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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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