The Global View: Sometimes, Small is Beautiful

As the construction industry “goes global,” the amazing diversity of the world’s architecture has suffered. In the last 30 to 50 years, new buildings in New York, London and Beijing have started to look the same.

Green building designs, by contrast, embrace differences, including cultural biases and local ecological issues. Because it casts off the “one size fits all” mantra, green construction has been better at listening to and adapting from local concerns.

Europe Sets the Standards

German green builders are leading the world in the design and construction of green roofs, which capture and store huge amounts of water that would otherwise increase flooding. According to, these living structures capture 70 to 90 percent of the rainwater that falls during the summer months. Over 12 percent of all flat roofs in Germany are now greenroofs, and the green roof industry in Germany is growing 15 percent per year.

To combat pollution from coal-burning power plants, which have caused widespread allergy problems and acid rain, German engineers have designed building-integrated photovoltaics to capture solar energy and reduce coal energy use. The German Mont-Cenis Academy features the world’s largest roof-integrated photovoltaic system, which produces electricity at 2.5 times the building’s consumption. In addition, the Passivhaus-Institut in Darm-stadt provides rigorous, voluntary standards for ultra-low energy buildings. There are now more than 6,000 Passive House buildings in Europe.

“The Netherlands is very concerned about global warming,” says Kirsten Ritchie, director of environmental claims for Scientific Certification Systems. “Much of the country is below sea level or just above it. Almost of necessity, the Dutch have become leaders in energy efficiency, renewable energy sources and urban planning.” In the Netherlands, government buildings, universities and banks have taken the lead in green building.

Britain, too, has been a leader in green building. In fact, Britain’s environmental assessment system for buildings, BREEAM, was the first in the world. It has also been the most successfully embraced rating system, used to assess 20 to 25 percent of new buildings in England.

Most of the push for green building in Britain has been from the government through regulations, tax incentives and support for research. Like the Nether-lands, Britain’s major green buildings are mostly governmental and university buildings, including the offices of the Parliament and the University Library in Coventry.

Adaptations in Asia

The cultural influence on green building in Japan is evident in a singular focus on the health of indoor environments. Japan’s sustainable building assessment system, similar to LEED, was developed by the Japan Sustainable Building Consortium (JSBC). Japan has concentrated on assessing buildings for the quality of their indoor environments. Not surprisingly, this concern has propelled Japan to develop super-efficient, high-tech climate control systems that improve indoor air quality.

Greg Franta, an architect and team leader with the Rocky Mountain Institute Built Environment Team, says Japan’s green thinking runs deep. “In both energy and materials efficiency, Japan has been remarkably creative,” he says. Japan has a population density 10 times that of the U.S., does not have any significant oil supply and is the world’s largest timber importer, so energy and material efficiency are crucial.

With the world’s largest population and its highest coal consumption, it’s imperative that China strive for sustainability. David Rousseau, a senior associate of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities and the principal of Archemy Consulting, says China is making progress. Rousseau most recently built an energy-efficient student dorm in Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province. With virtually all of Shandong’s electricity from coal, the Shandong Institute of Architecture and Engineering asked Rousseau to design a sustainable experimental building. Rousseau and ICSC designed living quarters that are 75 percent solar powered, use a quarter of the energy of standard Chinese construction and are livable year round, thanks to superior insulation and ventilation.

Venture capital is rare in China, so the projects require government funding. Rousseau says there was very little green thinking in China 15 years ago, but now the government’s position is shifting. “They’re still reluctant to admit their policies are wrong, or may be harming the citizens,” he said, “but many of their newer regulations indicate they now recognize the need to turn back urban sprawl and reduce greenhouse emissions… and their ability to mobilize is unparalleled.”

The Curitiba Model

In many Third World nations, green building has yet to gain traction. While there are pockets of progress, the movements in Latin America, Africa and India are still embryonic. There are few governmental regulations, and enforcement of what regulations do exist is often lax. Also, since most green buildings require a higher initial investment that is recouped over several years, few Third World communities can wait for the payback. And even fewer corporations in developing nations are worried about sustainable buildings.

Another hurdle is that standards developed in wealthier countries are seldom applicable in the Third World. Even in industrialized nations, green buildings tend to be demonstration projects rather than the norm. In the UK, for instance, only 25 percent of buildings are BREEAM certified.

According to Franta, the most successful Third World projects are “large in scale and community based,” and often “learn from [the developed world”s] mistakes by avoiding paths that have caused problems for us.” This is evident in Curitiba, Brazil, one of the world’s most successful examples of sustainable urban planning and building. Architect Jaime Lerner, former mayor and president of Curitiba’s Research and Urban Planning Institute, realized that to create a sustainable city he needed not only energy-efficient buildings, but site selection that respects green space, effective and affordable transportation, innovative zoning, solid waste and wastewater management, and well-thought-out education programs.

According to Jonas Rabinovitch, the city’s international relations coordinator, Curitiba has achieved a 95 percent literacy rate. Some 99.5 percent of households have good quality drinking water and electricity, and 83 percent of the population has a high school education.

The most effective green building work uses Curitiba as a model, taking local resources, climate, culture and population into account. Many developing nations are following this diverse, localized approach to green building, while the U.S. and Europe follow a different, but no less useful, path. —Shannon Huecker