Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Top 10 Earth- and People-Friendly Buildings

The American Institute of Architects pick their top examples of building projects that marry form and function for both human and environmental needs

By Katherine Harmon

Can a building be as easy on the environment as it is on the eyes? Without a doubt, says The American Institute of Architects (AIA), a professional association based in Washington, D.C. To prove it, for the past 12 years, the organization and its Committee on the Environment (COTE) have awarded the top 10 green projects across the globe.

At the same time, science is providing new ways to build green buildings—from using paints with low VOCs (volatile organic compounds) to high-efficiency ventilation—as well as revealing just how important a pleasing and healthy environment is to our interiors.

Of course, the devil is in the details, and as Scientific American Mind reported in its April issue, neuroscience is shedding new light on how constructed environments impact health and well-being. As it turns out, green buildings don't always put the humans who will be using them first. For instance, they're often, as we reported last week, downright noisy.

As a host of organizations and publications have created their own rankings of buildings based purely on eco-standards, the AIA has created a list of green buildings that also meet the aesthetic and functional needs of the people and communities that encounter and inhabit them. From a low-income apartment building situated by a light rail line to a new town center that reused materials from its old municipal buildings for construction, these projects are putting Earth and its residents on equal footing.


A building's environmental impact doesn't have to stop at its threshold. That's why the Gish Apartments are steps from a local light rail and have a convenience store downstairs, so residents don't have to jump in their cars to pick up that gallon of milk or get to work.

To turn a San Jose brownfield into mixed housing for low-income and special-needs families, First Community Housing, a local affordable housing organization, turned to locally based OJK Architecture and Planning to create the 35-unit structure. Although some of the building materials—such as double-glazed windows and rooftop solar panels—were pricier to purchase at the outset, they're already being offset by cheaper operational costs.


This eco-sensitive synagogue was built to honor the Hebrew principle of tikkun olam, which means "repairing the world". To achieve that end Chicago's Ross Barney Architects firm began by considering storm water. They optimized usable space inside to decrease runoff, allowing for a smaller building footprint and more open green space to collect storm water.

The multipurpose religious, educational and community center also boasts green building materials, including reclaimed cypress wood, gabion walls filled with waste masonry (which help regulate temperature) and paints and finishes with low VOCs (volatile organic compounds).


Rather than draw attention to themselves, the structures at the Shangri La Botanical Gardens are there to bring visitors out into the 252-acre (100-hectare) preserve to showcase the surroundings—without disturbing them. Just as construction began in 2005, Hurricane Rita swept through the area, felling trees in the swamp and forests. Lake|Flato Architects in San Antonio were able to use many of the fallen trees in the new buildings. The center, which reopened the area to the public for the first time since the 1950s, was the first LEED Platinum–certified new construction in Texas.


When surveyed about what they hoped to get in a new office space, workers of the architecture firm that was one of the building's first tenants asked for more natural light, improved ventilation and better open spaces. So the Weber Thompson firm in Seattle set out to bring all of these wishes to fruition, along with assuring that the building would stay in good financial standing to attract future rentals. (The total project cost came out to about $9.7 million.) The building also sits along a new streetcar line and includes showers for workers who opt to bike to work.

No comments: