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Thom Mayne on What's Wrong with LEED

11/15/2007

By Ted Smalley Bowen

Thom Mayne doesn't let doing the right thing cramp his style.

The 2005 Pritzker Prize winner, whose Santa Monica-based firm Morphosis has won plaudits for the aesthetic originality, cultural sensitivity and overall sustainability of its buildings, rejects the notion that green buildings have to look a certain way and bristles at overly specific green building standards. A keynoter at this year's Greenbuild conference in Chicago, Mayne practices ecologically sensitive design but refuses to be co-opted by any particular movement. LEED is far from perfect, in his estimation. A simpler system, grounded in bottom-line metrics and weighted toward a building's long-term performance, would be more to his liking.

Thom Mayne
Photo: Courtesy Greenbuild
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His recent high-profile projects, including the California Department of Transportation district headquarters in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Federal Building, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite operations center in Suitland, Maryland, incorporate green roofs, daylighting, natural ventilation, solar power, and thermally efficient outer-wall designs.

Mayne touts a research-intensive design process, one that integrates sustainability within the overall building program, rather than tacking on green features to score LEED points or advertise environmentalism.

As part of the redevelopment of Paris' La Defense commercial district, Morphosis won the design competition for a 1,000-foot-tall office building, the Phare (Lighthouse) Tower. Only the Eiffel Tower will eclipse it on the Paris skyline. Slated for completion in 2012, it will sport rooftop wind turbines and a high-performance double skin.

The San Francisco Federal Building project earned Morphosis the Zumtobel Group Award for sustainable design. The firm donated the prize money to Global Green USA, the American affiliate of Mikhail Gorbachev's environmental nonprofit, Green Cross International.

Mayne spoke by phone from his Santa Monica studio.

Ted Smalley Bowen: How do you think the economic downturn, energy crunch and housing slump will affect the demand for green buildings?

Thom Mayne: The economy isn't really touching (commercial and institutional) architecture at this point. In fact, the market has heated up in places like New York and L.A. The slow-down is mostly in the housing market. The financial picture for green buildings is complicated. There's not a lot of front-end money for green buildings.

It has to be absorbed in your project budget. But more businesses are realizing the economic benefit. Energy represents a huge cost.

TSB: Should a building wear its green features on its sleeve? What about companies looking to advertise a commitment to sustainability?

TM: Personally, I think it's irrelevant if it's apparent or not, with the exception of schools or other cases when we've wanted to be didactic about the relationship of a building and its environment, like our NOAA building. For the Europeans it's a normal parameter.

It's like fire codes and building codes. Nobody really knows what a green building looks like. I think we will see more different forms. The first time I saw the lunar landing module I was surprised. It was made in a very casual manner, with staples and tin foil. I was just startled. If it had been designed to look like earlier notions of space travel, it would look like a Flash Gordon rocket.

Design is a manifestation of the forces that are driving it, (but) buildings are slower than consumer electronics to reflect change. People are more conservative about them. When I explain our San Francisco building, I can talk in performance terms and the double skin is part of that. The aesthetic of the building starts looking appropriate. Within artistic, aesthetic and subjective terms you can connect the performance to the aesthetics. You can like or dislike the building, but you have to understand its relationship to its purpose and its ecological, cultural and political context. We overcame some anti-modern bias because it hit the criteria.

Whether a building looks green is irrelevant. What matters is the amount of BTUs per square meter and CO2 per capita or per square meter.

TSB: Do you see a hierarchy of green features, among location, energy, materials, skin, etc.?

TM: It's integrative. Location dictates different solutions. Weather dictates organization, materials, shape. A place like Manhattan is by definition more sustainable. We're moving into a loft there and the people keep the apartments above and below ours warm. The radiant heat from neighbors and the hall means that in the winter we keep the windows open. We have no car. We walk to bakery and to the store. If you look at transportation and infrastructural costs, long-term, there has to be an intensification, a reversal of the L.A. and Las Vegas patterns of sprawl. The feds will have to have some sort of national approach.

TSB: What do you make of the various green mandates, whether city ordinances or governmental or organizational requirements?

TM: They should be treated like building codes. It's no different than the rules they put on automobiles and electrical and mechanical systems. Nobody questions structural requirements in seismic locations.

TSB: What do you think of LEED and the way the USGBC has handled it so far? What about other standards and groups?

TM: LEED should give performance requirements and let the architect solve the problem. The point system doesn't scale. A bike rack and air conditioning get you the same point. I'd much rather see BTU and CO2 requirements and let the professional community solve the problem. If you give proscriptive requirements, it stagnates new development and research. It's like taking a blue book test. You don't need to know the subject. Because architects deal in creative problem solving, some of that will be curtailed by proscriptive systems.

I also think the LEED point system is overladen in the construction phase versus lifetime energy consumption and secondary effects.

TSB: As a designer, how much and how directly do you track the post-commissioning life of your buildings and does LEED and sustainability in general affect that process?

TM: The San Francisco building will be monitored for two years. We're always looking at the performance of buildings and looking at their operation by users. We need to know the habits of users, how they're affecting performance. It's hugely important. There' more involvement (with green buildings) and it's a good thing. That's how we learn.

TSB: Are architects paid enough to do that kind of post-commissioning follow-up?

TM: We need the response for our own research and development.

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