Q&A with Bill Browning: Follow Nature's Lead

Building design pioneer Bill Browning talks about greening the White House, biomimicry and the cure for "green fatigue"

Green design is very popular right now, but there’s a perception that green design is out of reach for the middle class.The perception that green buildings inherently cost more to build than conventional construction is false. The key is how you approach the process. If you take a conventional design and paste on green features, then it will cost more to build; however, if you integrate green design into the basic thinking you can build green without a premium.

A survey of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-rated buildings indicated a premium of less than 2 percent for even the higher levels of LEED ratings.

The LEED process can be quite involved. In the end, is pursuing certification worth it? I used to be agnostic about pushing clients to complete the LEED-certification process; however, after looking at the data from buildings that claim to be built to LEED standards and ones that have actually completed the process, you discover that the former don’t tend to perform anywhere near their claims and the latter tend to perform better.

So, what are some of the unexpected benefits of green building design?The biggest surprise, which in retrospect should have been intuitively obvious, was that if you put people in buildings with good daylight, thermal comfort, good air quality and access to nature, they tend to be healthier, happier and more productive. In a 1994 Rocky Mountain Institute study, “Greening the Building and the Bottom Line,” we documented productivity gains ranging from 6 to 16 percent. Since the annual cost of employees’ salaries and benefits (cost/square foot) is 10 times that of rent or nearly 100 times that of energy cost, even small productivity gains have enormous financial benefits.

Do you have a favorite green design project you’ve worked on?We’ve been fortunate enough to work on some pretty amazing projects, such as the new Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park in Manhattan. Some projects, like the community planning process post-Katrina with the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, break new ground in social equity.

I think the project that has me most excited is not a building, but a new concept we call “engaged offsets.” This is the process of taking funds for carbon offsets or abatements and using the money as marginal financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy systems for low-income housing and schools.

You’ve also done work at the White House.Since 1993, the White House complex has been undergoing a renovation called “The Greening of the White House.” A fair amount of what we tried to do was bring the building back to its designed intent. At the same time we tried to figure out how to do that in a complex as big as the White House while addressing landscaping, indoor air quality, materials, recycling streams, procurement, etc.

The Old Executive Office Building has been reglazed from one pane to double panes with a (low-E) coating. The Executive Mansion has a new mechanical system and new window glass to improve energy while preventing UV degradation of the historical objects inside. The project already has cut the energy bill by more than $300,000 a year and has significantly improved indoor air quality. Water bills have been reduced by $50,000 annually.

Who are some of the corporate partners who have led the way in green design?On the manufacturing side, the first name that comes to mind is Interface. Another would be Herman Miller. On the building/client side, PNC Bank,Wal-Mart and Bank of America would definitely be leaders.

How have these companies changed expectations about what it means to be a good corporate citizen?In all of the companies I mentioned, the process of becoming green has moved beyond creating green products or building a green building into something that has brought new meaning to the lives of the employees. This is far more important than just thinking about environmental compliance.

What does the term “biomimicry” mean?Biomimicry is the process of asking, “How does nature do that?” How does a spider make a fiber stronger than any man-made fiber using only other insects and water at ambient temperatures without the use of high pressure? How does an abalone create a ceramic that exceeds human ceramics in 48oF seawater without the use of heavy metals? How does a coral reef, with such an incredible concentration of life keep the water so clean?

This is not about farming spiders for their silk. And it certainly isn’t about genetically modifying creatures to do things they were never intended to do. It is about how humans can replicate natural processes.

How does biomimicry help aid design or energy efficiency?We are working with Dr. Walter Adey, the curator of algae at the Smithsonian, on an experiment to use algal turfs (the mats of algae that keep coral reefs clean) to clean polluted water and then use the biomass to produce butanol and biodiesel. A great book on this way of thinking is Biomimcry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, by Janine Benyus.

A similar term, “biophilia,” also has become part of the green design lexicon.Biophilia literally translates as love of nature and refers to a field of study that investigates the innate human need to connect with nature. For the built environment, that means looking at how to bring nature into buildings and how to reproduce conditions within our buildings that make humans feel most connected with nature. Ourinvolvement in this field grew out of the work on human productivity and health in green buildings.We are in the midst of a multi-year study monitoring the productivity and health of a few thousand people moving from existing conventional buildings into a new greenbuilding with biophilic design elements.

What do you say to people who are beginning to complain of “green fatigue”?I think the term “being green” is becoming part of the culture, and the fatigue is probably around the more dubious green washing. To see the phenomenal growth oforganizations like the United States Green Building Council continue during the recession indicates that this is more than just a fad.


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