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Vivian Loftness: 'Buildings should speak to the soul'

November 01, 2005 |

Vivian Loftness, FAIA, is University Professor at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Architecture (which she headed from 1994 to 2004) and senior researcher in CMU's Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics. A board member of the U.S. Green Building Council, she currently chairs the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE). In 2002, she received the AIA National Educator Honor Award. She holds BS and MArch degrees from MIT.

Robert Cassidy:What are the new developments at COTE this year?

Vivian Loftness: There's no question that sustainability is growing in importance in AIA as a whole. Roundtables have been held, policy statements drafted. The COTE members are died-in-the-wool environmentalists, but since we've been the leaders in sustainability, why wouldn't we be the lead arm of attention on sustainability at the AIA? We find ourselves in the middle of the pack rather than the leaders.

I've written draft position statements to get AIA and COTE to take a strong positive stance for sustainability. This is a tremendous boon for the practice of architecture, to have LEED adopted by states and clients and government agencies.

RC:Is LEED having the impact you hoped for?

VL: It's certainly having more of an impact than I'd ever hoped for. It was a long haul to get people interested in energy issues, since the 1970s. LEED has changed that. Look at the number of universities that have actually constructed LEED buildings, the transformation of legislation, the government involvement.

The manufacturing community has taken it on as a real responsibility. There's not a [building product] manufacturer in any field that doesn't have professionals in these areas. The federal agencies have environmentally preferable product standards for all materials used on projects, which means that you have a major market.

Having said that, there are limitations to LEED—for example, point gaming, just getting points to get certified. There is also a belief that the LEED credits don't give sufficient attention to passive conditioning—daylighting and natural ventilation, passive solar heating in northern climates, etc.—or to regional and bioclimatic issues, or cultural issues. You can see LEED buildings that are not beautiful buildings, not stellar design. COTE is saying that they shouldn't just be LEED buildings, but should speak to the soul and the heart and the eye. Those issues are being discussed at the GBC, and certainly by COTE.

That doesn't mean that LEED isn't a great foundation. It is, but it doesn't go far enough.

RC:How did you vote on the admission of trade associations to the USGBC?

VL: I was for trade association membership. I was surprised at the entire blowup. Literally the week I joined the board, I got 700 emails. I saw that many of them were essentially identical, and I asked the staff to review where they were coming from.

It was a tempest in a teapot, and it caused total havoc within the GBC. It had to be handled in a certain fashion.

RC:You are involved in Workplace 2020 [the General Services Administration's efforts to improve working conditions for federal employees]. Any findings so far?

VL: Our team has been doing studies of "before" conditions: What is the federal workplace like now? It's very dismal: 10–20% of workplaces are altogether inadequate in terms of CO2, temperature, air quality.

Now we're seeing some of the "afters," in Denver and Omaha, and they're just spectacular in comparison. We're seeing that with an enhanced early design process, common goals, and a commitment to better air, light, acoustics, thermal control, and reduced outgassing, we can certainly start seeing improvements in environmental indices and work quality.

We cannot continue to put people in substandard workplaces. That's something that Europe and Scandinavia took action against 40 years ago.

RC:What about architecture education?

VL: This has been a focus for COTE this year. We have a grant from the Tides Foundation to look at innovative curriculum. Some interesting things are happening.

For one, the course in environment was always thought of as an aside in the curriculum, second tier, not part of the central design curriculum. It was a real gap.

In part because of USGBC's lead and awareness of climate change and so on, the students who are coming in are much more interested in environmental issues—regional design, sustainable hospital design, very complex issues, not just for the students, but for faculty, too. Students are doing post-occupancy evaluations, figuring out in the field how things work and whether they work. Even history courses! At CMU we have a sustainable history course.

So I think we're beginning to see a sea change in education that will entrench environmentalism as a core course in design.

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