The Global View: Sometimes, Small Is Beautiful

Article excerpt

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 Greenroofs.org, 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 green roofs, 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 Darmstadt 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 Netherlands, 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. …