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COTE D’Azure

The AIA/COTE top ten was founded to provide much-needed case studies of excellence in sustainable design. Twelve years and widespread acceptance later, the sky’s the limit.


By David Sokol

When the definitive history of the AIA/COTE Top Ten is written, its first chapters will sound something like an old-fashioned yarn. Coincidence and good fortune, fueled by several key individuals’ passion for sustainability, created the very grown-up recognition program that is setting standards today. The narrative’s beginning precedes the Top Ten, which Gail Lindsey initiated during her tenure as AIA/COTE chairwoman in 1997 and 1998. In fact, it dates to the founding of the AIA Committee on the Environment itself. While the committee’s roots reach back to the 1970s (2007 AIA/COTE chairwoman Kira Gould has extensively chronicled this trajectory on the American Institute of Architects’ website), its present form gained momentum in the 1980s, after BNIM Architects principal Bob Berkebile spent a weekend performing victim rescue from the tragic collapse of the walkways of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel. (It had been designed by Berkebile and PBNA, the predecessor of his current firm.) Nursing an epiphany about his personal obligation to serve society and architecture’s extensive impact on the environment, Berkebile began pressuring the AIA to research the environmental influence of architecture and how to mitigate it. The response was unenthusiastic, and it culminated in the AIA board’s rejection of the Critical Planet Rescue (CPR) initiative in 1989. Berkebile and the Kansas City AIA Chapter then presented the measure on the floor of that year’s AIA Convention in St. Louis, where this time it was approved. Proving the AIA brass’s continued disinterest in CPR, it was relayed to the floundering Energy Committee for implementation.
COTE D’Azure
Clockwise from top left: 2008’s AIA/COTE Top Ten jurors included Pritzker Prize– winning architect Glenn Murcutt; Polshek Partnership design principal and managing partner Susan Rodriguez, FAIA; President, USGBC Cascadia Chapter, Jason McLennan, AIA; USGBC Research Committee chairwoman Gail Brager of UC Berkeley; North Carolina State University professor Marvin Malecha, and Rebecca Henn, who is starting an assistant professorship at Penn State.

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“This reporter promised we’d have an informal conversation, and then there would be a story when the AIA agreed to the research,” says Berkebile, remembering a conversation he had with a journalist from the Kansas City Business Journal during the crucial period prior to the founding of the Committee on the Environment (known as COTE). The journalist ran the story anyway, portraying Berkebile as a Don Quixote character taking on the big, bad national organization; there was even an accompanying cartoon showing a donkey-riding Berkebile charging a mountain of steaming garbage.

Here’s where passion collided with good luck: A local Environmental Protection Agency official wound up reading the premature article and passed it up the ranks to Bill Reilly, the new head of the EPA. Reilly had just come back from a weekend retreat in which he announced to his staff that the EPA had to change direction, focusing on prevention rather than environmental policing. CPR was a perfect fit for this new tack, and the agency soon committed $1 million to the effort. At the 1990 AIA Convention in Houston, COTE was born.

Lindsey attended the first meeting of the committee. She remembers walking in, juggling file folders overstuffed with clippings of forward-thinking European and Canadian projects, and taking a seat beside Berkebile. “Bill [McDonough], Bob, Harry [Gordon], and these green pioneers were all there. And when they saw my files, they said, ‘Oh my gosh, you did all this?’ I replied yes, and that I was coming to the meeting to get answers from them. I was trying to find case studies, and I just couldn’t find that many. And when I did, they were all over the place.”

AIA/COTE’s early years bore a resemblance to Lindsey's file folders. The group produced gems of knowledge, but there was no necklace—a quintessential case study—to hold them together. “We’d been doing the research, publishing reports; it had all been seen as technical stuff. It was very obvious that to transform the profession we had to engage the best designers,” Berkebile says. “That’s why the Top Ten program was born.” Even though AIA/COTE Top Ten didn’t launch until seven years later, the program had an impromptu quality (plus a different name: the Earth Day Top Ten). Lindsey and her AIA/COTE teammates called friends and colleagues, rounding up only 14 green projects from which they could name 10 honorees. Submissions were little more than photographs and some text, inconsistent in their depth of self-examination.

The recognition program evolved progressively over the next 11 years, although there were certain watershed moments. In 2000, for example, then-AIA/COTE chairwoman Sandy Mendler remembers attending a Department of Energy event regarding benchmarking metrics for green buildings with environmental educator Vivian Loftness. The pair then conceived of 10 measures of building performance and architectural design for Top Ten submissions, the format to which today so many architects devote innumerable hours.

Also that year, Mendler advocated for an outside jury process, as well as a technical jury to evaluate quantifiable performance metrics. The following year, the DOE—enthusiastic that new-and-improved Top Ten submissions could be easily incorporated into its High Performance Buildings online database—funded the change, and the AIA/COTE board handed the responsibility of evaluating submissions to an invited group of jurors whose makeup attempted to represent a fair balance of gender, special interests, and geography. This year’s jury, held in Seattle with the cooperation of the AIA Seattle Chapter and the University of Washington School of Architecture, exemplifies those efforts. In addition to being the first jury held outside of Washington, D.C., the 12th AIA/COTE Top Ten hosted its first bona fide celebrity juror, Pritzer Prize-winner Glenn Murcutt.

Just as the jury’s convening in the Pacific Northwest suggests, every sea change in Top Ten history has brought subsequent fine-tuning. For example, it was in 2000 that 2008 AIA/COTE chairman and Siegel & Strain Architects principal Henry Siegel first applied to the recognition program. (Projects by his Emeryville, California-based firm have topped the COTE charts three times since then.) The experience was taxing. “I immediately started saying that it was a big deal to apply for this, that there are a lot of questions. I started getting hold of people I could give comments to.” Two years of unsolicited suggestions earned Siegel a spot on an advisory group dedicated to revising the 10 measures.

That advisory group has made incremental but important changes over the years. While some have been logical in nature—why mention water conservation in three places when it can be consolidated under a single category?—others have taken a more philosophical turn. Passive design, for one, is featured higher up on the list of measures than it had been. “It became obvious that systems were considered after design,” Siegel explains, “and that the architect’s role is to design a building without systems, and then systems come afterward.” Moreover, percentage of recycled content was nixed. Besides being hard to quantify, “maybe what’s more important is your selection criteria.”

As the Top Ten program has evolved over 12 years, so have the competition entrants and sustainable design as a discipline. “Our first winner would not win today,” Siegel says. “The project that was breaking new ground in the beginning would fall in the middle of the pack today.”

Berkebile provides further perspective on then versus now: “First, there are more projects being submitted. Second, they are much more diverse and more comprehensive in scope. In those early days a lot of us were submitting learning centers, rural scout camps, and environmental discovery centers—small projects that were generally designed and funded by highly motivated people. Now we’re seeing huge government buildings, office buildings, private developments, headquarters. That’s a pretty significant transformation. That doesn’t mean the industry has been transformed, but it’s in that early phase of significant change.”

He also posits some reasons for the shift. As the scientific community has grown more unanimous in linking climate change to human causes, press attention has increased correspondingly. Berkebile also credits corporate visionaries like Ray Anderson, head of carpet giant Interface, for building mainstream acceptance. Furthermore, early adopters of sustainability have realized successful projects, proving to others that going green works. Meanwhile, architects are more comfortable with the integrated-team approach that sustainability requires.

Perhaps AIA/COTE Top Ten itself has helped galvanize some of that massive change. The subjects interviewed for this story, while conceding that they may be drinking the Kool-Aid, say they believe the recognition program they’ve conceived and cared for has, in fact, set a bar for green architects. They are considering how to keep the standard high in the future. “I think the 2010 and 2030 goals are challenges for us,” Siegel says, referring to the organization Architecture 2030’s ambitious program to dramatically reduce buildings’ fossil-fuel consumption, a direction the AIA actively supports. One option for maintaining the rigor of the awards program would be to disqualify projects that don’t meet the 50 percent energy reduction goal. Another possibility would be to model the criteria after the regenerative standards of the “Living Building Challenge.” A welcome alternative would be that sustainability becomes so accepted that the Top Ten, whatever its form, is incorporated directly into the AIA awards program. In a signal of that move, 2007 juror Anne Shopf says the Portland chapter has added a sustainability criterion to their honor awards program. The Seattle chapter is considering doing the same.

But the profession isn’t there yet. As McLennan said at this year’s jury, “While a competition like this shows what is being done, it can also illuminate how far we have to go.” Are architects becoming increasingly sophisticated in melding performance and design, or does America’s sustainable architecture have a way to go in expressing a sense of place, as Murcutt has pointed out? Correspond- ingly, how is the Top Ten doing in sniffing out the best projects? We invite you to take a closer look at the cream of this year’s crop—and to take the pulse of the sustainable architecture profession for yourself.

David Sokol is a New York-based writer and editor. He contributes regularly to Azure, Interior Design, Metropolis, and Plenty.

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This article appeared in the July 2008 print issue of GreenSource Magazine

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