How green is your building?

Eco-friendly construction projects are no longer the preserve of the super-rich or the sandals-and-beansprouts brigade

 

Ever since the Flatiron Building was completed in New York City in 1902, architecture’s impact on the environment has been profound. The Flatiron created a wind tunnel of such proportions that policemen were stationed on the corner of East 22nd Street and Broadway to move along men who’d gather to look up the skirts of women caught in the building’s updrafts.

More recently we have started to realise how far reaching the environmental impacts of architecture are, and that they are not limited to the wind that sweeps around iconic buildings. Some have also begun to realise that building can contribute positively to the environment in ways that go beyond the aesthetic, to include actually taking pollution out of the air, and generating power for themselves, and for the grid.

Nonetheless, “green architecture” has generally been seen as the preserve either of the very wealthy experimenting with their holiday homes or at the other extreme, the sandals-and-beansprouts brigade. This latter is acknowledged in the introduction to a new book from Taschen, Green Architecture Now!, a companion to the weighty two-volume 100 Contemporary Green Buildings, published earlier this year.

Lavish, like all Taschen’s books, the green credentials of the printing are possibly questionable, but what’s contained within the pages is exciting, inspiring, and enough to prove environmentalist Kelly Meyer right when she is quoted as saying that “something energy-conscious doesn’t have to look as if you got it off the bottom shelf of a health food store. It doesn’t have to smell like hemp.”

Ireland doesn’t feature in these books, which is a shame, as there are green buildings in this country that deserve wider attention (see below), and more people are jumping on the passive house and retro-fitting bandwagon. One problem, seldom discussed in public, is that for many green building pioneers it has been a steep learning curve.

Speak to architects off the record, and they will almost universally tell you how they’d do it differently another time. This doesn’t negate their work, rather it calls for a less judgmental climate for exploring how new ways of thinking about building innovation can be trialled, and at the same time as we should celebrate those who take the plunge to give them scope.

And while we’re at it – greater pressure should be put on the ESB to revise their limits for selling power back to the grid from home solar panels and wind generators. At the moment they are so low as to be derisory.

Some of the projects in the Taschen books have yet to be realised, such as Vincent Callebaut’s Anti Smog Tower, envisaged by the architect for Paris; as well as his Perfumed Jungle, a series of plant-hung undulating skyscrapers dreamed up for Hong Kong. In a similar vein, though perhaps ultimately more realisable, Ecosistema Urbano’s plan for the Ecoboulevard of Vallecas in Madrid, includes what the architects call “air trees”: structures that look a little like gasometers, containing chambers of plants.

Dream a little
Looking at these projects is a little like reading a library of future predictions. Some, including Dennis Dollens’ Tree Tower, planned for Los Angeles, seem particularly outlandish. But who knows, perhaps “digital biometric architecture” (building from digital printing, based on the structure and design of plants) may one day become so normal we barely notice it?

We all know, or at least we ought to know by now, that one of the easiest, least expensive, and greenest things you can do to your home, or new build, is to add a layer of insulation; but the buildings and ideas in these books take things a huge leap further. You may not go so far as putting a vertical garden on your gable wall, such as Patrick Blanc’s at the Caixaforum in Madrid; or constructing an entire museum from shipping containers and paper tubes: see Shigeru Ban’s marvellous Papertainer Museum at the Seoul Olympic Park.

And you may not have the money to build an ethereally delicate house of glass and wood, such as Kengo Kuma’s in Connecticut, but at the very least, the work of architects such as these, and the bravery of the clients who support them, should allow you to dream a little greener.


Ireland’s eco-buildings
While Ireland doesn’t feature in Taschen’s lavish “green” books, we do have some green buildings to be proud of.

The Green Building Murray O’Laoire’s 1995 ground-breaking building for the Temple Bar Cultural Quarter housed a series of experiments in new sustainable technologies. Some were more successful than others.

The Daintree Building Solearth’s 2005 mixed-use development off Camden Street in Dublin not only houses the delicious Cake Café, but also uses materials including bamboo and sheep’s wool, recycles rainwater, and has both geothermal and solar systems.

Cliffs of Moher Visitors’ Centre This green building deserves greater fame. Years in the planning, but completed in 2007, Reddy O’Riordan Staehli’s building at the iconic Co Clare site generously disappears into the landscape, and includes solar, geothermal, water recycling and energy monitoring.

Elm Park Proving that green credentials won’t necessarily get you out of an economic hole, Bucholz McEvoy won awards for their 2008 “low energy green urban quarter”, but Elm Park in south Dublin soon went into Nama along with other Bernard McNamara developments.

Dominic Stevens’ House Philosophically as well as practically green; in 2011, architect Dominic Stevens completed a house that can be designed and built for just €25,000.

Stevens says that sharing the plans for the house for free is his way of “paying back a social debt”. Download the plans at irishvernacular.com


Green Architecture Now! Vol 1 by Philip Jodido, Taschen, €9.99.
100 Contemporary Green Buildings by Philip Jodido, Taschen, €39.99