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Building Green Without LEED

In architecture, sustainability has come to mean LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED is an environmental rating system for buildings developed by the Green Building Council that has become the de facto standard for green building design in North America.
However, many architects and designers, myself included, are skeptical--not about climate change or of the need to design more sustainable buildings, but about LEED itself.

This post looks at how LEED works, what some of its flaws are, and the alternatives to designing green buildings without using the LEED standard.

First, why build green at all?

Buildings consume a third of the world's energy. Gas-guzzling SUVs may be the poster-boys for a world bent on over-consumption and addicted to planet-warming greenhouse gases, but the energy consumed by residential and commercial buildings is less talked about but more important. Quite simply, if we are going to manage our resources better and cut energy consumption and carbon emissions, it is critical to design buildings that are more energy efficient and less damaging to the planet and to ourselves.

In the practice of designing more sustainable buildings in North America, LEED has become the dominant system. However, recent results of studies on LEED-designed buildings should alarm architects and green building designers. The National Research Council of Canada found in a study of 121 LEED buildings that one third of the buildings were using more energy than their non-LEED counterparts, and that there was no correlation between the energy performance of the building and the LEED rating.

The Green Building Council is responding to these issues. Since these studies were done there is a new version of the LEED rating system, LEED v3, which focuses more on energy.

However, the results of these studies raise the question: can LEED be fixed, or does it need to be scrapped in favour of a smarter system? To answer this, we need to look closely at how LEED works. 

LEED NC (for "new construction" - they do love their acronyms) is a system for designing a sustainable building. It has certain features that do not change from project to project. These include:
  1. Hiring LEED-certified professionals to score the building, and certifying the building with the Green Building Council
  2. The LEED score is based on a point system, which is broken down into six categories: site, water efficiency, energy & atmosphere, materials & resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation & design process
  3. The energy efficiency is scored using a modeling system that compares the proposed building with a standard one (for example, ASHRAE, which stands for American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers), and assigns points based on how much better it is relative to that standard
  4. Depending on the number of points awarded, the building is given one of four medals (Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum)
The LEED system has a number of features that have made it successful and highly marketable:
  • The point and medal system is easy for designers to understand and easy for marketers to market: it has been shown that LEED buildings with higher medals will sell for more, which incentivizes developers to seek higher standards
  • All buildings are rated on the same scale, which makes it seem like you can compare the relative sustainability of one building with another
  • The system does not require developers, consultants or contractors to do anything that they are not already familiar with in terms of construction, since the building uses standard mechanical systems; they can build the usual building, and add more efficient technologies to gain points
However, these very same features also create a number of problems for LEED buildings, which are inescapable given the way the system works. These include:
  • The LEED certification process for professionals and for the buildings themselves adds an overhead to projects above and beyond any cost of construction. This additional cost is so great that in some cases, clients on a budget can find themselves having to choose between paying for the certification, or for the sustainable technology itself. 
  • The buildings are self-rated by the LEED professionals designing them. Since there is always an incentive to get a higher rating, the energy modeling, in particular, is likely to show a bias towards best-case scenarios, leading towards LEED-point inflation. This was one of the conclusions from the study by the National Energy Council.
  • Different buildings have different programs, different sites, are located in different climates, and have different regional systems for transportation, wastewater treatment, energy production, recycling and waste management. This means that no two buildings are ever really comparable. 
  • Because the energy rating system, in particular, is based on mechanical efficiency relative to a standard, LEED does not encourage more radical design, in particular passive design which could lead to elimination of mechanical systems altogether. (There is a passive house system in Europe which has been very successful in this regard.) 
One of the shocking findings of the National Energy Council's study was that there was no difference in terms of energy-efficiency between LEED buildings with different medals. In other words, bronze buildings were on average just as energy efficient as platinum buildings. How can this be, when the higher medals are awarded to buildings that are supposed to be measurably more energy efficient than the lower medals?

Here is my theory: At the lower range of the LEED rating system, the designers choose approaches and technologies that make sense for that building's local climate and general site conditions. So these initial choices are highly cost and energy efficient. Then, as higher ratings are sought, the designers begin to "chase LEED points," a common phrase in the industry. The thinking switches from making good choices based on a knowledge of local conditions, to one that simply piles on additional systems. The goal shifts from doing what makes sense for the design, to doing whatever gets the most points. As you would expect, these added systems are less cost-effective and less energy-efficient than the simpler ones, thus the result that higher medal buildings are no more efficient than lower medal ones - just more expensive.

Or to put it another way, the higher the LEED rating, the more wasteful the project.

The problem goes back to LEED's blindness towards local conditions. In order for buildings to be comparable according to a universal rating scale, LEED had to jettison the uniqueness of the local environment - an astounding oversight for an environmental system.

The fact that different buildings are not really comparable is a key point, and worth discussing at length, using examples:

Example One: A building in Prince Rupert, which receives 2,600mm of precipitation a year, gets the same number of LEED points for reducing water usage as a building in Lillooet, which receives 380mm. Similarly, that building in Lillooet will see clear skies for 277 days a year, while the one in Prince Rupert sees only 125, yet both would receive the same number of LEED points for installing solar panels on the roof.

Example Two: In August, the hottest month, Vancouver has an average temperature of under 18c. A comfortable indoor temperature is 21c. For a building to need air conditioning, then, it would have to acquire and trap considerable heat, most of which would come from the sun. Yet a building that is designed to control this solar gain passively may not gain any LEED points, while a building that uses energy-efficient air conditioning and some form of alternative energy generation will get points on both counts.

In the first example, solving problems of energy and water in Prince Rupert at a scale larger than the building, such as a hydroelectric project, make sense, even if they do not get any points, while in Osoyoos building-scale solar energy generation and water conservation, both point-gainers, would be appropriate. In mild Vancouver, meanwhile, much energy-consuming and –producing can be avoided by good passive solar design. Different environments, in other words, suggest different solutions.

In order to have a universal rating system, LEED imagines a building that is effectively floating in space: it could be any environment, so it has no environment. That free-floating building’s performance then becomes an absolute which can be measured against any other building and put on a scale. Under LEED, it is possible to imagine such a thing as a “most sustainable” building: the building with the most points wins.

In practice, however, every building exists in a particular environment, and that environment is ultimately unique in its location, climate, precipitation, solar exposure, and so on. What matters is the suitability of the design relative to the place. The green systems chosen should be based on local surpluses and scarcities. Adding green systems to a building that does not need them is wasteful. Creating problems through poor design and then solving those self-made problems through green features is likewise inefficient.

What is needed, then, is a vision of sustainability that relates the design to the place. This relative measure of suitability of design to place would be less glamorous, because it cannot be rated in a quantifiably comparable way: there would be no way to say that one building is platinum, while another is merely gold. It would be less marketable, because the success of the approach taken by the design would be subtler and thus harder to explain. It would also be, I would argue, more sustainable.


New Photos of Cliff House

New construction photos of Cliff House on Pender Island, which is nearing completion.


Architecture and Excess: Reflections on the Recent Boom

Last week I attended a presentation by Shohei Shigematsu, a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) founded by Rem Koolhaas. The presentation was for a new cross-disciplinary arts building at the University of British Columbia that would be used by the schools of architecture, landscape architecture, and planning, among others. (I got my master's degree at the UBC school of architecture).

 Detail from OMA's Seattle Public Library

As a presentation for a new architecture building, Shigematsu's slideshow was disappointing. I was in a studio with Patricia Patkau (whose firm is one of the competitors of OMA for this project, as it happens) and one of the first things we did in that studio was study Rem Koolhaas's presentation for the Seattle Public Library. In both cases, UBC and Seattle, the purpose was not to present a design, but rather to show the firm's approach to design.

Detail from Patkau's Grande Bibliotheque du Quebec

Koolhaas's presentation in Seattle was a masterpiece of analysis and wit. His presentation showed that OMA would engage more deeply with the project than the other firms, and that this engagement would lead to a better building. OMA was of course chosen to do the project, and the resulting building is one of those rare successes that is admired by architects and the general public alike. The project also propelled OMA towards becoming one of the great architecture firms of the recent boom.

Shigematsu's presentation last week did not have the same effect. It was witty, and at times brilliant, but the attention paid to the UBC project itself was scant, and showed none of the intellectual brilliance of Koolhaas in Seattle. The overall impression was of a firm that has enjoyed enormous success, but is now perhaps not as hungry as it was, or should be.

The most interesting series of slides for me was Shigematsu's reference to the recent economic downturn, and the effect it has had on the architecture profession. Shigematsu is based in New York, and he said that unemployment among architects in the United States is 40%. This slide was highlighted by graphs of major stock indices such as the DOW and NASDAQ showing them falling off a cliff over the last few years.

Shigematsu then reversed the slide, showing the chart trending up dramatically, and called it a graph of architectural intellect, or something like that. The idea is that during these periods of unemployment, architects have time to think and publish, and the ideas they come up with will make for better design and fuel innovation in the next boom.

If only it worked that way.

No doubt it appeals to the vanity of architects that the brilliance of their work is related to the brilliance of their ideas. Certainly there are phenoms out there like Zaha Hadid, who spend years generating fantastic design before ever constructing an actual building. But architecture is ultimately about putting theory into practice, and practice means getting the building built. And getting the building built is much more likely to happen during a period of excess, like the one we have just been through.

Zaha Hadid's Maxxi Museum in Rome

What do I mean by "excess"?

I mean something very specific, and it comes from the theoretical works of Georges Bataille, in particular his line of thought about "The Accursed Share."

Anyone could tell you that works of significant architecture are more likely to be produced during times of prosperity. Large, extraordinary buildings are expensive, and require a lot of money, materials and labour. If you look at any textbook on architectural history, you can see that there is a one-to-one correspondence between "great architecture" and periods of great wealth. When wealth was accumulated in one place - historically through empire, but more recently through big business - some of that wealth was spent on extravagant buildings.

How Egypt spent its surplus

There is a significant counter to this, namely that the accumulation of that wealth, and the buildings that came from it, generally resulted from a lot of suffering. The theory is that the surplus used to create the buildings was produced by the labourers who made them. That surplus rightfully belonged to them, and not the emperor or mogul who commanded them to construct their monstrosity. Call this the marxist argument.

Another counter is that this only talks about "great architecture." What about buildings constructed on limited means, the vernacular architecture produced by ordinary citizens, who built from local materials and used ingenious means of crafting their dwellings to suit them to the local environment? Call this the sustainability argument. 

This is where Georges Bataille comes in. Bataille starts by flipping standard economics on its head by arguing that the central problem of human society is not scarcity, but surplus, or excess. The standard condition of human life on this planet is that we have adapted to our environment in such a way that we are capable of producing more than we need.

Bataille's favourite example is the native American potlatch. Periodically a successful elder would take his accumulated surplus and throw a ritualized party in which he would give away his excess goods to the rest of his family and his nation, even to his rivals. Why would anyone do that? Because the surplus has to be spent somehow, and it is ultimately an exchange: by giving it away, he receives prestige in return, and puts everyone into his debt.

How Chetzemoka spent the surplus

In other words, if the human condition is one of producing excess, we are then faced sooner or later with the problem of how to spend the extra that we produce.

Why would that be a problem? If we have more than we need, surely that is a good thing. It means that we can put some aside for later. We can re-invest the surplus, in other words. Or we can consume it and enjoy the fruit of our labour. We can throw a potlatch, and give it away to others. We can spend the surplus on taking care of the disadvantaged in our society, or taking care of the elderly and infirm. Yes, that's all true. However, re-investing the surplus only leads to a greater surplus, which at some point has to be spent. And consuming the surplus only leads to greed and waste. The ultimate wasteful expenditure is war: the large surplus that is built up is used to produce weapons and support and train an army of unproductive young people whose job is to destroy.

This is what makes the extra "share" that we produced "accursed."

This curse attaches to our labour whether we like it or not. Following the marxist argument, where each labourer gets to spend their own surplus instead of having it taken away by capital, all this means is that the choice of excess expenditure is smaller scale. At its best it means a broad producing-consuming class that spends at a great aggregate rate. At its worst it means that destruction is wrought by individuals or small groups instead of corporations or governments - by a terrorist cell or a well-armed militia instead of a national army. Surplus is a destructive problem no matter who spends it.

The fact that individuals are spending it does not make it less destructive. That is the central lesson of 9/11. The easy access to technology - whether it is planes that can fly into tall buildings, roadside bombs, automatic weapons in luxury hotels, or nuclear weapons in suitcases - makes it possible for individuals and small groups to wreak disproportionate damage.

(I will respond to the issue of sustainability and surplus in another blog post, because it's a big and, I think, really interesting topic. For now all I would say is that the idea of a surplus economy turns sustainability on its head, because sustainability is predicated on the idea of scarcity.)

Getting back to the economic boom of the last ten to thirty years, the signs of excessive consumption and destructive spending are everywhere. The lifestyle of the McMansion and SUV set, 9/11, the Alberta tar sands, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Beijing Olympics. This enormous economic bubble that we have lived through, when so many people and so many governments lived the high life for so many years, is in retrospect a litany of destruction and waste.

And then there is architecture.

I would argue that of all the ways to spend the surplus, architecture is one of the most appealing.

Perhaps the most succinct case to make for spending the surplus on architecture is to look at the past ten years in terms of the divergence in paths between China and the United States. Those two nations have produced and spent more wealth than any others in recent times, and they spent it entirely differently.

In the United States, Bill Clinton ran a budget surplus for the first time in generations, and he used it to pay down part of the federal debt. Then when George Bush came to power, he took that surplus and he spent it not once, but twice: first he gifted the surplus to the wealthy in the form of tax cuts and low interest rates, and then he spent it a second time in the form of two wars, an arguably necessary one in Afghanistan and an unnecessary one in Iraq.

Of course if you only have one surplus to spend and you spend it twice, you are going to have to pay for it at some point, and that is what we are seeing now, as the United States will be paying for the debts run up by Bush for many years to come.

 How George Bush spent one surplus

How George Bush spent another surplus

Then there is China. In 2008, the world witnessed perhaps the most extravagant potlatch in world history in the form of the Beijing Olympics. China announced its presence on the world stage as the next great superpower. The opening and closing ceremonies were spellbinding, the control exerted over the city and the populace was ruthless and astounding, the event ran like clockwork. Westerners could only look in awe, and console themselves by criticizing China's human rights or environmental record.

How China spent the surplus

Architects, however, couldn't help thinking about the buildings. The backdrop of every camera angle, it seemed, was framed by the work of a notable starchitect. The most famous of these was the Bird's Nest by Herzog and de Meuron.

Another building that showed up in fewer shots, but which was no less extravagant, is the one commissioned by the state television station in China, CCTV. This building was designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA.

OMA's building for CCTV, under construction

Perhaps more than any other building, the cantilever on the CCTV building is so absurd that it can only be about one thing: excess. 

Like a potlatch, part of the purpose of the Beijing Olympics was to humiliate and to put others in debt. The West, and in particular the United States, is deeply in debt to China for other reasons. What the cantilever of the CCTV building says is something slightly different. It says: we are so wealthy that we can spend ridiculous amounts of money hiring your best architects to design utterly frivolous and unnecessary monuments, monuments so profoundly expensive that they could only be built in China, under our system.

The same archiecture firm that designed the CCTV building just presented to the school of architecture at UBC to build its new building. That firm, OMA, may send one of its partners to tell witty stories about the creativity of unemployed architects, but the reality is that OMA's built works are the product of a period of unprecedented excess, of employed architects being paid to create astounding design.

This is not a criticism. If you have read this far, I hope you will see the argument: that human society produces a surplus whether it wants to or not; that this surplus needs to be spent somehow; and that it is much better to spend it in the form of extravagant architecture than extravagant weapons systems. This is all fairly straightforward. 

What is less straightforward, and what I have no idea how to explain, is how it came to be that a ruthless, authoritarian government chose to shock and awe the world with the beauty of its buldings, while an advanced democracy faced with spending a similar surplus chose to shock and awe the world with the destructive power of its weapons.


Vancouver and the So-Called Real Estate Bubble

One of the fascinating aspects of the run-up in real estate prices in Vancouver is watching the highly emotional reaction in the comments sections of websites that post news stories on the subject. For instance, the Real Estate Board of Vancouver regularly publishes monthly data that tracks prices, and these are often the subject of articles in the Vancouver Sun or Province. Take for example the most recent such article from the Sun, "Vancouver's lofty house prices fall slightly in August."

The comments following these articles immediately turn into a flame war, with one side arguing that the data is rigged, housing is in a huge bubble, and prices are about to collapse. For example, from an anonymous poster: "This article is a great spinning of the facts by our realtor friends at the VCR real estate board." Keep in mind that the web commenters are arguing about data, not opinion.

As someone who lived in London and New York during the start of the boom in the late 1990s, I find the reaction of Vancouverites to their real estate prices a little odd. Yes, the prices are high. However, they are nowhere near the levels reached during the bubble by desirable cities in other countries. I've had trouble making this argument, though, because I didn't have the data. Not many of the worthwhile media in the US or UK bother to compare their real estate with Canada.

The Globe and Mail recently helped me out by publishing an interactive article entitled "Why the housing market may be heading for correction." The graphic article intended to argue that Canadian real estate is in a bubble condition and about to burst. However one of the graphs provided by the article inadvertently argues exactly the opposite.

Here is the first chart, which does make Canadian real estate look like a bubble. Prices are in inflation-adjusted 1980 dollars:

Looking at this graph, the real estate prices in Vancouver jump out. From around $75,000 in 1980, prices are now at almost $250,000 in Vancouver. Since it is adjusted for inflation, that means houses are more than 333% more expensive now than they were 30 years ago. This does indeed look like a bubble.

Flip to the next chart, however, and those Canadian prices are plotted against US prices in the same time period:

Suddenly the Canadian bubble doesn't look so bad (unless you live in Calgary). That big bulge in US prices - now that's a bubble. Vancouver prices, by comparison, appear to have missed that bubble entirely, and then rejoined the US price graph in the recession. This, in short, is what my experience abroad told me.

Okay, but what about that 333% increase in prices, after inflation, since 1980? The issue here is interest rates. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the North American economy was suffering from stagflation, i.e. a stagnant economy coupled with high inflation. As a result, interest rates approached 20% during the period. Today, you can get a mortage for 4-5%, give or take. In other words, debt in 1980 was four to five times more expensive than it is today.

As an example, compare the cost of fully financing that $75,000 house in 1980 versus financing a $250,000 house in 2010. The 1980 house would cost $1,211 per month to finance. The 2010 house would cost $1,315 per month. (This is in 1980 dollars, 25 year mortgage, monthly payments). The cost of owning a home has barely changed.

The key, then, is what will happen to interest rates. If they go up significantly, people holding large mortgages could be in trouble. If they are stable or go down, there won't be a problem.

Reputable economists like Paul Krugman of The New York Times are talking about the possibility of a long period of deflation, similar to Japan's lost decade. In a deflationary period, interest rates go down and stay down. Interest rates in Japan have been at or near zero for many years.

The likely scenario, then, is that interest rates will stay low for the foreseeable future. This means that Vancouver real estate prices, regardless of what the anonymous web commentators say, are not in a bubble.


New Photos of Cliff House

View of the house from the driveway.

View of the house from the southwest. The master bedroom cantilever is visible at the top.

The view from the master bedroom.


Vancouver and the Tyranny of the Parking Space

Vancouver has recently been named the fourth most liveable city in the world by Mercer and frequently tops a similar list from The Economist Intelligence Unit. What neither listmaker mentions is that Vancouver is an especially nice place to live if you happen to be an automobile. It's hard to imagine that the City's planning policies could be any more conducive to the creation of warm, dry parking spaces. These policies permeate every scale of building in Vancouver, easily trumping sustainability and affordability in policy priority.

At the large scale, highrises and apartment blocks are required to provide so many parking spaces that they make many projects prohibitively expensive. This is especially true of rental units, which require the landlord to pay for the parking spaces over time, with rent payments, rather than outright, with the sale of high-priced condos. Rental vacancy rates in Vancouver are under 2% in part because so few new rental units are being built. This lack of supply drives up the price of rent and makes the city unaffordable for many.

(The underground parking lots in large buildings also end up determining the spatial layout of the units above, as the column pattern required by parking is extruded upwards into the living space - another reason, perhaps, that condos in Vancouver seem to have a generic feel. Actually, that feeling you get from the rooms of a condo is not generic: it's the feeling of living in drywalled parking spaces).

At the smaller scale, new duplexes are required to provide a two-car garage on the lane. Never mind that this two-car garage is similar in size and scale to the laneway infill building that the City generally forbids in these two-family zones. Never mind that the lost yard space could have been used to plant a garden. Never mind, either, that most people simply park on the street and use the garage for storage space, since their cramped duplex is too small to accommodate all their stuff.

And if you are trying to build an accessory building in the backyard to do something worth while - say, pursue art, or set up a bicycle workshop, or, god forbid, house one of those tenants desperately looking for somewhere to live - the City will likewise require you to take that floorspace away from the main building. Unless, of course, you want to create new parking spaces, in which case Vancouver is more than happy to accommodate your automobiles with a building permit.

Vancouver makes much of its liveability, its greenness, its bicycle-friendliness, its creative class - but when you get to the nitty gritty of its planning documents, the reality is that the thinking in the planning department is permeated with rules that require or promote parking spaces, often at the expense of those other, much worthier endeavours.


Seen Around Town: Ken Lum's East Van Sign

Like the graffiti that it references, Ken Lum's newly installed sign showed up in various places around East Van before it arrived for real at Clark & 6th this week.

It was first seen at Knight & 33rd:

Then at the flatiron-like triangle at Main and Kingsway:

Here it is at Commercial Drive skytrain station, in S, M and L sizes:

And again, slightly further west, in S, M, L and XL:

Watching the sign move around town is like hearing the voices inside the head of Vancouver's public art unconscious. Where will the most number of people see it? Where will it offend the least number of people? How tall a sign can we afford? And perhaps most importantly: Will it obstruct anyone's views?

A similar conversation is now rolling through blogs and tweets as the city reacts. Many are for it (City Caucus, Vancouver Is Awesome, Vancity Buzz) and a few are against it. In an age when public reaction is driven by complaints and carping, this is an impressive ratio.

I'm biased, but to me the East Van sign does what really good art tends to do: it has an immediate, visceral effect on you; and then the more you think about it, the more ambiguous and interesting it becomes.

Kudos to the City of Vancouver and Mount Pleasant for taking the risk to install this beautiful artwork.


Ken Lum's VanEast Light Sculpture Almost Vertical

Ken Lum's light sculpture at the corner of Clark & 6th is almost vertical. It is one of a set of public art works commissioned to coincide with the Olympics. I was honoured to work with Ken on this project.