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Editorial: Learning Our Environmental Lesson

By Robert Nieminen

Robert Nieminen, Editor

Robert Nieminen,

As I write this article, we have just hit the five-week mark on the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which, to date, has discharged nearly 19 million gallons of crude oil (a conservative estimate, according to that has not only reached and polluted the shores of Louisiana, but threatens thousands of miles of surrounding coastline and an untold number of marine wildlife.

With 11 lives lost aboard the Deepwater Horizon platform during the explosion on April 20, setting off this chain of events, the tragedy continues with no end in sight—even as British Petroleum attempts yet another method to stop the hemorrhaging well, while the Obama Administration applies more pressure to get it done without any direct intervention efforts to date.

The ill-fated irony of the situation is that on March 31, three weeks prior to the explosion, Obama broke ranks with a majority of Democrats on the issue of domestic oil exploration and asked Congress to lift the ban on offshore drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico and other parts of the country—upseting even some of his staunchest supporters and environmentalists alike. Speaking to an audience in Charlotte, NC, on April 2, he said, “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills,” and suggested that damaged refineries on land during Hurricane Katrina were to blame for leaked oil into Louisiana’s wetlands (which is true). Either way, one can easily conclude: Houston, we have a problem.

All this is to say that if there were ever at time to make your voice heard for exploring and developing alternative sources of energy, and using this disaster as an opportunity to educate your clients and the general public about creating a sustainable economy and infrastructure in this country, this is undoubtedly it. While I personally feel that the A&D community has been on the forefront of championing the environmental movement and been relatively quick to adopt sustainable design practices and to voluntarily meet standards set by green building rating systems and professional accreditation programs, I have still had many designers tell me their clients are not always open to green design strategies, especially when they cost more than the alternative options.

Clearly, this points to a prevailing ignorance on the part of clients and the general public; but as Rachel R. Belew of GREENGUARD points out in this issue’s EnvironDesign Notebook article, “As architects and designers, you help shape and lead the green building and design industry. The built environments you help create and furnish today—whether they’re homes, schools, hospitals, community centers, or retail spaces—will have enormous health impacts on the people who occupy them tomorrow.” She goes on to suggest that by raising awareness of sustainable design and its impacts, not only on the environment, but also on human health, “you can help gain the political, economic, and social momentum needed to make doing your jobs easier and more cost effective.”

On the bright side, the connections between healthy buildings and sustainable interior environments are being made across all markets … and education is no exception, as this issue’s cover story on Yale University’s newly renovated Art and Architecture Building so clearly illustrates. “Educational institutions like Yale are leading the sustainable design movement: Many are committed to radically reducing

their carbon footprints—some to zero footprints by 2030. And most aspire to as high a LEED rating as they can achieve,” explains Robert Siegel, FAIA, principal and founding partner of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects (GSAA), the firm commissioned for the project. “What’s really fascinating is that green design is driving architecture right now and universities are at the forefront,” adds Elizabeth Skowronek, AIA, senior associate at GSAA. The project, which restored Paul Rudolph’s Brutalist Yale masterpiece into an icon of sustainable design by achieving LEED Gold certification, goes to show that those who can “do” green design are, in fact, its best teachers.