What was that about roads paved with good intentions?

by Peg MacDonald, VIA Architecture

In Alec Applebaum’s apt Op-Ed column in the New York Times for the opening of 1 Bryant Park, the first LEED Platinum office tower in the US, he warns:
“But while the [LEED] standard is well-intentioned, it is also greatly misunderstood. Put simply, a building’s LEED rating is more like a snapshot taken at its opening, not a promise of performance. Unless local, state and federal agencies do their part to ensure long-term compliance with the program’s ideals, it could end up putting a shiny green stamp on a generation of unsustainable buildings.”
This really isn’t news. (Same paper, last August.)

It is encouraging, however, to see a growing chorus in mainstream media calling for more demanding standards and continual monitoring of our built environment. Energy usage is probably among the easiest data to collect, but there’s so much more that I, as an architect, want to know.

At a recent seminar about an ongoing study of energy usage in multi-unit high-rise buildings, the presenter tossed out an anecdote about a Vancouver-area resident who had to move her bed into the hall during the summer to find relief from the heat. This is a horrifying proposition - that a resident, probably an owner who had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in her home, found that space seasonally unbearable – even in Vancouver’s mild summer - to live in.

This story raises all kinds of questions – what way does her unit face? Are there any overhangs, openable windows, air conditioning? Most critically, what design choices led to that situation? And equally important – has anyone told the original design team?

Every building has its quirks. So many ideas and systems interact – sometimes in surprising ways. From a 1950s 3-storey walk-up to a high-rise with a fresh Occupancy Permit, there are and will be funny little things that might be called ‘character.’ Over time, maybe they’ll blend into a comfortable patina. Hopefully, they don’t become sources of horrible discomfort.

Designers are quirky, too. There are moves each of us push for, based on our own experiences and lifestyles (higher showerheads and uninterrupted wall space for bookshelves, for instance). But if there’s anything that significantly affects the lifestyles of the users – tell us! Then we can repeat the idea (if it’s a good one) – or adjust it, or avoid it altogether. In large projects where the user group is known as ‘Buyer’, direct feedback is far too rare – and often only had when things go really wrong.

It is better to know that some element does not perform as intended or expected – whether it’s a missing or ill-placed sunshade, an interior layout, or an energy system – than to unwittingly repeat a folly for the next several decades.