Chapter 5 Building Blocks

Download the entire chapter (PDF-180k)

A bank whose workers don't want to go home -- A creek runs through it -- Green buildings and bright workers -- Just rewards and perverse incentives -- Windows, light, and air -- Every building a forecast -- Harvesting bananas in the Rockies -- Urban forests -- Walkable cities

In southeastern Amsterdam, at a site chosen by the workers because of its proximity to their homes, stands the headquarters of a major bank. Built in 1987, the 538,000-square-foot complex consists of ten sculptural towers linked by an undulating internal street. Inside, the sun reflects off colored metal, only one element in the extensive artwork that decorates the structure to bathe the lower stories in ever-changing hues. Indoor and outdoor gardens are fed by rainwater captured from the bank's roof. Every office has natural air and natural light. Heating and ventilation are largely passive, and no conventional air conditioners are used. Conservatively attired bankers playfully trail their fingers in the water that splashes down flow-form sculptures in the bronze handrails along the staircases. The building's occupants are demonstrably pleased with their new quarters: Absenteeism is down 15 percent, productivity is up, and workers hold numerous evening and weekend cultural and social events there.

These results surpassed even the directors' vision of the features, qualities, and design process they had mandated for their bank. Their design prospectus had stipulated an "organic" building that would "integrate art, natural and local materials, sunlight, green plants, energy conservation, quiet, and water", not to mention happy employees and that would "not cost one guilder more per square meter" than the market average. In fact, the money spent to put the energy savings systems in place paid for itself in the first three months. Upon initial occupancy, the complex used 92 percent less energy than an adjacent bank constructed at the same time, representing a saving of $2.9 million per year and making it one of the most energy-efficient buildings in Europe.

Architect Ton Alberts took three years to complete the design of the building. It took so long mainly because the bank board insisted that all participants in the project, including employees, understand its every detail: The air-handling design had to be explained to the landscape architect, for example, and the artwork to the mechanical engineers. In the end, it was this level of integration that contributed to making the building so comfortable, beautiful, and cost-effective. When it was done, the structure became the most readily recognized in all Holland after the Parliament House. Since the headquarters building was completed, the bank that was then called NMB has gained a dynamic new public image and corporate culture, though whether this is directly related to the new building's design is impossible to prove. It has grown from the fourth- to the second-largest bank in Holland, changed its name to ING, and bought the venerable English merchant bank Barings.

When Michael and Judy Corbett began Village Homes in Davis, California, in the 1970s, there was no housing development like it. It featured mixed housing types on narrower streets, greenbelts with fruit trees, agricultural zones among the houses, natural surface drainage, solar orientation, and abundant open space. By the 1980s it had grown to encompass 240 homes on 70 acres, and had become a dearly loved neighborhood with a delightful ambience, lower utility and food costs, and a strong community spirit.

One example of its unique design philosophy was the use of natural drainage swales instead of costly underground concrete drains, a choice that saved eight hundred dollars of investment per house. Those savings paid for much of the landscaping of the extensive parks and greenbelts, while the swales allow enough water to soak in that the landscaping needs one-third to one-half less irrigation water. The drainage swales are themselves part of the greenways, which not only provide routes for pedestrian and bicycle circulation but are also a focus for community life. The houses, some nearly hidden behind grapevines, flowers, and shrubs, face one another across the greenways. Cars are parked discreetly around the back on narrow (twenty-four-foot-wide), tree-shaded streets.

The street and greenway networks enter the site from opposite directions, like interlocking fingers, so they don't cross. Safe from traffic, children can play in the heavily used and watched greenways. Thanks to the vibrant street life and the strong sense of community, the crime rate is only one-tenth that of adjacent subdivisions built in the usual car-dominated, "dead worm" layout. The average number of cars per household is 1.8 in Village Homes, compared to 2.1 elsewhere in Davis.

The narrower streets not only reduce the level and speed of traffic and save money and land but also require less paving material, which improves the summer microclimate: Because trees can shade the entire street, there's far less dark paving exposed to sunlight to absorb and reradiate solar heat. Combined with passive-solar design and proper site orientation, this feature raises comfort and cuts energy bills by half to two-thirds, an impressive achievement for 1970s design and materials.

Residents were also allowed to conduct business in their homes, an activity that was illegal in many American communities at that time. Community organic gardens and edible landscaping provide fresh fruit for breakfast. Village Homes is also able to help finance its parkland maintenance by selling its organic crops of vegetables and almonds, the fruits, so to speak, of investments originally paid for partly by eliminating those eight-hundred-dollar-per-lot storm drains.

Because it has proven to be so desirable a place to live, Village Homes, originally modest in its market positioning, now realizes some of the highest resale prices per square foot of floorspace in Davis. Units sell in less than one-third of the normal listing time (that is, when they are listed for sale, most are quickly snapped up by word of mouth) and fetch eleven dollars per square foot above normal market value. At first considered so quirky that agents wouldn't show it, Village Homes is now described by real estate brochures as "Davis's most desirable subdivision."

The Inn of the Anasazi is a fifty-nine-room luxury hotel located just off the Governor's Plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The building began its life in the 1960s as an ugly steel-and-glass box, a sort of giant shipping container used as a juvenile detention center and penitentiary headquarters. In 1991, the developers of the inn transformed it into an adobe-style structure that looks centuries old.

The inn is extremely comfortable and fairly efficient. But the vision that inspired it reflected more than a simple desire to conserve physical resources. Its construction materials, furniture, and art are produced from local resources by traditional artisans. Its toiletries are made from traditional Native medicinal herbs, and, like the art in the rooms and lobby, are also sold by the hotel for the makers' benefit. Staff are drawn from all three local cultures, Native, Hispanic, and Anglo, and are not only trained in conflict resolution but often provide it to other community organizations as a free service. Staff members are also paid for two hours' volunteer work a week for local groups, and can choose to sign a "Right Livelihood" agreement authorizing them to undertake ecologically responsible work in the name of the hotel. Staff turnover is minimal, a source of wonderment to competing hostelries, whose management are now requesting seminars offered by the inn to learn how they can emulate this success.

The hotel's celebrated gourmet restaurant obtains 90 percent of its ingredients from local organic farmers, many of whom are Hispanic land-grant families. (Keeping their land in agricultural production protects them from losing it to taxation at development value.) Leftover food goes to homeless shelters, kitchen scraps to an organic pig farm, table scraps to compost. With time, ever more and deeper links integrate the hotel into its place and its peoples. Why isn't every building so organically rooted?

Or so profitable: Despite its high prices, the inn broke even in its second year of operation, a rarity for a new hotel. It has 83 percent average annual occupancy, unheard-of in Santa Fe's highly seasonal market, and gets a high 35 percent repeat traffic.

What do a Dutch bank, a California tract development, and a New Mexico hotel have in common? All three projects are archetypes of a successful fusion of resource efficiency, environmental sensitivity, attention to human well-being, and financial success that has been called "green development."

Buildings, however much we take them for granted, are where Americans spend about 90 percent of their time. They use one-third of our total energy and two-thirds of our electricity. Their construction consumes one-fourth of all wood harvested; 3 billion tons of raw materials are used annually to construct buildings worldwide.

In the recent past, most choices about building design and materials have been made carelessly, yielding low returns on human capital or actual losses to society. In the future, the design paradigm illustrated by these three examples can yield far greater benefits to people, their pocketbooks, and the earth. Green buildings compete in bottom-line terms as well as in aesthetics. They are relatively inexpensive to build, operate, and convert to their next use, as human needs inevitably evolve. Their mechanical systems to maintain comfort are small and well designed, or better still, eliminated by design. More buildings will be built around, within, or from recycled old ones. New materials are being supplemented by rediscovered ancient ones like rammed earth, straw bales, adobe, and caliche (a dense clay), all nontoxic, safe, durable, and versatile. High technology will make its own contributions. Slender carbon-fiber-reinforced layers are already cost-effectively integrated into wood-frugal structural beams, creating a sense of lightness that extends through structural and seismic design. These innovations are part of a new design thinking that emulates the airy strength of spiderwebs and feathers, enclosing the most space with the least structural materials.

Such buildings' resource and economic efficiency and their environmental sensitivity spring not merely from a desire to save money and prevent pollution but from a deeper consciousness that integrates design arts and sensibilities too long sundered from architecture and engineering. At its best, green development fuses a biologically and culturally informed appreciation of what people are and want, and a tool kit of technologies to fulfill those needs. Their most extraordinary prototypes, like the three projects described in the preceding pages, occur when all these elements are integrated and their synergies captured. At first the results seem magical, in the sense of Arthur Clarke's remark that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Yet now the practices that create that magic are starting to be widely valued and appreciated. They will drive a revolution in buildings and in how we inhabit them.

The benefits that can accrue from intelligent design extend far beyond the buildings themselves. The placement of structures on the land also affects our sense of community, for it determines both where we must go, and how we can do so, to travel between the places where we live, work, shop, and play. It also governs what land is available for farms, ranches, forests, wildlife, and wild places. Too few designers ask, as poet and farmer Wendell Berry has, "What does this place require us to do? What will it allow us to do? What will it help us to do?" Berry also said, "What I stand for is what I stand on", reminding us that land must be measured not just in acres and dollars but in love and respect.

These three projects, and more described below, begin to redefine real estate development as more of an art, not simply one that does less harm but one that can actively rebuild community, restore pedestrian safety and access, and reduce the context for crime. And it's even more profitable.

(End of excerpt)

Download the entire chapter (PDF-180k)

To make comments or report problems with this site, please contact

© All rights reserved. Published by Rocky Mountain Institute.
2317 Snowmass Creek Road  |  Snowmass, CO 81654-9199  |  Ph: 970.927.3851


Powered by Intrcomm Technology's SMC