“Just LEED Platinum?”

“Another LEED Platinum building?” asked the juror. Thirty such buildings were submitted to the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top 10 Awards this year, and if that was all a building achieved, it didn’t make the cut. A beautiful LEED-certified nature center or single family home may have won the country’s top green award in years past, but these days jurors expect the profession’s top innovators to address more challenging problems and with even more rigorous performance.  

In my fifth year on the national AIA Committee on the Environment, I’ve noticed striking trends, discussed below, that speak to the evolution of green leadership in the built environment.

Reduce, reuse, retrofit. Typically it’s less energy-intensive to use an existing building, particularly after a deep energy retrofit, than to build new, Paula Melton wrote for Environmental Building News earlier this year. One COTE Top 10 Awards juror’s stretch goal in 2011 was to see “more adaptive reuse of skyscrapers or high-rises that need to be reskinned.” RMI’s Empire State Building retrofit project, while not submitted for an AIA Top 10 award, may be the most famous expression of this goal, but all kinds of adaptive reuse projects have won Top 10 awards recently, saving materials and energy already embodied in the building, retrofitting to provide future energy savings, and sparking new life and economic vitality into existing neighborhoods, while avoiding sprawl. The before-and-after can be quite striking, as depicted below in the images of the Livestrong Foundation building in Austin, Texas by Lake Flato Architects.


The Mercy Corps Headquarters by THA Architecture comprises restoration of a 42,000-square foot neglected historical landmark in a challenging urban district and an addition of similar size. The project redeveloped a major brownfield and infill site in the city, densifying and reinforcing the urban fabric while protecting adjacent environments, which include an urban park and weekend public market.


Mercy Corps is a global relief organization working to turn the crises of natural disaster, poverty and conflict into opportunities for progress. Its mission is to foster sustainable economic development through collaboration and self-empowerment. More than a renewed architectural presence in the neighborhood, the Mercy Corps Headquarters catalyzes the activities and values that are integral to its mission. A LEED Platinum building, it achieved all 10 energy points, incorporated a green roof, and an airy, light-filled atrium, all while reusing 87 percent of the historic building.

"Greensburg When new construction is needed, consolidating uses and building less saves energy and cost. Forinstance, faced with rebuilding Greensburg, Kansas, after devastating tornados, the school district created a single K-12 facility, which also serves as a community hub. Designed by BNIM architects, the LEED Platinum school campus with multifunctional and multigenerational uses not only integrated the community it also catalyzed the town to aim for LEED Platinum for all public buildings.

Push performance. As noted, “the metrics, to a certain extent, have risen above LEED Platinum.” Some recent projects have aimed for more challenging targets, such as Living Building Challenge, net zero energy, or Passive House certification. What do jurors want to see next? “Passive survivability in case of disaster, loss of energy, or loss of water”; “urban food production”; “15 kbtu/square foot—which is ‘just expected’ in Germany”; and projects that act as “an instigator of a local microgrid.”

The National Renewable Energy Lab Research Support Facility in Golden, Colorado, designed by RNL Architects, is a stellar example of pushing performance, with a 35 kBtu/sf/yr energy use index including an on-site data center. The building has achieved net zero performance (producing as much energy on site as it uses) not by covering the entire site with solar photovoltaic panels, but by using clever passive strategies to dramatically reduce loads first and then adding PV.


Some of the strategies used in the NREL building include proper orientation and long thin building form, deep daylighting strategies within an open office arrangement, shading of unwanted glare and heat gain, and reuse of data center waste heat in an underfloor labyrinth.

"ChandlerAddress the whole community. Today’s winning projects are not just about the building; they also address social concerns, often improving the entire community and catalyzing greater change. For example, City Hall in Chandler, Arizona, designed by SmithGroup JJR, had two underlying goals. The first was to bring city departments together into one facility and provide a community center that could"Chandler generate identity and pride for residents. The second was—rather than moving to the edge of town—to revitalize an area of the historic downtown that was in disrepair and devoid of activity, promoting future community-based development in and around the city center.

"CherokeeBrooks + Scarpa, the architects of Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles, went so far as to petition the city to change codes and ordinances that were antithetical to sustainability. Designing the project as a living/office/retail complex and aiming to achieve the Living Building Challenge, the architects got both zoning and stormwater rules changed in order to bring mixed uses to the site and retain on site 100 percent of the stormwater. They also used passive strategies to reduce cooling loads and provided the remaining power needs with rooftop solar PV panels.


Anyone underestimating the transformative power of the right building in the right place should consider that test scores at the new Kensington High School for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia designed by SMP Architects with SRK Architects have quadrupled, truancy has dropped from 35 percent to zero, and the graduation rate has gone from 29 percent to 69 percent in one year. It all started when a teenage activistgroup in this distressed urban neighborhood urged the school district to create a smaller high school that would encourage students to graduate rather than drop out—and coupled this request with students’ desire for “a green school” that would provide a bright, healthy learning environment, in contrast to their home living conditions. An inviting and transparent campus, the school features art and ample green space, including green roofs and urban agriculture.

"KensingtonRegenerate site ecology. Another theme is the merging of the building and the surrounding ecosystem, as exemplified by Arizona State University Polytechnic Academic District by Lake Flato Architects, sited at a decommissioned airbase in Mesa, Arizona. Aiming to connect students and faculty to a regenerative desert landscape, the architects divided the 245,000-square foot program into five high-performance buildings linked by landscaped courtyards, creating a cohesive, engaging pedestrian campus. Then they turned the buildings “inside-out,” replacing the traditional double-loaded corridor with open-air atria, shading pedestrians from the harsh sun while creating vertical connection and enhancing community.


""Finally, architects are stepping up to address huge, complex buildings, traditionally energy-intense ones, and whole campuses, with an integrated, deeply resource-efficient approach. From skyscrapers to convention centers to the new University of California, Merced campus, which is planned to be net zero energy, waste, and emissions by 2020, leaders determined to green the built environment are advancing in leaps and bounds. And it doesn’t stop when the buidings are built. Astute owners who want to guarantee optimal and ongoing performance are instituting monitoring, recommissioning, and a culture of constant learning and improving. It will be exciting to see what visionary architects and engineers will achieve next!

Contact the writer: akarolides@rmi.org.