Green starts with the Letter “S”

Coverage of the presentation by Robert Rogers. Click here to access the presentation abstract, PowerPoint and other resources.

By Alissa Emmel

Friday afternoon, over 40 people participated in Robert Roger’s workshop on current building design methodologies and architectural alternatives. The premise was a simple yet profound concept, that rather than focusing on checklists and titles, we need to look at holistic approaches to sustainability. At the beginning of the session he passed around a sheet with three questions that we would be exploring this session: 1) Will our decisions fulfill the goals of the ABS Conference and its theme of “Environments”? 2) Will our decisions expand our understanding of sustainable design and the Bahá’í relationship to sustainable design? 3) Will our decisions lead to a sense of joy and a commitment to explore and steward this incredible planet? He then told us to add a fourth fundamental question, Will our decisions help __________? We were told to fill in that blank with the name of someone who is important to us. For him he was thinking about his granddaughter Mona, and he reminded us that when we are focusing on sustainability, it’s not just about the environment or some abstract concept, but about making decisions that will be good for and will help people in our communities and people around us that we love and care about.

In order to make decisions that would lead to a sense of joy and a commitment to explore and steward this incredible planet, it is important to look at the guidance from the holy texts. The first step is to understand what is “green.” This word is being used everywhere from architecture to agriculture to business practices. In popular discussions “green” can be an idea, a commitment to be in touch with the planet, a holistic lifestyle, even a better business practice. Roger reminded us of the quotation of Bahá’u’lláh “Be ye the embodiments of justice and fairness amidst all creation.” (This is from the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book for Bahá’ís.) We then explored the quotation. Embody- to show forth, exemplify. Amidst- means surrounded by. We discussed what does it mean to be in the midst of or surrounded by all of creation, rather than seeing ourselves as separate. How does one show for justice and fairness to all creation?

He remarked that when he first became a Bahá’í he was very moved by the passage in the Kitab-i-Aqdas that refers to Houses of Worship “O people of the world! Build ye houses of worship throughout the lands in the name of Him Who is the Lord of all religions. Make them as perfect as is possible in the world of being…” (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 29)

After discussing the spiritual guidance the group focused on moving past the valley of names and not getting trapped in acronyms and titles such as; LEED AP (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional), GS Certifications, or even his own S6J (Sustainability 6 Justice). Our goal should be to merge the technology of humans, with nature and faith. He decided on S6J because he was thinking about the various components of sustainability, however it easily could have been S11J with the other S words being:
Stand – up and be counted
Shift- move the chairs, change lives
Shake- shake hands and shake up systems
Share- share with each other
Speak- actions louder than words

He shared with the group the quote from a Bahá’í prayer “Make me as dust in the pathway of Thy loved ones, and grant that I may offer up my soul for the earth ennobled by the footsteps of Thy chosen ones in Thy path, O Lord of Glory in the Highest.” There was then a brief discussion of the power of that statement, to offer up one’s soul for the earth. Rogers explained that for him the 6 S really looked at how one reconceptualizes how buildings, structures and even organizations are put together. If, as the conference description states, “man is organic with the world”, how does this take place? It begins with the spirit (the first S). (You can access the entire chart here)

When doing building design, architects usually start with a title sheet that has the vision and goal for the building. However maybe we need to start with a sheet called “spirit” which would symbolize the things we can’t put our fingers on, in the sense of “school spirit” or the “spirit of a place.” Therefore the first S category is “Spirit” or “Soul” which looks at the underlying values governing what we do. He further explained that not only is it important to identify the elements, but then the second column, looks at how these elements are expressed in a particular project. The second column would be where the various “green building” processes and certifications would fit. The third column which is equally important looks at what happens after the building is built and how it is used. For example if people don’t pull down the blinds, then it doesn’t matter that you’ve added blinds to help cool the house and thereby lower energy usage. One of the challenges with the checklists, is how does one take something that is holistic and put it on paper. The “spirit” section helps with this ~ it serves to help with accountability for truthfulness, honestly, integrity.

The “Shared Values” section refers to the values that should be in a particular project regardless of what the client may want. The current paradigm is that I as an architect am working for a client who has a particular property, with particular needs, and particular desires and this is the only thing I worry about. The rest of the community is the worry of the zoning committee, or the neighbors or other people. We need to get out of our boxes.

The second S is Soil. Really we are talking about soil systems, what is underground. What do you hit at 10 feed down? What about at 50 feet below ground level? We need to worry about this as we affect ground water. This S helps us remember that there are all these other natural systems (other than us) that depend on this soil. In addition it is also important to take into account underground manmade structures.

The third S is Seed. Here it is more than just plants and gardens, it is the space that we need for what we are doing. This is usually the top of the list, but here we put it 3rd. This S is for what an organization needs. Here we look at questions like, How do we expand? How much room do we need? This hotel that we are in is Marriott’s “seed” for the Adams Morgan area, it represents them.

The fourth S is Sky. Often people think of solar energy; however sky is a bigger concept. It is really where we get immediate energy, whether solar energy, or wind energy, or water energy. Yet in this category it is not just about capturing energy, what about the tree that needs “sky.” This section is for everything that is above ground. How do we factor the in the view from our building, what about aesthetic?

The fifth S is Skin. In design concepts, the “skin” refers to the building “envelope”. In our haste to close in buildings, some of them are trapping all the bad elements. He spoke briefly about “sick building syndrome,” where buildings are actually making people sick!

The sixth S is Systems. Historically this has been the heart of architecture. This section looks at the material flow systems, how things go in and out of buildings, on and off of bridges, etc. It is here that we take into account the interiors of buildings and human comfort systems (e.g. cooling systems). Two of the biggest complaints we hear are: “The building is too hot!” “The building is too cold!” Human comfort systems are fundamental. Systems is important, because rather than talking about plumbing, we can talk about water systems. He gave the example of collecting water in the shower (while you are waiting for the water to heat up) and that water can be used to flush the toilet. Rather than talking about lighting, we should be talking about illumination systems – since natural light comes from the outdoors (via sun tubes, skylights, etc).

We then discussed various questions.

1) LEED standard have been developed to create uniformity (minimum standards). You spoke about trust; however we are not on the honor system yet, so what’s wrong with LEED to help us get on the same page?

For a building to be LEED certified you have to register it, then build it using specific criteria, and then there is another process for crosschecking. It is good to have it set up to follow LEED guidelines. For example for a hospital that I helped design, we used the LEED principles, but they didn’t want to spend $25,000 to “cross-check” our work. Now one of the problems with not having a certification is that there is nothing to stop someone from saying “well it’s kind of hard to do recycling on the job, so we’ll do better next time.” Therefore we really need to look at this from a holistic angle, rather than just a checklist.

2) When there are certain legal standards or requirements to make something green (like for it to be LEED certified), sometimes you can improve on the proposed standards, but it would go against the “standards”. Therefore even if your answer would be more sustainable and more efficient, you are not able to implement if everyone is forced to follow a certain standard. That is where “trust” comes in. Maybe there should be more flexible standards to allow for creativity

Rogers noted that there is flexibility of approaches and concepts in LEED. However making buildings more “green” is kind of like reading or math in school. It’s ok to say “you need to learn this, this and this” however we don’t want to teach to the test, we want them to understand “why” and “how” everything fits together. In the same way you don’t want people just trying to follow a checklist you want them to understand the whole picture.

One participant noted that unfortunately LEED does not cause us to “challenge” our current concepts. What is more important in terms of building, building a green building? Or asking, “Why are we building this building?” or even “Should it be built at all?” Sometimes we are so focused on making something more environmentally friendly that we forget to ask those other questions.

Another participant noted that in New Jersey more of these “green” standards are being added to the state laws governing building codes. In this sense it is great because everyone will have to adhere to them. Eventually there will be no designation, “green buildings,” because all buildings will be “green.”

Another participant recommended that we add another “S” for Safety. At a hurricane conference they looked at building codes and found that often in the worst hit areas, the building codes were substandard. We need to make sure that we are using our best resources not only for aesthetic purposes, but also to make sure it is safe. This will vary from place to place as to which materials would be best. This comes down to recognizing the oneness of humanity. When we love each other and truly think of each other as brothers and sisters, if someone is building something they won’t put in 3 screws if they know that it needs 6.

3) What is the minimum size that you need for a sustainable community (to include grocery store, school, etc) so that you could limit comings and goings? What would you need bare minimum?

Rogers said that while he was unaware of any specific size (although planned communities often focus on having the ability to walk to places like grocery stores), there was an interesting idea with cohousing. Cohousing allows for smaller housing with shared property. He spoke about a 33 unit project where there are 2 rooms that are rented out, so that if people come to visit you, you can rent these rooms, but your house can actually be smaller since you don’t need to have guest rooms in your house. There is a common house with a dining room, so that people’s individual kitchens can be smaller.

One concern that was raised is that LEED buildings can also be completely separate from their communities. One participant then brought up the question of how can we be “regenerative”. The example was given of hospitals that have orchards, which is a physical therapy for patients and gives back to the community as well. How can we take LEED platinum (the highest current rating) to LEED diamond, so that we are being more than just “green” or “sustainable” we are in fact creating jobs and wealth. She noted that we all need to be designers, we should all be thinking creatively about how we can create an organic lifestyle.

It was recommended that Mr. Rogers speak with the Bahá’í Center Assistance Corps. This is a group that has been set up to help Bahá’í communities with building community centers. Eventually we will need to be thinking about these design concepts, as there will eventually be Houses of Worship in every community. We know that these Houses of Worship exemplify in tangible form the integration of Bahá’í worship and service, so we will have to think about how these physical spaces express our community.

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