August 7, 2011

The Canadian architect and theorist George Baird has spent his career analyzing the meaning behind architecture and its propaganda. That he should be alarmed by the emergence of LEED hype should be a caution to the profession. An opinion piece in the latest issue of Architectural Record offers a chilling critique of the latest fad in design.

Baird, who ran the school of architecture at the University of Toronto, has attended his fair share of academic conferences. That he chose 2011 to comment on two recent “sustainability” themed ones seems prescient to me. He notes that many “younger” architects are starting to doubt the efficacy of high tech buildings that claim LEED silver or platinum status. He also notes the emergence of architects who are actually following up on performance claims made for such buildings, often documenting their near of complete failure to measure up. “It is clear that we will need to redouble our future efforts in three important ways: first, to ensure successful fulfillment of technically based environmental ambitions for our buildings; second, to be more rigorous with regard to our predictions of performance — especially parameters of performance that are only partly within our own professional control,” he concluded.

More disturbing than the unsubstantiated claims, however, is the fact that our most recognized high-tech “green” buildings are now under fire from the government and clients, sometimes in the form of lawsuits. Baird noted that the first LEED platinum building in the US has never met its projected performance targets, and that the architects are being sued over the failure of its wooden structure, an odd exoskeleton of timbers [Philip Merrill Environmental Center in Annapolis, Maryland, designed by SmithGroup (2000)].

In the same issue of the magazine, a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle took a second look at Thom Mayne’s iconic San Francisco Federal Building, with commentary scarcely less scathing. He notes that the shading system is on the fritz, the cafe can’t attract patrons, and the main public space is so dreary most Social Security customers feel as though they’re in a prison. John King still feels that his city benefits from the architectural tourism that the building brings in, but he’s scratching his head about the much heralded green technology that makes it [not] work.

Architects are facing a barrage of challenges to their credibility in 2011. The last thing we need is criticism about our concern for the environment.