Thinking Beyond LEED at SXSW Eco

Bill Reed helped develop the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, but at a panel during the South by Southwest Eco conference, he explains why it’s time to move on.

SXSW Eco LEED Conference
Blair McCary addresses the crowd at SXSW Eco. Bill Reed and Paula Vaughan are seated.

“LEED is a great starting point. It’s the reason we’re able to be in this room and have a common language,” he says. “But it was never meant to be used as a measuring stick.” Reed, along with Atlanta-based architect Paula Vaughan and Vancouver engineer Blair McCarry, both of Perkins + Will, argue for a more holistic approach to “sustainable design” in a panel called "Beyond LEED: Living Buildings and the 2030 Challenge" at SXSW Eco, an offshoot of the sprawling Austin festival that takes place every March.

Even with all this talk of “sustainability,” we’re not doing a very good job of creating a culture that produces more energy and resources than it consumes, Reed says. “Like Bill McDonough said, sustainability is a slower way to die.” We are still creating buildings that are just above what the law requires, Reed says, and even if we achieve a zero carbon footprint, “zero is not sustainable.”

We can’t just look at building and infrastructure, Reed says. We have to be actively regenerating the living systems in which we subsist. The first place to start is semantics. “We have to think beyond ‘the environment.’ ‘The environment’ is what’s beyond us. ‘Ecology’ includes us.”

Reed cites an example of a cooperatively owned grocery store he worked with in Vermont: Instead of simply designing a building that would score high on the LEED scale, he helped them look at the needs of the ecosystem of the area, which weren’t just limited to a place to buy food. Because the town was surrounded by abandoned farms whose soil was so depleted that it wasn’t suitable for growing, Reed and his Integrative Design Collaborative recommended adding an agriculture and soil center to help members of the community grow their own food in their yards and expand the daycare center so shoppers and employees’ children could play while they shopped or worked.

Reed continues to explain his perspective. Just as each of us is bigger than the sum of our body parts, a building or even a community isn’t defined by each of the individual pieces, he says. We can’t think of humans and nature as being two opposite forces. Humans are nature, not merely coexisting with nature. An urban neighborhood is its own ecosystem, and we need to be designing our lifestyle to support that ecosystem. "Humans can reconcile with nature, not compromise.”

perkins will office atlanta
Perkins + Will's headquarters in Atlanta serves as a case study in the Beyond LEED: Living Buildings and the 2030 Challenge" at SXSW Eco.
Both Vaughan and McCarry show off examples of buildings they’ve worked on that are part of their ecosystem, not merely respectful of it. McCarry starts with the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre in Vancouver, which is a candidate for the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge.

The sewage is treated on site and is then used to irrigate the gardens. The panels that make up the flower petal-inspired roof were prefabricated, saving energy and untold damage to the gardens that would have occurred if the construction would have had to take place onsite. Instead of relying on concrete or steel, they used mostly wood, a plentiful renewable resource in this part of North America. A glass skylight tower pulls air through the building, reducing the need for additional ventilation, and excess heat collected from the solar panels is stored in reserves underground.

They aren’t just using less energy than they were before; the building generates more energy than it can use, so the excess is exported to an adjacent building. They are saving their client money that they’d have otherwise spent on utilities, but the innovative design and striking architecture are drawing thousands of people to the gardens who might not have come otherwise, McCarry says. “You have to fit (this kind of design) to the business of your client and make their life a lot better, not just get another plaque on the wall,” he adds.

VanDusen facade
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At Perkins + Will’s headquarters on Peachtree Street in Atlanta (named one of the top 10 green buildings of 2012), Vaughan’s team needed to renovate their own 1980s, concrete building, and they used the 2030 Challenge to help set their goal to have a carbon neutral building by 2030.

One of the first things to go was a traffic circle that faced a pedestrian-heavy street. “We wanted to reweave the traffic fabric,” Vaughan says. The rerouted traffic to the side of the building and created an open street-level terrace that anyone could enjoy. They added fixed louvers and a retractable awning to the all-glass, west-facing facade.

Vaughan says that one of the hardest parts about the project was learning how to “design energy.” They installed radiant heating and cooling throughout the building and set up microturbines on the roof. Because the microturbines created excess heat, they found a way to collect that energy and use it heat the water for the building.

At the end of the session, Reed brings the conversation back to the big picture. “Even if the companies step up, that isn't enough,” he says. “What has to change is our culture. It's not just a building; it's an opportunity. We affect the world through what we eat and where we live, and farming and building practices are the biggest influences on the planet.”

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