December 2012

A Report from Greenbuild 2012


Mark Chalom


In mid-November I took a trolley car up San Francisco’s Market Street. Built in 1948 for another city, the trolley had been purchased by San Francisco, refurbished, and it is still operating as an electric-powered vehicle. It took me to the Mosconi Convention Center, where Greenbuild, the world’s largest international green building conference and expo was being held. All three buildings were filled with exhibitions, education and poster sessions—and about 17,000 people.

Greenbuild is presented by the US Green Building Council, which, along with the World Green Building Council, is responsible for researching, developing and promoting LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building standards. LEED’s impact on communities, cities and human health has grown exponentially worldwide. It is now not only being utilized in homes but also in office buildings, schools, healthcare facilities, new construction, retrofits and historic renovations. All of this was showcased and discussed at the conference in a series of programs that spanned three days with 15 tracks going on simultaneously. They dealt with issues of energy, how-to tools, research, performance, green jobs, finance, policy and social responsibility, among others. I was able to participate in 12 sessions, as well as the opening and closing plenaries.

The day before the conference, there was a pre-conference with a jobs fair and National Summit on Affordable Green Homes and Sustainable Communities. I was pleased to see a Santa Fe-based architect, Jamie Blosser, mentioned for her beautiful and successful housing project at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.Green housing builds green communities. “Rebuilding cities in a sustainable way is for everyone, and it is everyone’s right,” said Jean Quan, the mayor of Oakland. Affordable housing for $50/month rent makes no sense if the utility bills are $200/month. John Parvinsky, director of Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, presented various low-cost housing projects that are very successful in combining energy efficiency, clean air quality, local transportation, on-site healthcare, community centers and community gardens. Most of their projects develop infill and brownfield sites to minimize urban sprawl. Building near transportation, public schools and retail areas make communities very pedestrian-friendly. All of the projects incorporate a large percentage of on-site electrical generation, solar hot water, rain harvesting and a 50 percent reduction in energy use over the typical building of that type. This organization has developed over 1,000 affordable green units in the Denver area.

One project that particularly impressed me was Via Verde in the Bronx borough of New York. It is a large mixed-use, affordable-rental and mid-range-cooperatives housing project. It started with a design competition and ended up with two international architectural firms working on the project. Via Verde terraces up from the south to maximize solar potential and daylighting, creating multiple interconnecting flat-rooftop accessible spaces.

Diabetes and obesity are a large problem in that area. Access to healthy food is minimal and expensive. Community gardens and a fruit orchard on the roof cultivate fresh food and help build community. The elementary school integrated into the project has gardens that allow children to learn, grow their own food and be outdoors. Prefab wall sections minimize costs and maintain quality control. Multilevel apartments include an ingenious system of interlocking individual dwellings with operable windows on at least three sides of every unit. This maximizes natural ventilation and minimizes the use of air conditioning. There are also gardens on individual balconies. Mixed-use includes a food cooperative, wellness center, various retail spaces and healthcare facilities. Stairways are open and well lit, promoting exercise rather than elevators. This project received LEED Gold.

The housing summit covered financing for green buildings, high performance standards, case studies, social interaction, new development, retrofits and greening of historic preservation projects, a very challenging task. I was overwhelmed by the advances made in green affordable housing. And this was the day before the conference officially opened!


The opening plenary set the stage for the entire conference. RickFedrizzi,president and CEOofUSGBCand current chairof the World GBC, was upbeat and inspiring. There was no doom-and- gloom global-warming rhetoric. He presented the green movement as a force to bring equality to the world, promote jobs and safer, healthier environments for all. He correlated the green movement to other movements such as women’s suffrage and civil rights. “Like them,” he said, “we are going to succeed. Why? Because ‘We Are Right.’” This mantra rang out as strongly as Martin Luther King’s “I’ve climbed the mountain.” Said Fedrizzi, “We are part of an evolution. It’s not perfect; it will continue to evolve and improve. It’s an interdisciplinary movement—from corporations to radicals. The green movement will bring back our economy and provide better learning and work environments. It is our human right to know our buildings are safe and healthy, and they can go way beyond net-zero [energy generation]. It is our responsibility now to push our government to move toward a green economy.”

The next speaker was Rachel Gutter, director of the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools. She spoke of the many exciting projects that are happening in schools. She said that they are safer, healthier, cleaner, and that children are learning. Teachers are showing up more and enjoying their work more because of green buildings. Students and communities are now demanding green high-performing buildings because they know they help lead to high-performing students. Gutter cited a number of case studies. Green schools also save money that can be put toward other educational needs. We Are Right.

The opening plenary concluded with a series of panels moderated by MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brezinski. They interviewed panelists such as Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, former NY Gov. Pataki, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, of California, David Kohler, president of the Kohler Company, and Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter. All talked about their understanding of the values of green building and the interrelationship between buildings and the world.

Gov. Pataki talked about how New York City has had hybrid buses that came out of performance-based standards. They didn’t tell companies how to solve the problem; they left it to companies to step up and suggest solutions for the city. Mayor Booker spoke about how green saves in many ways and has a multiplying effect. Green investments lower the cost of government and healthcare. All agreed that high goals need to be set on carbon emissions, standards need to be set to drive up efficiencies, and information is needed to make better judgments and to educate consumers so they can make better choices.

Biz Stone spoke about technology, communications and how Twitter allows for two-way conversations to advance the citizens of the world. The world is shrinking. We are now in the digital world and we can use it to amplify voices, promote human rights, defeat hunger and inequality and assist in basic survival.

David Kohler stated that sustainability is good for business, leads to better products, footprint reduction, employee satisfaction and productivity. Pro-environment is pro-business. Green design is good for business in so many ways. Big business needs to step up. The quest for environmental equality leads to prosperity.

I then began the educational seminars. Exciting, stimulating, encouraging and informative is a quick summary of what I experienced.

Lucia Athens is Sustainability Director for the city of Austin, TX. Her topic was Social Sustainability and Green Building. She was proud that Austin is already operating on 30 percent renewable energy and will soon reach 35 percent. Wind power in her community is now competitive with natural gas. Austin has $8 million in its solar loan program, its green standards have been around for 21 years, 38 percent of its homes are now green, and it has a LEED Platinum hospital. It has green schools with solar classrooms, solar curriculums and a kids-out-into-nature program. Austin also demands fair wages and workers’ rights. It’s green economy approach is multidisciplinary and holistic in its attempts to include not just energy and green building but also arts and culture, zero-waste, promotion of healthy food, ending homelessness, wildfire safety and helping animals. The city promotes art in public spaces, green tourism and is proud of its large fleet of pedicabs. The new Formula One Grand Prix racetrack is mandated to develop a carbon offset program. Athens discussed how all of this is possible in conservative Republican Texas.

Natural Light for Healthcare Facilities was the second session I attended. Daylighting is important in the healing environment. It has been proven to be helpful for patient healing, in alleviating pain, reducing medication needs, reducing depression and agitation, and in helping support the circadian rhythms for better sleep. Daylight is also important for the staff. It helps improve alertness, a more positive attitude toward their job, and increases task performance by reducing fatigue and stress. The European code demands daylight for workers, as it is considered a fundamental right.

At the session on Eco-Balance and Biomimicry, the lead presenter was Pliny Fisk of Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, a design research firm in Austin. Fisk was joined by Kathy Zarsky, a specialist in biomimicry and natural systems design. They talked about full-cycle planning (source-resource-process-remediate-repair-restore-regenerate). “Nature is the most elegant design; we need to learn from nature,” Fisk said. Zarsky presented fantastic examples of design in nature, including seed pods and how they protect, change, open, and how leaves move with the sun, provide shade and maximize their ability to absorb sunlight and turn it into food. Kathy stressed the need for biomimicry and biophilia [explain what this means]designs.

The next presentation was Permaculture: Principles and Practice of Regenerative Design, presented by Jillian Hovey, director of the Sustainable Living Network. Hovey recounted the history, key founders, background and principles of Permaculture, which is a holistic design methodology that accesses the intelligence of natural ecosystems and leads us towards regenerative design solutions. This includes holistic site planning, edible landscapes, permanent agriculture and using principles from nature. Permaculture includes care of the Earth and its people. It encourages us to share any surplus. Everything is connected; every element serves various functions; every function is supported by various elements; pollution is an unused resource; problems can be turned in solutions, and designs should be self-maintaining. Various case studies of urban gardens, from large open lots to small apartment balconies were presented. The work of Scott and Arina Pittman of the Santa Fe-based Permaculture Institute was recognized with high regard.

The session on Wind Towers and Cool Towers was not to be missed. A wind tower, such as has been used in Iran for thousands of years, traps prevailing wind, directing it down and through the building. Hot air is sucked out through the leeward side of the tower. This maximizes natural ventilation at night when it is cool. In most cases thermal mass is used to store this coolness. If there’s air moving across water or a wet medium, evaporative cooling will take place. A cool tower introduces a wet medium or a spray fog in the top of the wind tower, cooling the incoming air, which becomes denser, enhancing the downward flow. Martin Yolick has done much analytical research on this at the University of Arizona. He has developed design parameters and formulas based on his working model.

James Crockett of the National Park Service presented the workings of the cool towers at Zion National Park Visitor Center in Utah. The building is an integration of many systems, including solar hot water, solar electricity, open space planning, use of natural materials, good use of daylighting, Trombe walls, a landscaping plan that uses native vegetation, and a design to save both energy and water. Two cool towers supply moist cool air to the building, as well as an outdoor space that is used for interpretive educational displays. Making some of the outdoor space more comfortable meant not having to build a larger building. The floor plan showed how cool air was introduced to the building and other interior walls and how placement of displays serves the function of baffles, directing this air in other directions. I can say from personal experience these cool towers really work and would be a good addition to New Mexico design.

The session on Dynamic Buildings offered a discussion on movable shading devices that adapt and change with the surrounding environment. Stephen Seckowitz of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shared with us a free online design resource for this. Movable shading can be very effective and is well worth the expenditure on large commercial buildings. Marcus Zawierta from Austria showed us some very creative and beautiful European-designed systems. To me it was not just about energy savings; these buildings became moving art in themselves. I was amazed at all the different geometric approaches for sun control.

The closing plenary started off with Gov. Jerry Brown recounting the many successes of California and how California is leading the nation in the green movement. He wants buildings to be as healthy as being outdoors. California has twice the number of LEED buildings as any other state. California is not waiting; people are making it happen. Gov. Brown is looking for elegance, efficiency and equality through green building.

A representative from the USGBC announced the launch of the GBIG (Green Building Information Gateway), which is a very useful online tool for looking up LEED projects around the world. It will show you a building, explain design strategies and what type of LEED points it received. A great way to start a project is to see what has already been done.

Then the demigod of sustainable design walked on stage, William McDonough, international architect and professor at the University of Virginia. He is the author of the Cradle-to-Cradle Design philosophy and standards. “Our goal is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world, with clean air, water, soil and power—economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed,” he said. McDonough’s design standard makes us think about the materials that go into a building, where they came from and what will happen to them when the building ceases to exist. He believes materials are nutrients that can and should be re-utilized. He believes buildings should run 100 percent on renewable energy.

We need to think about water stewardship and social fairness,” he says. “What do we leave behind by design? We are putting toxins in mother’s milk and we need to stop. Is it our intention to poison each other? As we have a right to know what is in our food, we have that right to know what is in our buildings and how those materials affect us.” McDonough sees regulation as a sign of design failure but thinks this can change. Brad Pitt, after Hurricane Katrina, asked McDonough to help design an affordable home for the Ninth Parish. McDonough said no, “Let’s built 50 or more.” A big buzzword in the design world is cogen, something that does two things at once. Said McDonough, “Why not trigen, quadjen, hexigen: something that will do six things at once?” He equated this to a tree. Unlike a building, a tree can even procreate.

He has taken this philosophy not only to buildings but also to various products, and he has worked with major companies like Steelcase, Herman Miller and Shaw Carpet to develop Cradle-to-Cradle design and material standards that not only works for the environment but also make economic sense to these companies. He is not happy with net-zero buildings. He questions why just zero. He says we must go way beyond zero. “Think molecularly, act galactically.”

William McDonough doesn’t just talk the talk; he walks the walk. His projects are way beyond any standard or goals set by anyone. His buildings produce more than their energy needs, grow food, make oxygen, clean air, clean water, build community and become reusable and recyclable. One example is the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. A dynamic movable natural light screen transmits daylight, reduces heat gain and mitigates glare. Super insulation provides great energy savings. Operable windows promote cross ventilation, and the floor plan of the working offices promotes teambuilding and collaboration. When cost-effective, Cradle-to-Cradle certified products were used. An external steel framework was utilized to reduce the amount of materials required and to develop the framework for the dynamic daylighting systems. This structure was also chosen for its ease of disassembly and its recycling characteristics. A radiant heating and cooling ground-source heat pump was chosen, as it uses 40 percent less energy than a typical air- handling unit.

LED lighting was used throughout, with a sophisticated control system. Energy generation includes solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, solar thermal panels for domestic hot water and a natural gas fuel cell generator. The building generates more energy than it utilizes. Vertical green screens are grown to provide seasonal shade. The most efficient water fixtures were specified. Water cleansing is a big part of this design, as contaminated groundwater near the site is cleaned and utilized for landscape irrigation. Graywater is treated and reused in toilets and urinals. A forward osmosis water recycling system developed by NASA to purify water to drinking quality is available, but California regulations will not allow it. Drought tolerant native plants are utilized in the landscape. This building has earned LEED Platinum certification and many other design awards.

William McDonough is now envisioning cities where waste does not exist, cities that grow food, continually improve, generate their own energy, and create habitat for animals that release clean air and water. He utilizes rooftops for food to be grown in greenhouses year-round vertically and horizontally. Edible landscaping utilizes a building’s sewer treatment system to transform the waste into usable nutrients for plants that clean and purify the air.

Trade Fair/Expo

The trade fair and exhibition had 1,700 companies represented. It took me six hours to move through the large exhibit halls. There was a strong representation of products and systems that dealt with rainwater harvesting, green roofs and LED lighting. Wood has finally made a comeback as a green material to be used. I was very impressed with the company that utilized cellulose fibers to create beautiful forms and even structural components. Eco-stucco is a pre-mixed, quality-controlled lime plaster that can be used both on the interior and the exterior. The lime washes come in hundreds of colors. Lime stucco is a negative carbon product. I hope to see much more of that as a substitute for concrete or acrylic stuccos. Phase change materials are now being manufactured in wall systems to provide thermal storage. What a great addition to our passive solar palette.

There were many products made from postindustrial or agricultural waste, reprocessed and recycled materials. I finally got to see, touch and better understand heat-pump water heaters that draw heat from the surrounding air and raise it to usable hot water temperatures. It can operate from a PV panel. For every watt of energy put in it will give you almost two watts. It is a good alternative and even substitutes for solar hot water systems. The LightLouver is impressive. It is the best fixed daylighting device on the market.

Green building is the new normal. It has taken hold and has proven itself to be good not only for the environment but for the economy, for businesses and jobs. Corporate America has finally realized this and is jumping on board big-time. Green building has proven itself to promote good health, better productivity, better learning, better work environments and social equality. It has given us a better link in our understanding of nature. We are now starting to look at not just green buildings but green communities, green corridors and now green cities. What an exciting time. We Are Right.


Mark Chalom is a Santa Fe-based architect (LEED 2.0) who has specialized in Environmental Climatic Design for the past forth years. He has received a lifetime achievement award for his Passive Solar Architecture and research from the American Solar Energy Society.




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