Architect Frank Gehry talks LEED and the future of green building

Photos: Left-AP Photo/Isaac Brekken; Right: Flickr/mikel.puga

Frank Gehry, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect best known for his titanium-scaled landmarks like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles and the Experience Music Project in Seattle, among others, stirred up controversy last month when he reportedly called LEED — an internationally recognized green building certification system – “bogus stuff” and told Bloomberg Businessweek that green building had become “fetishized,” like wearing an American flag pin.

While experts say LEED has helped spur sustainable building in this country, there is a growing chorus of critics saying the system allows developers to reap the public relations benefits of building “green,” without necessarily ensuring sustainability.

Need to Know spoke with Gehry to find out what he really thinks about green building, the LEED certification process and the future of sustainable architecture.

Abigail Leonard: Were you surprised by the negative reactions to your comments about LEED?

Frank Gehry: Yes I was surprised. But I wasn’t saying what they reported I said. I never said I was opposed to the LEED program or to green building — I’m not.

Leonard: How important is it, in your view, to “build green”?

Gehry: I think [global warming] is a crisis, we’re led to believe that by our scientists who seem to have a pretty good idea of what’s going on, so we have to address it if we want to survive on this planet. Of course there are also some people making hay out of it and using the issue for financial gain, but green building is clearly something architects need to be concerned with.

Leonard: Is the LEED program a valid way to encourage that type of design?

Gehry: It is, but it’s one way among many.  A lot of our clients don’t apply for the LEED certification because it’s complicated and in their view, they simply don’t need it.

Novartis Building. Photo: © Thomas Mayer

There are other ways to encourage green building. For example, we did the Novartis building in Switzerland.

They don’t use the LEED program over there, the government just says this is what you can and can’t do, and things have to be built in a sustainable way. So really it’s a political thing: People taking responsibility on an individual level combined with government programs that give mandates that say “this is how we’re going to require people to build.” Our federal government is trying to take steps in that direction. I just met with someone from the Obama administration, they are trying to enact tougher standards, but they’re having some trouble.

Leonard: To use the Novartis building as an example, what is the Swiss government doing that ours isn’t? What do you think the government’s role should be in this?

Gehry: They set very particular standards: The Swiss government said the Novartis building couldn’t be air-conditioned. So we had to come up with another way to regulate the temperature. We built it entirely out of glass and cooled it with a geothermal system. The roof panels were made with photovoltaic glass that generates energy. And there is an opening at the top that lets hot air out — like a teepee. In the end, there’s no one way to do it, you have to be creative.

Leonard: So pressure should come from government at the top and builders will respond?

Gehry: In an ideal world, pressure should come from below and from the top.

Leonard: Some critics have taken issue with LEED’s point system, which they say doesn’t always produce the most environmentally friendly buildings. The most commonly sited example is that developers get the same number of points for installing a bike rack as they do for a complex, and expensive, water recycling system. Do you think the point system is useful?

Gehry: Maybe you need the point system to energize this type of building, but I’m not sure it’s necessary.  The best way would be a political initiative that requires people to address these issues in order to get a building permit. Then the government can incentivize sustainable building through subsidies and various other things. But this is a global issue, so you need programs that not only we agree on but also that the Russians and the Chinese agree on.

Leonard: In this country, do you think there’s a big enough push to build green that it could happen without government mandates?

Gehry: On certain projects, on big public projects, people definitely are interested in making them greener, but on smaller projects with tight budgets it can be harder. People don’t feel like they’re making enough of a dent for it to be worth it.

Leonard: There’s certainly a conception that you have to make a choice between building something green and building something beautiful. Can you combine aesthetics and sustainability?

Gehry: It is true that we find there a lot of buildings being built with sustainability in mind, but they’re not nice to be in. There has to be some sense of value, so an environmentally friendly building also has to be user friendly. Sometimes those conflicts seem to raise their ugly head[s].

Leonard: Aside from the aesthetics issue, what are the major challenges to building more environmentally friendly buildings — why isn’t everyone doing it?

Gehry: Well for example, I met with a German energy company that wanted to build green. And they brought every bloody expert on this topic to my office in Santa Monica.…They wanted to use geothermal or wind energy but you just couldn’t make it work. They sat on a site where there was not enough wind to warrant wind energy; their offices closed at 5 p.m., so there was no need to conserve energy during the day to light it at night because there was no one was there at night. So it can be tough, and each case is individual.

Leonard: What was the end result – were you able to get close to what they’d hoped for?

Gehry: I think so. We created a heating system that met their criteria. I even proposed that they put a bunch of stationary bikes at the front of the building to generate energy; we built two of them in fact. … I spend an hour on that cardio thing every day, and I’d be happier if I created energy while I was exercising. These small things could make a huge difference: Installing skylights or if everybody put a put water pipes and solar boilers on their roofs like they do in Israel, it would reduce electricity consumption. Obviously it’s complicated – solar boilers probably wouldn’t work in the Northeast for example – but there are steps we could take and political mandates would help.

Leonard: Stationary bikes for energy, that’s a pretty creative solution. Anything else you’ve been considering doing?

Gehry: One thing I was messing around with is how to get a building skin that’s photovoltaic. I saw an example that JPL did 20 year ago, a piece of photovoltaic material that had bubbles in it, it was really beautiful. They stopped making it, but if I’d had it, I would have built the Disney Center with it.

Leonard: What can be done to encourage architects to build with those sorts of materials?

Gehry: One of the crucial issues is to have designers work with the people creating the technology to make it more appealing to put on buildings. So material that looks like what we already use to create buildings, but that is actually more energy efficient — smart bricks, smart concrete, smart metal. Then it would be a lot easier to incorporate it into buildings without having to redesign the entire structure.  I’m hoping that will happen sooner or later.

We’ve been working with a company that makes icrete. It’s a concrete substitute that uses 50 percent less concrete in the mix, reducing the carbon footprint by 50 percent. Concrete contributes 8 percent of the world’s overall carbon footprint so this concrete would cut that in half and that would make a tremendous difference.

Leonard: Are there other solutions that perhaps aren’t getting enough attention?

Gehry: There are issues that arise that honestly just aren’t as sexy. For example, a lot of materials in the construction industry are wasted because they’re delivered too early. We’re working on a computer program with the French company Gasteau Systems that helps organize construction.

Photo: Flickr/dirac3000

You can analyze traffic patterns to figure out a way to create a schedule for delivery. It’s a big waste of materials otherwise and that’s a huge thing when you’re trying to create a sustainable system. There also a lot of wasted that could be saved if you shipped things more effectively. There are a lot of things like that that we run into that probably don’t get as much attention as they should.

Leonard: What do you think it will take to make a real, substantive change?

Gehry: Creativity and a will to do it. And a lot of it is common sense. I was in Peru and visited a building near Lima built by the Incas. It was low in height, with no windows at all, but all the way in the back there was air movement. And I couldn’t figure out how they’d done it, it was incredible. So there’s a lot of primitive stuff that’s been done that doesn’t require advanced technologies that we should focus on. And when we do focus on technology it should be with an aesthetic sensibility. And above all we need to take the issue seriously so that our clients and our partners in the construction industry become aware of the possibilities.

 
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Comments

  • http://inhabitat.com/2010/06/15/frank-gehry-defends-his-criticism-of-leed/ Frank Gehry speaks out about his LEED comments | Inhabitat – Green Design Will Save the World

    [...] had become “fetishized” like “wearing an American flag pin”. This week, Need to Know, a new current affairs show and online news magazine on PBS, sat down with Frank Gehry to speak to him about the LEED controversy and ask what he “really [...]

  • http://international-news.org/2010/06/frank-gehry-defends-his-criticism-of-leed/ Frank Gehry Defends His Criticism of LEED | International News – Stay up to date with the latest World News, Finance & Business, Green News, Technology and Sports

    [...] had become “fetishized” like “wearing an American flag pin”. This week, Need to Know, a new current affairs show and online news magazine on PBS, sat down with Frank Gehry to speak to him about the LEED controversy and ask what he “really [...]

  • http://AdviceOnGreenLiving.com/frank-gehry-recants-earlier-rants-goes-green/ Frank Gehry Recants Earlier Rants, Goes Green | Green Living

    [...] of the architectural bunfight his words started. But in a long interview with Abby Leonard of PBS’s Need to Know, Frank recants, does a few mea culpas and clarif…Read the full story on [...]

  • http://nachhaltiger.net/index.php/2010/06/news/frank-gehry-recants-earlier-rants-goes-green/ Frank Gehry Recants Earlier Rants, Goes Green | nachhaltiger.net

    [...] of the architectural bunfight his words started. But in a long interview with Abby Leonard of PBS's Need to Know, Frank recants, does a few mea culpas and clarif…Read the full story on TreeHugger Tagged [...]

  • http://duurzamegadgets.nl/blogs/frank-gehry-defends-his-criticism-of-leed/ Frank Gehry Defends His Criticism of LEED «

    [...] had become “fetishized” like “wearing an American flag pin”. This week, Need to Know, a new current affairs show and online news magazine on PBS, sat down with Frank Gehry to speak to him about the LEED controversy and ask what he “really [...]

  • http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/treehuggersite/~3/p9znlPvwq-8/frankgehry-recants-rants-goes-green.php Frank Gehry Recants Earlier Rants, Goes Green : TreeHugger

    [...] of the architectural bunfight his words started. But in a long interview with Abby Leonard of PBS's Need to Know, Frank recants, does a few mea culpas and clarifies his [...]

  • http://greenhubs.com/?p=28653 GreenHubs.com » Frank Gehry Recants Earlier Rants, Goes Green

    [...] of the architectural bunfight his words started. But in a long interview with Abby Leonard of PBS’s Need to Know, Frank recants, does a few mea culpas and clarif…Read the full story on [...]

  • http://blog.nau.com/2010/06/15/frank-gehry-on-sustainability-and-the-future-of-green-building/ Nau : The Thought Kitchen » Blog Archive » Frank Gehry on sustainability and the future of Green Building

    [...] sustainability certification will do that—and he dialed back the intensity of his criticism in a subsequent interview with PBS’s’s Abby Leonard. It’s worth a read, as he goes on to give his thoughts on sustainability [...]

  • http://bpse.net/blog/?p=5352 bPSE Structural Engineering » Blog Archive » Frank Gehry Recants Earlier Rants, Goes Green

    [...] of the architectural bunfight his words started. But in a long interview with Abby Leonard of PBS's Need to Know, Frank recants, does a few mea culpas and clarif… Read the full story on [...]

  • http://international-news.org/2010/06/frank-gehry-recants-earlier-rants-goes-green/ Frank Gehry Recants Earlier Rants, Goes Green | International News – Stay up to date with the latest World News, Finance & Business, Green News, Technology and Sports

    [...] of the architectural bunfight his words started. But in a long interview with Abby Leonard of PBS’s Need to Know, Frank recants, does a few mea culpas and clarif…Read the full story on [...]

  • http://greenbuildingelements.com/2010/06/17/frank-gehry-and-the-leed-debacle/ Frank Gehry and the LEED Debacle : Green Building Elements

    [...] landing in the hot seat for such statements, Gehry has recently defended his statements in Need to Know, a PBS magazine. “I never said I was opposed to the LEED program or to green building — [...]

  • Yasmin

    I am so very pleased to know Frank Gehry has a similar view of LEEDS certification. He and I are similarly invested in such works being used for the good of the environment. J

  • Stephan Harding-Hiese

    As a graduate of an electrical apprenticeship program last month I felt classwork and homework to credential tradespeople was a fetish for GBCI to further its influence in a market that will respond to niches as well as felt needs without auditors collecting grand fees to annoint designs and worksites as green by LEED “credentialed” and “certified” persons. Persons with vested interests.
    The Whole Earth Catalog and Co-Evolution Quarterly were staples in my early student life.
    Point systems do not allow for creativity in new technologies. Like many building codes, they always will follow leading edge ideas in design, materials and fabrication techniques.
    Frank Gehry, thank you and PBS thank you. WFYI is Indy’s station.

  • http://blog.cleantechies.com/2010/06/21/architect-gehry-leed/ Star Architect Gehry: ‘A lot of LEED Is Given for Bogus Stuff’ | CleanTechies Blog – CleanTechies.com

    [...] tried to clarify his position here a few days [...]

  • Greg Blain Architect

    Frank, how can you say the environment is important when the energy and resources used to build one of your buildings, could be used to build 5 similar buildings could be built of the same capacity which likely perform better? All in the name of “looks”! Walk the talk man!

  • http://www.melstarrs.com/elemental/2010/06/22/links-for-june-18th-from-1007-to-1007/ Elemental » Links for June 18th through June 21st

    [...] Architect Frank Gehry talks LEED and the future of green building | Need to Know | PBS – More from Gehry on LEED. The role of government versus voluntary is discussed, but to no satisfactory conclusion. I'm sure he's wishing he never said anything to begin with. A throw away comment has caused a storm of attention on something he's obviously not that passionate one way or the other about. [...]

  • LARC0

    Nice writeup!!! I wish we all could be a LOT more green these days and stop talking about doing it.

  • Raj Williams

    I agree with Frank regarding the hype related to LEED. The USGBC has been given way too much power to annoint and certify buildings as LEED. What a rip off for the general public since responsible building codes should be deriving the same results with buildings. But to have a thrid party with an expensive process to do the annointing is an irresponsible act of political bodies empowered to act in the public interest.

    While I believe LEED does force developers and builders into designing and building energy conserving and other environmentally friendly green buildings, any Architect worth his/her salt should be doing this anyway. Of course, this is applicable if one uses a responsible Architect to design their buildings in the first place. I also agree with Frank that LEED type buildings are not necessarily pretty buildings. The “green” building in Annapolis Maryland which houses the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is a butt ugly building! A well designed building should be aethtically pleasing as well as sustainable since a thing of beauty can have numerous intagible benefits like lifting ones spirits and savoring its presence. If a beautiful building costs a little more to operate, so be it. At least one can be happy while occupying that structure!!

  • http://www.greenzer.com/blog/8825-leed-problems.html Are We Being Led Astray by LEED? | Daily Greenz, the Blog from Greenzer.com

    [...] perceived Gehry vs. LEED battle has stayed a hot topic since then, and Gehry recently sat down with PBS to discuss it further. In his interview, Gehry pointed out that sometimes the added costs of [...]

  • http://www.greenbuildingsNYC.com/2010/06/30/frank-talk-gehry-explains-dropping-the-shiny-maybe-a-little-over-the-top-bomb-on-leed/ Frank Talk: Gehry Explains Dropping The (Shiny, Maybe A Little Over The Top) Bomb On LEED | greenbuildingsNYC

    [...] — thankfully — some sort of stealth global warming skeptic or anything like that. In a long and interesting interview on green building with Abigail Leonard of PBS, Gehry gets into greater detail on his feelings about green building’s potential, pitfalls [...]

  • bibhuti man singh

    two things:
    1. among the ‘starchitects’, gehry is the most irresponsible, frivolous and wasteful. Putting a couple of solar units on the roof is not enough penance for a lifetime of pandering to ‘soulful, musical, cosmic etc’ instincts that he doesnt have to pay for. Maybe he should stick to painting or sculpture. He and the whole system that supports and nurtures him shouldnt even be talking about LEED.
    2. gehry is wrong when he says LEED produces buildings that are not nice or user friendly. If he could only reign in his wayward, freewheeling, or footloose pencil and direct his creative urges in the right direction, we can have both and save some to boot!

  • http://blogger.hanleywood.com/CS/blogs/opecoblog/archive/2010/07/01/gehry-gone-green.aspx Gehry Gone Green? – Ecology

    [...] couple of weeks ago, Gehry defended his comments, claiming he’d been misunderstood and insisting to a PBS reporter that “green building is [...]

  • http://blogger.hanleywood.com/CS/blogs/thompsonsblog/archive/2010/07/01/does-certification-pay-for-itself.aspx Does Green Certification Pay? – Boyce Thompson: Boyce on Building

    [...] incentive to design around a check list rather than create the greenest possible building. Even architect Frank Gehry has emerged as a critic. He believes, among other things, that the money spent on certification would be better spent [...]

  • http://offtopicdesign.com/frank-talk-gehry-explains-dropping-the-shiny-maybe-a-little-over-the-top-bomb-on-leed/ Frank Talk: Gehry Explains Dropping The (Shiny, Maybe A Little Over The Top) Bomb On LEED

    [...] — thankfully — some sort of stealth global warming skeptic or anything like that. In a long and interesting interview on green building with Abigail Leonard of PBS, Gehry gets into greater detail on his feelings about green building’s potential, pitfalls [...]

  • http://aec4n6.spaceelephants.com/2010/07/05/frank-talk-gehry-explains-dropping-the-shiny-maybe-a-little-over-the-top-bomb-on-leed/ Frank Talk: Gehry Explains Dropping The (Shiny, Maybe A Little Over The Top) Bomb On LEED : AEC4N6.com

    [...] he’s not — thankfully — some sort of stealth global warming skeptic or anything like that. In a long and interesting interview on green building with Abigail Leonard of PBS, Gehry gets into greater detail on his feelings about green building’s potential, pitfalls and [...]

  • http://www.aceti.com/accountable-government/oakville%e2%80%99s-new-hospital-to-leed-or-not-to-leed-that-is-the-question/ Oakville’s New Hospital: To LEED or not to LEED, that is the question | Bob Aceti

    [...] increase costs without sufficient marginal benefit compared to alternatives. Ghery stated  in an interview with PBS that other materials and components would achieve similar results without the additional cost, [...]

  • http://www.newyorkbygehry.com Frank Gehry

    Hi,

    future of green building is really so nice guys.

    Thanks

  • http://www.triplepundit.com/2011/01/leed-certified-guzzler-draws-criticism/ LEED-Certified Guzzler Draws Criticism

    [...] criticized LEED saying that points are often given for “bogus stuff.” Later, in an interview on PBS, he backtracked, saying he’s not against LEED, that it can help encourage sustainable design, but [...]

  • Kohlironbuy

    Love the idea, I tried them ,pretty cool!

    http://www.irondoors4u.com

  • http://urbanverse.net/true-green-whats-wrong-with-green-building-sustainability-and-especially-leed-green-architecture/ True Green: What’s Wrong with Green Building, Sustainability, and Especially #LEED? #green #architecture

    [...] Design. Frank Gehry continues to profess allegiance to sustainability while condemning the methods, specifically LEED. [...]

  • http://aecforensics.com/frank-talk-gehry-explains-dropping-the-shiny-maybe-a-little-over-the-top-bomb-on-leed-654657281/ Frank Talk: Gehry Explains Dropping The (Shiny, Maybe A Little Over The Top) Bomb On LEED – AECforensics.com

    [...] and he?s not ? thankfully ? some sort of stealth global warming skeptic or anything like that. In a long and interesting interview on green building with Abigail Leonard of PBS, Gehry gets into greater detail on his feelings about green building?s potential, pitfalls and [...]

  • http://hba.vhhost.net/uncategorized/frank-gehry-speaks-about-the-leedr-rating-system/ Frank Gehry speaks about the LEED(r) Rating System – HBA

    [...] Need to Know interview by Abby Leonard titled Architect Frank Gehry talks LEED and the future of green building, dated June 14, [...]

  • http://cleantechies.wpengine.com/2010/06/21/architect-gehry-leed/ Star Architect Gehry: 'A lot of LEED Is Given for Bogus Stuff' – CleanTechies

    [...] tried to clarify his position here a few days [...]