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Sustainable Design: What Do Europeans Know That We Don't Know (But Should)?

U.S. and Canadian Building Teams that fail to figure out how to use the kinds of technologies and innovative design approaches already in place in Europe are going to fall behind competitors who do.

March 01, 2009 |

Photo: Ingenhoven Architects        




Although North American green building practices and technology have come a long way in the past 15 years, it's my opinion, based on my research in Western Europe and the United Kingdom for my forthcoming book, Green Building Trends: Europe, that Western European architects, engineers, and builders are ahead of us in the widespread use of passive design techniques, integrating solar power into building design, and producing low-energy buildings.

Consider, for example, the Solar Office at Doxford International Business Park, near Sunderland, on the northeast coast of England. Designed by David Lloyd Jones and Studio E Architects, it is a low-energy office building whose entire south-facing façade is composed of building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs) manufactured by Germany's Schüco and capable of generating a peak power of 73 kW. The expected annual net energy use of the 4,600-sm (49,500-sf) building is 115 kWh per square meter (10.6 kWh per square foot). Completed in 1998 (more than 10 years ago!), it was the first speculatively constructed office building to incorporate BIPVs, and its solar façade was the largest constructed in Europe up to that time. This is the kind of design innovation that we're only just beginning to see, and only infrequently, in the U.S. and Canada.

This example of a highly integrated sustainable office building from more than a decade ago, developed for strictly commercial use, raises some interesting questions. For example, what do the Europeans know (and do) that we don't know (and should be doing), and why? What are some fundamental differences in the way Europeans and Americans or Canadians approach sustainable design? When comparing the driving forces for sustainability in Europe and North America, it is instructive to consider the experiences and perspectives of leading practitioners, some of whom have practiced in both regions.

John Echlin is an American architect and former president of an architecture firm in Portland, Ore., who worked in Switzerland for two firms over a period of seven years in the 1990s. “What drives buildings in the U.S. are free-market conditions and private development,” he told me. “There's no doubt that in Europe what drives things are essentially culture and public benefit. In the U.S., we typically build buildings to last 20 years and don't really think much beyond that. But in Europe the cultural norm is really to build permanently. Because of that, all building strategies relate to finding the most permanent solution. It tends to drive efficiency in operations and promote design approaches that make multiple uses out of single elements.”

The basic conclusion I draw from my recent research in Western Europe and the United Kingdom is that, while there are climatic, cultural, political, and economic differences between Europe and North America that influence how designers and contractors on each side of the Atlantic approach sustainable building, North American Building Teams are going to see dramatic changes in building envelopes, ventilation, space conditioning, climate control, and energy-generating and -conserving systems over the next five years. Many of these technologies, systems, and products will derive from current practices in Western and Northern Europe, especially those found in Germany and the United Kingdom.

What kinds of innovations and practices will we see? A 2006 study of green offices built in the United Kingdom in the 1990s offers a laundry list of green measures that have been incorporated in U.K. projects about a decade earlier than in the U.S.:

On-site renewable energy, especially solar and geothermalExternal solar shading devicesAtrium space integrated with the climate management systemTriple glazing (typically one outer layer and a double-skin inner layer)Operable windowsUse of water (with its far-higher heat capacity) instead of air for coolingRadiant cooling systems, including chilled beams and chilled ceilingsFaçade venting for natural ventilationShallow (or narrow) floor plans, offering daylighting to all workspacesMixed-mode ventilation, using thermal chimneys whenever possibleBIPVsRain capture and water recyclingWhat Designers Are Saying

Bruce Kuwabara is a Canadian architect whose firm, KPMB Architects, Toronto, designed the Canadian embassy in Berlin. Here is what he told interviewer Friedrich H. Dassler, in the German publication Intelligente Architektur (2007), about what it's like to design a building in Germany versus doing so in Canada: “Frankly, the difference is so great that one wonders whether we inhabit the same world. No one talks about designing a sustainable building in Berlin because it is so ingrained in the culture. Water management and recycling are fundamental to every project, not just as demonstrations but also as law. It was also clear to us how exterior building enclosures have been the subject of tremendous technical and, indeed, aesthetic development in Europe.” He points out, for example, that certain types of glass in large sizes are only available in Europe.

“We know that things are changing here,” he continues. “We see European manufacturers of curtain walls, for example, penetrating the North American market on high-profile public projects.”

Architect John Echlin also has had a foot in both worlds. “Façade design and double-skin façades are certainly important in Europe, and I think there's a lot of experimentation being done here in the U.S. based on those [innovations]. The whole notion of passive solar and active systems, the active façade, is coming directly from Europe. With essentially all of these things [that we associate with European design], we're on a learning curve, whereas they've been doing them for 20 years.”

Architect James Andrews, an associate principal at the well-known green design firm Overland Partners, in San Antonio, Texas, was educated in the U.K. and worked there from 1990 to 2002. “[As architectural students], we studied engineering and buildings like the Houses of Parliament that had early central heating and mechanical air systems,” he recalls. “With that as a background, the whole collaboration with engineers becomes part of the course of architecture. When you look at some of the eminent architects today, like [Norman] Foster, [Nicholas] Grimshaw, and [Richard] Rogers, you see how they begin very early on approaching new mechanical, plumbing, [and] electrical strategies for the buildings. Doing that has a huge impact on their form and in the way that they create space. They try and take as much advantage as they can of natural light.”

Andrews concludes: “Between the development of mechanical systems and the harvesting of natural light, those are two real drivers in Europe that were not as important in the everyday commercial architecture in the U.S. until the [advent] of LEED.”

The Growing Impact of Climate Change

Dr. Katy Janda is an American academic currently at Oxford University; her research focuses on understanding how different countries are planning for low-carbon futures. “One of the big differences between the U.S. and the U.K. is that there's more emphasis on green in the U.S. and less on energy efficiency. In the U.K., the primary push for making change in the building stock is the CO2 reduction target. The government set a reduction target of 60% (compared with 1990) by 2050. That really galvanizes a response, whereas our federal government has not made any such commitment.”

Moreover, says Janda, in response to recent evidence on increasing levels of greenhouse gases, the newly formed UK Department of Energy and Climate Change has upped the target to an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. “From an American perspective, that's just crazy,” she says, referring to such a target's political and economic acceptability. “Obviously, the primary push for sustainability in the U.K., in my experience, tends to be more focused on carbon reductions and adaptability.”

The notion of long-term adaptability ties in with the evolution of much current American thinking about green buildings being autonomous with respect to energy and water needs, using primarily on-site systems. The respective roles of regulation and market forces are quite different in Europe from what we expect in the U.S. and Canada. That's one of the fundamental current differences that are likely to converge over the next five years, as the U.S. and Canada face up to the carbon reduction challenge. Generally speaking, in Europe, and especially in the U.K., people expect their governments to regulate, so government incentives for energy-efficient buildings are less prevalent there than they are in the U.S., or even in Canada.

What can we in the U.S. and Canada make of all this? My bottom line for American architects, engineers, planners, and builders is this: Get with the sustainability program as currently practiced in Europe, or risk becoming obsolete and uncompetitive. A design convergence is occurring in the developed countries, based on common concerns about climate change and future-proofing buildings for an era of climate change, more expensive energy, and carbon neutrality. Each successful example of a well-designed, aesthetically pleasing low-carbon building gives rise to dozens of imitators. Building Teams that fail to figure out how to use the kinds of technologies and innovative design approaches already in place in Europe are going to fall behind competitors who do, both in project awards and in the ability to attract and keep the talent that every design and construction firm needs to stay competitive.

Author Information
Jerry Yudelson (jerry@yudelsonassociates.com), the founder and principal of the Tucson, Ariz.-based consulting firm Yudelson Associates, is America's most prolific author on green building and sustainable design. A founding member of the U.S. Green Building Council board of directors, he has served since 2004 as chair of the Greenbuild International Conference and Exposition steering committee and has instructed more than 3,500 applicants for the LEED AP exam. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book (his ninth), Green Building Trends: Europe, to be published later this year by Island Press. For a listing of his oeuvre:http://greenbuildconsult.com/.

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