Friday, December 17, 2010

Living Building

The 'living' building currently being advanced by the Portland Sustainability Center and the City of Portland brings to mind Daniel Burnham's famous injunction about making no little plans. Specifically Burnham said:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.

For those not in the know, a 'living' building challenge is a green building advocacy tool in which is said to promote the most advanced measure of sustainability. The standards placed on a living building are incredibly rigorous, requiring the building to yield a net carbon reduction, to serve to eliminate toxins and to use exclusively renewable energy and storm water (or grey water) run-off. Metrics measured are to be based on actual performance rather than forecasts, thus, the proposed building would require a year of use prior to it's certification as a 'living' building. As it stands, there exist only two other certified living buildings in the world.

The building would represent an impressive statement on the part of Portland to extend it's 'green' credentials, while serving as marquee project for ongoing green development. The building remains controversial, Advocates believe that the building is exactly the type of project that Portland needs to advance to put the City firmly on the map, while critics have pointed to the high cost of the project ($65 million in public money) and fears that the project could become a white elephant. Further, many have also pointed to the idea that the money going into the project might be better spent on retrofitting existing buildings with many of the technologies involved and that a new office building is apparently the last thing that Portland needs at the moment, as the city has already an excess of office stock, and the building is so expensive, that the costs of renting the building are likely to price even the most ecologically minded of firms out.

The Willamette Week has published a lengthy editorial on the topic of the building including a discussion of many of these issues. It in the end argues that the building is precisely the sort of visionary project that Portland needs, however, I am not completely convinced if I share the assessment. Portland has traditionally been a city that has developed small-scale bottom-up style projects well, resulting in net environmental advantages. Further, much of the planning approach, specifically through the metropolitan governance model has been consensus driven. The idea of a large scale project is initially appealing, however, it is likely to to be highly problematic. The potential for cost over-runs (frequently associated with this sort of large-scale project) poses one set of problems.

More importantly, I am wary of the type of Utopian thinking associated with this style of large-scale project is equally worrying. Traditionally, many of the attempts at Utopian urban development, from the enormous Brutalist towers of Le Corbusier (and those projects inspired by Le Corbusier) to the large-scale motor car based redevelopment projects advanced by Robert Moses in New York, frequently attempts to create Utopia have resulted instead in dystopia, massive public expenditure and frequently, the marginalization or the poor. With all the verve for green building within Portland, the money being spent on this project could go far to rehabilitating existing downtown building stock, leveraged to incentivize renewable energy improvement and in developing better storm water management systems (including rain gardens) for existing buildings - reducing the loads on out already overtaxes storm water/sewage system. This is not to say that I do not find the idea of 'living' building to be a good one. It is more to say that the amount of public to be invested, taken with the capacity for large-scale failure (especially considering the newness of the technology being incorporated) seems to indicate that a project of this size is fool hardy. Indeed, the living building project almost seems like something out of a more eco-friendly Dubai, where hubris has largely served as a vehicle to advance increasingly grandiose building projects.

An alternative for a more modestly scaled 'living' building project, in the form of a multi-family bungalow housing unit, has been proposed by SERA Architects several years ago. This project seems to be of a more manageable scale to first begin to understand the associated technologies and to learn how to more effectively incorporate them prior to the development of a large-scale project. This project appears to have be, for the moment at least, derailed due to the current economic recession and partly due to a lack of support from the mayor's office, strikes me as being the more sustainable option. It is a project that could be built with modest outlays of public money and which would create an important learning experience that could eventually inform a larger living building project.

In the end, Burnham's notion or large-scale inspirational still has some resonance, however, it is no longer how planners plan. The emphasis on incrementalism, public participation and more human-scale redevelopment, frequently following traditional neighborhood design strikes me as being the best approach. With environmental development, the emphasis should also lie on making as many small-scale improvements to as many buildings as possible in order to mitigate net carbon emissions rather than sinking a great deal of capital into a large project for a building that does not appear to even be needed. A couple of years ago David Owen wrote an impressive piece (later adapted into a book) arguing that more traditional, human-scale development urban development results in the lowest per capita carbon footprint for urban dwellers. This sort of pragmatism is what is necessary to advance the environmentalist agenda and mitigate global climate change. The idea of a large living building appeals, however it lacks practicality. While the 'living' building project appeals viscerally, indeed 'stirs the blood', it represents sort of tyranny of rationalism given over to the most sanguine impulses. It is then, as Kipling would have it, a case of 'thinking with the blood'.


blog said...

typo 'is not longer how planners plan.' should be 'is no longer how planners plan.'

Great job, Alex

Alex Deley said...

Thanks, I've corrected it.