Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: Green Building Design Grows Up

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After wondering for so many years why architects ignored local climate and energy efficiency in service of trendy design, I was schooled last night in how at least one global design firm is making green super sexy.

I gave a talk on green city trends at the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the commercial design, urban planning and building engineering firm, and was given a tour by Design Director Michael Duncan.

SOM-designed Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China. When complete later this year it is intended to be China's first zero-net energy skyscraper in terms of operating energy. (Left shows air baffle detail, where wind turbines are located.)

Duncan took me around to look at the models and schematics of dozens of projects, many of them in China. The exquisite craftsmanship of some of the miniature-scale building and neighborhood models was mesmerizing enough (a future version of the Chicago Art Institute's Thorne Miniature Rooms), but most impressive was that in terms of energy efficiency, building design science is now also a high art.

We looked at computer-generated 3-D plastic San Francisco models (proprietary to SOM), showing every single bulding orientation, down to Tenderloin District message parlors (no, you can't peer into windows), so designers can understand planned new building solar and wind impacts.

Individual buildings were modeled with solar orientation on their exteriors, so that windows can be designed to block hot sun in summer and to allow warming light in winter. Interiors used parametric modeling to heighten passive solar access for maximum office productivity. Thermal imaging software is used on every project to create energy efficient performance.

parametric modeling.jpg

Parametric modeling of window glazing, (courtesy SOM)

Green building science now tracks the sun's movement across and interaction with a building at all times of day. Just think if this kind of technology could be integrated into the residential market. We would each save hundreds or thousands of dollars on heating and cooling energy, and would have more comfortable lives overall, while hacking away at global-warming-causing greenhouse gases.

Green materials were less evident in the models and schematics I saw, so in terms of true sustainability, the life cycle impacts of materials and other areas (particularly water supply and use) need to be better understood. Then there is the issue of how people get to these office buildings. Is there transit nearby? How easy is it for them to walk or bike to stores, entertainment and errands?

SOM is also developing geothermal heating and cooling designs along with integrating active PV solar skins into its buildings. Such advances are critically needed, considering that China is firing up one or two new coal-burning power plants each week to meet its growing electricity demand.

But in terms of one key element of green building, passive energy design, I've seen the future and hopefully it's coming to your neighborhood soon.      


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About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); United Nations Center for Regional Development (training of mayors from 13 Asian nations on city sustainable economic development and technology); provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years.

Present and recent clients include the Guangzhou Planning Agency; the Global Forum on Human Settlements; the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Bureau; the US Department of State; the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders; a major mixed-use real estate development corporation; an educational sustainability non-profit; and global corporations. Read more here.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Warren Karlenzig published on January 9, 2009 10:09 AM.

Common Current's Top Ten 2008 Sustainability Stories was the previous entry in this blog.

Obama Speech Lays Out One Part of Green Economy Framework is the next entry in this blog.

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