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The green tide

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Maybe you weren't around when R. Buckminster Fuller was espousing the virtue of efficiency and social equality inherent in responsible design thinking. Maybe you were around, but have long forgotten the energy crisis of the 1970s - that is, until your most recent trip to the pumps. But surely you can't overlook today's headlines (and buried articles alike) that bring to the fore the challenges we face today as a consequence of our actions, as well as our inactions.

Global warming, social degradation, resource depletion, the $100 barrel of crude oil, inadequate and contaminated water sources, ozone depletion, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, historically unparalleled loss of species and habitat, and social injustice. The problems can no longer be ignored, and as much as they did not develop overnight, nor did the thinkers providing responsible solutions just get washed up on the beach this morning.

Fuller had his followers, often converted skeptics. But the architectural community at large never quite embraced his enthusiasm for the global societal responsibility of architecture and his tenet of "doing more with less." At the time, energy was prevalent, the nation enjoyed unequaled personal wealth and the association between architecture (and, more succinctly, design in general), and the health of the planet and its inhabitants was too conveniently ignored.

A second wave of responsible thinkers, a group of designers most assuredly disciples of Fuller's, found a voice amongst the cry for cheap fuel during the energy crisis to espouse responsible design. But the crisis was short lived, and with blind arrogance the building profession, inclusive of architects, considered this informal group as a bunch of "liberals," rather than the advanced thinkers they were. As a sign of the times, this ostracism was tantamount to labeling them as outcasts and sadly, a touch of that stigma has clung to the "green" movement ever since.

These "design outlaws," much like Fuller before, were met with as much skepticism as with simply stubborn resistance. Their battle was not only for the social and environmental health of the world, but against the status quo of the industry. The good news is that through perseverance and with ever growing scientific evidence as ammunition, their endeavors were not in vain and the ripples they created are being felt as waves of responsible thinking and awareness in all facets of the building industry today.

These predecessors to the "green" movement saw the opportunity within architecture to not only create significant and inspiring art, but responsible building practices. And the concept of architecture, not only as a science and an art, but as a profession with global social consequences, took shape. The obtuseness, which more simply was a lack of both knowledge and conviction, which had usurped the green movement in the building profession, was now being replaced with acute concern for our ability to respond to such amazing and immediate challenges.

In recent years, the wave of "green" design, has taken on the legitimacy of national organizations, global corporations and municipalities across America and has truly become a movement. The outlaws of the past are now being looked to as leaders that can provide an appropriate architectural response to the problems being faced today by the individual and industry alike.

The tangible and intangible benefits of "responsible design," are now being seen as smart business. Nike Co., the world's largest maker of sport shoe wear, has delved into the concept of material conservation and product recycling. The Ford Motor Co. has endeavored to create a 10-acre green roof that will harvest rainwater, create living habitat, reduce energy costs and enhance worker health and productivity. And in spite of the social imbalances that can be equated with the practices of behemoth Wal-Mart, the company has embarked on a partnership program with wildlife and habitat conservation organizations and has created a small number of 'environmental demonstration stores.' Surely if a profit and public perception-savvy corporation like Wal-Mart can begin to see the benefits of "green," then who can continue to ignore its benefits?

This wave of green development has reached the building industry and has found a niche in the form of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). This group, created by a coalition of members of the building industry, has developed today's most recognizable evaluation of green building design through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. This system provides owners, users, developers and designers, quantifiable goals to aspire to while considering the environmental impact of a building design.

Quite possibly the most significant step in the growth and public awareness of the responsible movement, is the utilization of environmentally aware decisions on the parts of municipalities. Green has not only become mainstream, but policy. Municipalities are embracing the movement, with 27 major cities across the country (including San Diego) adopting the LEED standards, and many other programs being implemented that mandate that responsible solutions be at the fore of the design of the public realm.

From the greening of the rooftops in the city of Chicago, to the sustainable schools program in Washington, to tax credits for development that utilize alternative energy sources in California, Illinois and Massachusetts, and to our own city of San Diego where all new municipal buildings must meet green building guidelines; it is no longer a choice to make it green, but a question of how green can you make it? The very idea that local, regional and national municipal programs are bringing the green to our front lawns must bring a smile to Bucky's face, and a sense of liberation to the outlaws.

Beyond the bottom line of for-profit corporations, and into the cities in which we actually live and breathe, and hopefully thrive, the wave of responsible design can be traced from the few to the many. And while this current surge has been corporate driven, Architects and builders must now re-take the lead to nurture this momentum. The final straw to making 'green' the norm, as opposed to being an option, will be the mainstreaming of responsible thinking within the building community at large.

As stewards of the built environment, we must not consider responsible design solutions as a choice to be made, but as a tenet of our professions. We must acknowledge and embrace what we've witnessed, and what we surely know to be true; Responsible Design is the wave of today, and the only path available for a healthy future.


Lukas is a designer at Platt/Whitelaw, Architects, Inc. He was valedictorian of the 2005 graduate program in architecture at the NewSchool of Architecture & Design in San Diego.

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