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Green architecture’s new goal: stylish sustainability

Ecologically friendly designs are shedding an ugly past for a sleeker, more integrated future.

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“One of the more challenging aspects of sustainable design is integrating emerging green technologies within mission-critical facilities, such as a research lab or acute-care hospital ward,” remarks David Gibney, Western regional director for HDR Sustainable Design Solutions.

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“Designers and facility owners are rightfully reluctant to incorporate new building technologies.... If you make it past that hurdle then there is the added time for new design and construction techniques. So, as sustainable champions we find ourselves being researcher, salesman, and coach all at the same time.”

A beautiful green building requires a team effort to juggle the potentially conflicting values of utility, beauty, cost, durability, and sustainability. In a perfect world where the building owner has buckets of money, these values might only minimally clash, and the trade-offs between sustainability and aesthetics might be minor. For example, if you have enough money to install a hardwood floor for your home, you can use a green material such as bamboo (which takes seven years to mature compared with oak’s 120 years). But like other ecofriendly materials that possess an exotic beauty, the best ecological choice may well be costlier than the more commonly used oak.

Yet there are innovative designs for both residential and commercial use that offer inspiring lessons in how to approximate the best of both worlds. In the residential realm:

• Architect and educator Robert Barnstone has created a “quilted” sculptor’s studio-living space in British Columbia. The building’s patchwork patterns handsomely integrate recycled materials (including glass-door fronts from old Herman Miller furniture) with new cedar.

• A Hopi Nation elder home was constructed in Hotevilla, Ariz., utilizing straw-bale construction. For centuries, the Hopi used straw for the roofs of their houses of religious ritual. Repurposed straw carries the symbolic energy of a vibrant historical and cultural connection.

And in shifting focus to the high-tech and commercial architectural realm:

• The Sanyo Corporation has built a solar energy interactive museum within a massive solar power plant equaling the output of many fossil-fuel plants. More bracing is that this striking, industrial-strength ark sculpture is composed of thousands of factory-recalled solar cells recycled and repaired from Sanyo’s junk piles – a rare fusion of budgetary restraint, ecological awareness, and aesthetic museum design.

What these examples share is a repurposing of ancient symbolic forms – quilt, straw roof, ark – blurring stylistic distinctions between folk and professional design, between low and high technology. To paraphrase the English poet John Keats, if architectural truth is beautiful, these alluring creations are the true soul and substance of artful sustainable architecture.

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