, developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Building Rating System in 1998.
LEED is a third-party certification program and the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high performance green buildings. In order to earn a LEED rating, buildings must undergo a rigorous evaluation of their sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality by a volunteer committee. LEED committees are composed of a diverse group of practitioners and experts in the green building industry.
According to how well it adheres to LEED guidelines, each building ranks on a scale from certified or bronze to platinum. The following buildings have received platinum ratings for their innovative ideas and use of technology to preserve resources while combining form with function. They represent five different types of building: a residence, a library, a school, an office building, and a museum.
National Audubon Society Headquarters, NYC
The National Audubon Society moved into new green digs in NYC last year. Their 27,000-square-foot seventh floor offices were designed by FXFOWLE Architects and registered under LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI). The space, leased by the Audubon Society for the next twenty years, has its own cooling and ventilation system that is separate from the rest of the building, which dates back to 1926. The project used only sustainable or recycled materials from within a 500-mile radius. Each desk has individual lighting to use energy more efficiently and keep ambient light to a minimum. The ventilation system, along with telephone and computer cables, is hidden under a raised floor, and allows individual office tenants to regulate temperatures in their own spaces.
Water + Life Museums Complex, Hemet, CA
The Water + Life Museums complex in Hemet, California, is the world’s first LEED Platinum museum. Los Angeles based Michael Lehrer Architects designed the $40 million, 72,000-square-feet campus to accommodate a desert climate where temperatures run the gamut from winter freezes to summer scorchers.
To harness the desert sun, the roof holds a 540-watt, 3,000 panel solar array that produces about half of the complex’s power while shading the interior from the harsh glare. Translucent panels hang over 8,000 square feet of the structure and heat-blocking glass also helps to keep the interior cool, along with radiant flooring. Outside, terraced gardens reap the benefits of reclaimed water from a drip irrigation system.
Lake View Terrace Branch Library, Los Angeles, CA
This public library calls itself the “most ecologically friendly city facility in Los Angeles.” It combines green initiatives not only in its interior and exterior design, but also in its location. The building is strategically situated within walking distance of housing, park, and recreation centers. Also nearby are mass transit and electric car charging stations. The facility provides a bike rack and even a horse hitching post for eco-friendly travelers.
Among many other green features, the site has bamboo wood flooring, which is more rapidly renewable than hardwood; a high curved ceiling that draws warm air up for improved ventilation and cooling; and airfoil sunshade awnings on the north and south sides that prevent direct sunlight while maintaining a draft to vent the building walls. Committed to education, the library’s branch includes an environmental resource exhibit area to promote public awareness of ecology.
Sidwell Friends Middle School, Washington, D.C.
If President Obama wins a second term, Sacha and Malia will probably attend Sidwell Friends Middle School, the first K-12 school in the United States to have a LEED Platinum rating and the first LEED Platinum building in the District of Columbia. KieranTimberlake Associates designed the building on a constructed wetland, which uses less energy to process waste than traditional systems while creating habitats for plant and animal life. With the addition of an ultra violet (UV) filter, the Sidwell Friends’ constructed wetland treats wastewater to the same standards as the District of Columbia’s municipal system. Due to health codes, however, the school only uses the reused water in toilets and the building’s cooling tower. Other green features include 78 percent regional building materials and a passive solar design combined with energy conservation, through which the school consumes 60 percent less energy than traditional energy installations.
Personal Residence, Columbus, OH
The first LEED Platinum home in Ohio is not owned by some billionaire or celebrity trying to boost his green cred. Instead, the residence at 258 N. 21st Street was built by a collaboration of non-profit organizations, government, corporate, and educational entities under the purview of the Columbus Housing Partnership (CHP).
Located on North of Broad (NoBo)’s first residential “green street,” which was made from recycled asphalt and 968 recycled tires, the home was built and decorated with local, recycled materials and waste reducing techniques. The backyard features a rain garden to absorb water runoff from the home’s roof, where a two kilowatt Solar Electric (or Photovoltaic) System creates renewable, non-polluting electricity. When the system produces more energy than the home can use, the energy is sold back to the energy company. The Solar Thermal System also saves residents 70 percent on the cost of their water needs by harnessing the renewable, non-polluting energy of the sun.
The owners and designers of these buildings should be commended as pioneers in an industry that will revolutionize the way we live and think about energy. The technologies implemented in the above buildings will continue to be tested and refined until we can all live in homes with backyard rain gardens, check out books at libraries with bamboo flooring, and send our children to schools on constructed wetlands. Where we live determines how we live, and these buildings indicate that our lives in the future won’t just be green—they’ll be platinum.