Friday, May 2, 2014

Why Green Architecture is a Sham

Some of you may have heard of the green building certification system known as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, a private organization that even though it calls itself non-profit, functions as en effective cash cow for its founders. LEED is essentially greenwashing for the one percent to feel good about themselves even as they tear the fabric society apart. It’s yet another meaningless credential so that we can pretend our system is sustainable. What’s my evidence?

Well, here are my two favorite “green” projects, both LEED certified so they must be sustainable right? One is a new terminal at San Jose International airport built exclusively for the private jets of Silicon Valley executives to fly around the world (Designboom does not use caps):

Your private jet to Dubai awaits at this "green" airport extension
a new development at the mineta san josé international airport (SJC) will break ground in january, where private aviation firm signature flight support has been granted rights to build and operate a $82 million private development on 29 acres on the airport’s west side. the company will service and provide a new site for the personal aircraft of the principals at google, as well as other clients in the silicon valley such as hewlett packard. designed by gensler architects, the 270,000 square foot LEED gold-certified facility will feature an executive terminal, hangars, aircraft servicing resources and ramp space for accommodating large business jets such as the boeing’s 737 business jet and boeing B767. in addition, the airport extension will create economic stimulation to the region by opening up 150 to 200 construction jobs and offering the SJC $2.6 million in annual rent.

Almost 200 jobs constructing a private jet facility for Google executives, eh? Someone call Tom Friedman! I guess the wealth is finally trickling down after all.

The other is the Virgin galactic spaceport for the one percent to blast off into space for a vacation (even as NASA’s budget is perennially cut):

Does it get more "green" than a spaceport for the one percent in the middle of the desert?
The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, a combined terminal and hangar facility, will support up to two WhiteKnightTwo and five SpaceShipTwo vehicles. The 120,000 square-foot building has been designed by Foster + Partners, working with URS Corporation and New Mexico architects SMPC.The Gateway will also house all astronaut preparation and celebration facilities, a mission control centre and a friends and family area...With minimal embodied carbon and few additional energy requirements, the scheme has been designed to achieve LEED Gold accreditation....Built using local materials and construction techniques, it aims to be both sustainable and sensitive to its surroundings.

"Sensitive to it's surroundings," huh? Note that the space port is in THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT! So where is the water for this “sustainable” facility coming from? Oddly, the press release doesn't say, but now Richard Branson can tout his “environmental stewardship”

Do these projects seems like environmentally responsible green building projects designed for a world with less energy and a changing climate to you?

So now you can see what constitutes “green” building today. There has been a lot of criticism of LEED, but these two projects make that criticism better than anything I could say. Thanks to LEED,  the one percenters can purchase a fancy and expensive credential to show all the world how environmentally sustainable their pleasure domes are to ease their guilty consciences. After all, it’s not like private jets and spaceship use fuel, right? Here’s another one from the architect’s playground from the appropriately named MAD architects:

Yet another LEED-certified glass skyscraper in the world's most polluted country
The team explains: “Like the tall mountain cliffs and river landscapes of China, a pair of asymmetrical towers creates a dramatic skyline in front of the park. Ridges and valleys define the shape of the exterior glass façade, as if the natural forces of erosion wore down the tower into a few thin lines. Flowing down the façade, the lines emphasise the smoothness of the towers and its verticality.”
An additional benefit of this fluid design approach is that the ridges draw a natural breeze indoors, providing an energy efficient cooling system for building users. The development has received LEED Gold certification for its employment of natural lighting and air purification systems, as well as intelligent building design. 
This perception of the elements eroding natural forms is continued to the four smaller buildings found south of the two main towers. These office blocks have been shaped to resemble river stones, washed smooth and rounded over a long period of time.

Look, if you want to make a bunch of glass buildings look like ancient Chinese cliffs and river-washed stones, I have no problem with that. Go for it. What bugs me isn't the design itself, nor the cost, but the dishonesty. If you want to indulge in design fantasies and stand out from the crowd, that's your prerogative, but don’t pretend that you’re somehow being "environmentally friendly" by going for a credential like LEED. Who are you fooling? And I like the part at the end about air purification systems – necessary because of China’s infamous air pollution. So your building can get green credits by screening out the air caused by the coal-fired power plants fueling all the economic growth (which generates more building, etc.).

Finally, I’ll outsource this one to Lloyd Alter.

The one percent enjoying their "green" lifestyle
The big European engineering and manufacturing powerhouse, ABB, is making a push into residential markets with their LivingSpace program, full of home automation, security and more. They show a truly lovely piece of architecture on the site (sorry about the nav button being there), a see-through glass box with some nice shades too. But somehow it doesn't seem appropriate to use it as a model for "Reducing the energy consumptions of our homes."
It is a beautiful site with unusual navigation that works well once you figure it out that things go sideways when you slide your finger down, but McLuhan said that the medium is the message, and the medium here is this big honking house. What's the message? That instead of building a house with walls, ABB will sell you "heaters, air conditioning, lights and blinds that automatically work together to create a comfortable atmosphere while minimizing energy to the max."
Perhaps I just don't understand advertising. I would have thought that anyone who cared about energy consumption would immediately ask themselves "why would I consider living in a place like that?" or "how much do I have to pay ABB to make that glass box comfortable?"
The title of the post sums it up: How to reduce your energy consumption: Buy a glass monster home and fill it with green gizmos (Treehugger)

Actually, the message is clear and is the same as the three LEED projects above -  "green" is a way for the job creators in their gigantic mansions to feel good about themselves and the direction society is headed.

Thus, the one percent can live in giant gizmo-filled “green" homes and jet off into space from their “green” spaceports while the rest of us are forececlosed upon and living in tarpaper shacks or under bridges. But I guess our low-impact lifestyle won't count as "green" will it? Welcome to the “green economy” – it’s a “green” economy if you have the “green” of money (with apologies to users of other currencies).

And that brings me to another conclusion that is counterintuitive. People tend to think that technologies like wind, solar, on-site water capture, and so on will empower the average person and local communities and loosen the power of centralized power structures. But what if the opposite is true? What if all these technologies hand the one percent even more power? Under our current socioeconomic system, what if these technologies allow the one percent to establish their libertarian utopia where they don’t need the rest of us and can tear up the social contract even further than they already have.

What brought this to mind was finding this old article from 2009: Inside the Indian Building Hillary Clinton Calls a Green Taj Mahal (Treehugger):
Located in the satellite city of Gurgaon, the ITC Green Center is said to reuse all the water that lands on it and recycles all the water it uses. Its insulated glass keeps out heat and lets in abundant natural light. Ten percent of its wood is certified, and its landscaping relies on local plant species. The building has reduced its energy and water consumption by 51 per cent and 40 per cent, respectively.
When it opened in 2005, it became the world's largest completed LEED platinum rated green office building. "If all new buildings were designed in the same standards as the ITC Green Centre, we could eventually cut global energy use and green house pollution by more than 20 percent and save money at the same time," she said. 
With lower utility bills, the company will break even on its investment (given an extra cost of 12 per cent over a typical building) within five years and then begin to see subsequent savings.
"The monument is a building to the future. The Green Centre not only represents the promise of a green economy but also demonstrates the partnership of India and the US in the 21st century," she added. 
Gurgaon is also home to the LEED platinum rated headquarters for Wipro. The building has saved the company Rs 1 crore in power costs annually, or 55 per cent of its energy consumption. The extra cost of its construction—six to eight per cent over a normal building—is expected to be recovered in five years. 
The Indian Green Building Council (IGBC) is targeting 1,000 LEED certified buildings by 2010, up from 140 last year. Currently, green buildings covering 67 million sq ft are being constructed all over the country, up from 20,000 sq ft in 2003.
Green Building - good for elites like Hilllary, but bad for us?
Keep in mind, this is a country where millions of people still burn dung for heat and live without electricity or a toilet. Ever seen Slumdog Millionaire? And what does this company do?
As in China, the green building movement remains mostly relegated to large corporations, which have more capital to invest in sustainable practices and a significant interest in burnishing their reputations both at home and abroad. 
In addition to the hospitality and IT industries, the ITC Group, the conglomerate behind the center, makes its money through tobacco
As with SOM's "zero-energy" tower for the China National Tobacco Company, talking about health out of one side of your mouth and smoking with the other is hardly convincing.
Guragon, you may recall, is India’s “Voluntary City” a nice euphemism for the Neoliberal endgame for all of us. It’s the Libertarian wet dream. This is a city where there is no common anything; an area of no taxes or governance where it's every man for himself. Wealthy corporations pay for everything themselves, while the unlucky poor live in squalor. Here is the coverage of Guragon:
Gurgaon  has no publicly provided “functioning citywide sewer or drainage system; reliable electricity or water; public sidewalks, adequate parking, decent roads or any citywide system of public transportation.” Yet Gurgaon is a magnet for “India’s best-educated, English-speaking young professionals,” it has 26 shopping malls, seven golf courses, apartment towers, a sports stadium, five-star hotels and “a futuristic commercial hub called Cyber City [that] houses many of the world’s most respected corporations.” According to one survey, Gurgaon is India’s best city to work and live. So how does Gurgaon thrive? It thrives because in the absence of government the private sector has stepped in to provide transportation, utilities, security and more...

So this wealthy tobacco company just buys everything it needs, trucks in its privileged employees (just like in Silicon Valley) to a gated Elysium while everything outside the walls goes to hell and everyone not serving the corporate bottom line is left to fend for themselves without even basic infrastructure. This is the world the elites are building all over the globe! Behold the endgame of anti-government Neoliberalism. It has already brought about a radical divestment of the U.S. infrastructure, which is literally crumbling and falling down around us. What if things like wind and solar allow this situation to get even worse? Things like sewage systems, public transportation, and the electrical grid are already derided as “collectivism."

Who cares about making upgrades to the electrical grid we all use if you can just slap some solar panels on your multi-million dollar home or office building? Who cares about leaks in the water system, if you just harvest your own water? Who cares if the water is safe to drink for people if you can afford to buy your own private water filer? Who cares whether people can afford to light and heat their homes if you can just buy your own private diesel generator or hydrogen fuel cell and have your personal stash of fuel trucked in? It reminds me of Hurricane Sandy, when the general public lived without power for weeks while the rich lived in comfort and ease in their giant McMansions thanks to their diesel-powered generators and solar panels. This is the future.

What if what these technologies really do is allow the rich and powerful to abandon society to an even greater extent than they already have?

Now that the one percent don’t even need the commons to provide their power or their food anymore thanks to"green" technology, what will become of it - public transportation, public sewage systems, running water, natural gas, public trash collection and snowplowing, and the common electrical grid we're all hooked up to?

What will happen to the rest of us unfortunates who find ourselves on the outside of their gated compounds and office parks? Will we even have access to electricity and clean drinking water? If Guragon is humanity’s future then probably not. As the rich collect ever more of society’s wealth, they will continue to dismantle the wider society and put it into private hands, and "green" technology may actually help them do this – gated communities with all the latest “green” amenities – solar electricity, solar hot water, on-site water capture and filtration, air purifiers, locally grown food, etc., while the rest of us will be eating junk food made from processed corn while shivering in the dark, dying of cholera, and getting asthma from the coal-choked air. And the digital panopticon initiated by governments around the world watching us 24 hours a day will make sure even the very thought of dissent is strangled in its crib.So “green technology” may not be the benefit we all assume it is. It may even end up advancing the Neoliberal endgame even further.

Now, to be clear, this is a worst-case scenario. For the record, I’m for these technologies and I think they are a good idea to cope with an energy descent scenario as well as climate change. But I just want to highlight  the potential dark side to these technologies and how our current political and social arrangements may deploy these technologies in a way which is not to the benefit of most people, and may even be to the detriment of some, as in Guragon. I think we just assume that these technologies will make us all better off without thinking through the deeper questions.

P.S. - Please forgive the title of the post - I know it's a sweeping overstatement. I should have probably said LEED is a sham. It's just that in my city, entire swaths of the city are being bulldozed, people are losing their homes and tent cities are springing up, even as massive and expensive condominium towers for the wealthy are popping up downtown like dandelions in the spring, and most of them have the latest "green" amenities and LEED certification (and "certification" is literally all it is - just a plaque in the lobby).


  1. My office at work just moved to a new building that is very "green," with duel flush toilets, lights that automatically go off, etc. But there was picketing the whole time it was under construction because it was build with non-union labor. Well, if the workers are poorer, then they can't buy as much stuff to pollute the earth, I guess.

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