If affordable and neighbourly residency is excluded from the count, probably not, a ‘performance matters’ gathering hears

When the Canada Green Building Council held its third annual National Green Building Conference last month, it chose as its title: Performance Matters: the next generation of buildings and communities.

“Performance is a key concern for building-owners, operators, tenants, appraisers and policy-makers,” wrote council president and CEO Thomas Mueller in his conference message. “We all need to better understand if (and how) we are making a difference.”

The individuals Mueller was referring to would generally agree that this “performance” involves the measurement, verification and reporting of such things as energy consumption, water conservation, and percentages of recycled-content materials.

This is also how it would be defined by a majority of the green building rating systems, including LEED.

Yet nearly everyone would also agree that architecture, and the quality of our experience of buildings, is so much more.

Jim Taggart, editor of Sustainable Architecture and Building magazine, or SABMag, wrote in his editor’s note in the May/June 2010 issue: “The influence of the built form on human actions and interactions is critical.” Technical virtuosity alone has little value, he argued, and “more than ever, architects must stay faithful to the primary social agenda of their work.”

One of several presenters who challenged LEED’s definition of performance during the conference, Taggart pointed out in an interview that you can have a LEED-Platinum cottage in the Fraser Valley, and it can be hugely energy-efficient.

But if the people who live in it drive their SUV to Vancouver several times a week for work or shopping, then many of the benefits of LEED are negated by this lifestyle choice of the owners.

Referencing architect William McDonough, Taggart said: “It is strategic decisions that make the difference between what is sustainable and what is not — we need to focus on doing things well, not just on doing them less badly. The Richmond oval could not be considered sustainable if it was located five kilometres from the nearest train station.”

It is not that Taggart doesn’t appreciate LEED or the technical merits of green buildings. He began our conversation by pointing out that LEED has, and continues to be, an invaluable tool.

He also noted that it is beginning to incrementally address larger issues, such as location and infrastructure. However, he feels it cannot begin to tackle issues such as those we face in Vancouver, including affordability and dwindling demographic diversity.

“Affordability is at a crisis point,” he said, adding we are increasingly relying on workers coming into the city for low-paying jobs.

“Performance as measured in human terms,” he wrote in SABMag, “includes encouragement of social interaction; the support of demographic diversity; the empowerment of the disenfranchised; the creation of meaningful connections to time and place; and the repositioning of nature as a central element in our daily lives.”

The notion of sustainability as reflected in these social benchmarks is of particular importance, and a major challenge, to Vancouver’s bid to become the greenest city in the world by 2020.

“My question,” said Taggart, “is what geographic area do we use to define social sustainability?

“If Vancouver has the ambition to become the world’s most sustainable city by 2020, must we not provide accommodation and work opportunities for all the different levels within our own city limits? No amount of individual high performance, green buildings can, by themselves, create the strong societal structures that the city of Vancouver, the region, the province, and so on will need to deal with and resist the issues and pressures that are and will be put upon us.

“Whether the building next door to you is LEED Platinum or not, what is really important going forward is how you relate to the person occupying that building, the strength of bonds, the sense of collective purpose, and the idea of collective problem-solving.”

The integrated process that has crept into design, which LEED has helped to nourish, is critical and of the greatest value, said Taggart.

Crisp and gleaming, the technical merits of Millennium Water have already made the development an international celebrity in green-building circles.

However, as Taggart pointed out, there is also something unsettling and almost movie-set-like about it, as well. Aside from its notable achievement of including a waterfront community centre accessible to all, the development is, at its core, a finely orchestrated production in which only a select and privileged few can participate.

“British Columbia is ahead of any other jurisdiction in Canada in terms of its approach to green design,” said Taggart.

Traditions of cultural sensitivity and social responsibility are internationally recognized strengths of Canadian architecture.

These “should not be forgotten, in our haste to ramp up building performance,” he wrote in SABMag.

“Indeed they may well represent our most valuable asset in creating the next generation of sustainable buildings and communities.”

Find SABMag or it sister publication on residential design, SABHomes, at sabmagazine. com.

By Kim Davis, Special To The Sun
July 20, 2010