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European Vocation

When it comes to sustainable design, Americans have often looked to Europe for expertise, but that's changing.

By Russell Fortmeyer

For years, the dirty secret of sustainable design in the United States was that whatever you built, the Europeans had already done it. Double-skinned curtain walls, chilled beams, underfloor ventilation, actuator-controlled windows, building-integrated photovoltaics, methane harvesting—add these design strategies up and (as the conventional wisdom would have it) you would have described a typical European building. But many indications suggest that North America is catching up.
Commerzbank tower in Frankfurt, Germany
Photo © Foster and Partners
Commerzbank tower in Frankfurt, Germany
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“I think if you go back 10 years, there was a real difference in education in Europe in terms of sustainability and energy consumption, where people in Europe were much more aware than those in the United States,” says David Richards, a London-based mechanical engineer and a director of the global engineering firm Arup. “Now, I think differences are smaller, and in some areas, it’s beginning to flip the other way.”

Richards, who worked for several years in Arup’s New York office, partly credits the influence of Europe’s firms to an early embrace of integrated design, the willingness among firms to try more experimental design approaches, and a more adventurous construction industry that doesn’t shy away from unproven methods. Many architects and engineers, both in Europe and the U.S., agree that, historically, European architects have collaborated with their consultants much earlier in the design process, often in a more intense, iterative way.

Furthermore, European architects and engineers have been more likely to engage in a research process during design. Christoph Ingenhoven, with Ingenhoven Architekten in Dusseldorf, Germany, developed an interest in sustainable design from the green movement that emerged to combat the proliferation of nuclear power in Germany in the 1970s. His current working process tends to rely on a combination of input from the country’s science and technology research base along with an architectural sensibility. “With the small architecture fees in America, you can’t really do the research I’m interested in doing,” Ingenhoven says, referring to complex computational fluid dynamic modeling and wind tests undertaken for a naturally ventilated train station his firm recently designed. “But then, if air-conditioning cost you what it costs the climate on a global scale, you couldn’t use it anymore.”

American research does lag behind other countries. National Science Foundation statistics on private research-and-development funding show the U.S. spends only 0.2 percent of total private R&D funding on the construction industry. The country with the highest rate of investment in construction-related research is Japan, at 2.1 percent. Germany spends 0.3, the U.K. spends 0.4, and Finland spends 0.8. The U.S. also falls behind these countries on academic R&D funding per capita in engineering.

Although research may fall short, public policy in America has radically changed recently in response to sustainability. Niall McLaughlin, Niall McLaughlin Architects, London, considers much of the impetus for sustainable design worldwide to have arisen in the U.S. in the 1970s, but once the energy crisis dropped off, so did American interest. “In the United Kingdom, global warming is a commonplace conversation,” says McLaughlin, who also teaches architecture at London’s Bartlett School of Architecture. “However, the U.S. is not a homogenous block. I took my students to California, and in terms of policy, you see far more thinking on the environment there than you would in the north of England.”

McLaughlin is referring to California’s strict Title 24 energy regulations, which govern mechanical loads, fenestration performance values, and energy use for lighting. Comparable to some European codes that are being partially absorbed into the European Union’s 2002 Directive on Energy Performance in Buildings, California’s regulations have the added benefit of true enforcement tied to building permitting. In Europe, outside of the more progressive countries—Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the U.K., and most of Scandinavia—this is not always the case.

Still, the perception of European eminence persists in some high circles. In the May 20, 2007, issue of The New York Times Magazine, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote an article titled “Why Are They Greener Than We Are?” The story detailed a few recent European projects and concluded that government regulation forced European architects to innovate sustainable design strategies, such as natural ventilation, that have found wide adoption. Toward the end, he suggested the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program has had “little effect.” But Ouroussoff overlooks the fast-growing list of federal government agencies, states, and municipalities—including Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago—that have mandated LEED certification for a public and private projects, and have introduced a host of tax and permitting incentives. In all, 17 states and 60 municipalities have adopted LEED standards in some form, and the USGBC counts over 35,000 members as LEED-accredited professionals.

More importantly, what Ouroussoff also neglects—and what most European and American designers are quick to point out—is that for many of the buildings being touted as exemplars of sustainability, the design teams behind the projects may well represent many national backgrounds and cultures. It’s no longer easy to point to a building in London or Los Angeles and claim it as either British or American. This is more true of sustainably designed buildings than others, since people in the sustainability movement have typically been more willing to share design strategies and technologies with counterparts.

With its global offices, a firm like Arup has done as much as any single building or government to spread sustainable philosophies and design skills throughout the world. Alan Locke, a mechanical engineer and principal at IBE Consulting Engineers in Sherman Oaks, California, started his career at Arup in the U.K. nearly 30 years ago. He was involved in the Arup design team that introduced several progressive sustainable- design strategies—external sun shades, louvered facades, underfloor ventilation—to Will Bruder’s 1995 Phoenix Central Library.

“At the time, ‘green’ was a dirty word—it meant a ‘hippie,’” says Locke. “Instead, we used terms like ‘energy efficiency’ and ‘comfort’ to make the case.” He adds that sustainability has never been a singular pursuit for design, but that engineers and architects in the U.K. have always been motivated by sensible design: saving energy, maintaining occupant comfort, and improving indoor air quality. Furthermore, he says higher energy costs motivated developers in Europe to embrace more radical design approaches.

Locke’s firm is currently at work on an office building in Paris with Morphosis architects. He says France, unlike Germany and the U.K., has lagged behind on sustainable issues, in part because electricity prices have stayed cheap due to the abundance of nuclear power in the country. Although professional expertise may vary, Locke says the different perspectives offered by local engineers and architects can be instructive. “We’ve made great strides in the U.S., but we could flounder if we just follow the points-based system of LEED and ignore the big picture,” he says. “We can learn from different cultures, and in the end, that’s what influences design.”

The representation of sustainable design in the media and public presentations can sometimes skip over the suitability of certain technologies for different countries, which could lead to the typical architect’s response of “I could never do that here.” For example, double-skinned curtain walls, such as in projects like Murphy/Jahn’s 2003 Deutsche Post Tower in Bonn, Germany, have come to be associated with sustainable ventilation schemes, even though, in comparison to the U.S., Europe’s temperate climate is much more suited to such technology. Regardless, these wall constructions have been slow to catch on in the U.S. market. Matthias Schuler, a mechanical engineer and principal of Stuttgart, Germany-based Transsolar, helped Murphy/Jahn design that tower after years of collaboration. “It can take a while for architects to understand the complex interconnections between their design and this global approach,” Schuler says. Transsolar, which also has an office in New York, is working with the Chicago firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz Architects on a new building for that city’s Loyola University that will also have a double-skinned curtain wall. In that case, the client bought into the ventilation scheme only after visiting projects in Germany that had successfully employed similar designs.

Although architects have turned to foreign consultants for such innovative solutions in the past, the more overseas collaborations take shape, the more U.S. consultants have changed. Collaboration between architects and engineers early on in the design process is now much more common in the U.S.

 The U.K.-born architect Andrew Whalley, AIA, a director at Grimshaw Architects’ New York office, says he has traditionally thought of European consultants as more craft-based and willing to invent new components for buildings, compared to Americans who prefer off-the-shelf materials. “That’s changing with the use of CAD/CAM,” he says, referring to the current move in more progressive firms toward building information modeling (BIM), a complex version of computer-aided design (CAD), and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM). “Competition between companies will drive this cultural change.” Echoing the sentiments of many of the people interviewed for this article, Whalley also notes that projects for American universities have been especially important for increasing the role of research and experimentation in sustainable design.

If there is a dirty secret about sustainable design in America in 2007, it’s that the next generation of architects and engineers are leading the way.

This article appeared in the July 2007 print issue of GreenSource Magazine

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