Starchitect Gehry critiques LEED, supports government and grass roots initiatives for sustainability

PBS’ Need to Know show drew some elaboration from starchitect Frank Gehry on recent controversial comments about LEED. His feelings about sustainable building as something distinct from LEED certification underline growing concerns, not just in the US but abroad as well, about the certification’s shortcomings, among which that it’s become an expensive PR tool and that the points are ill-defined and distributed for real impact. Gehry’s comments that clients are opting out because they don’t need it echo concerns about the high expense of the process.

Gehry’s observation that elements of limited use are being tacked onto projects for the sole purpose of signaling is worth considering. Green building design elements need to be clearly justified in the context of their social, economic and environmental context, rather than being like bling on a building. His story of working with a client dead set on wind power despite natural limitations to its usefulness illustrates the “green at all costs” mentality.

We would add to Gehry’s observation that this runs the risk of undermining the business case for the green building movement to the extent that such capital isn’t being deployed with full analysis of the life cycle cost/benefit. Surely, large projects can experiment with low or negative return elements, but green building is nothing if not a direct response to a project’s environmental context. As Gehry admits, smaller projects don’t easily integrate green building elements. We’d argue this relates directly to the perception that the business case is weak, partially because the perception is of high profile projects with long payoffs and limited economic impact.

What’s the more straightforward solution for building green? The fact that an architect so known for whimsical designs emphasizes the practical elements, as well as increased social and governmental responsibility, is central. Gehry cites government policy and the will of the people, mandates and promotion of sustainable practices, builders and consumers demanding green building techniques because they work and make a difference. He supports the continued evolution of global consensus-building and smart technologies that don’t detract from building aesthetics. Even stringent regulation – such as the Swiss government’s restrictions on air-conditioning in new buildings – are an opportunity for creative adaptation (as detailed in the article). Materials manufacturers, especially in concrete, are responding. If the focus is on making things work, then even using technology to improve delivery schedules and eliminate construction waste becomes sexy.

After all, building creative, working solutions has always been what makes architecture (and Frank Gehry) so alluring.

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