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05.19.2014
Q+A> Peter Busby
The director of Perkins + Will's San Francisco office discusses the firm's Sustainable Design Initiative and what lies beyond LEED.
Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Charlestown, MA.
Steinkamp Photography

Peter Busby merged his Vancouver-based firm with Perkins + Will in 2004. He has since risen to managing director of the firm’s San Francisco office and launched its Sustainable Design Initiative, which embedded environmental design thinking throughout its practice worldwide. As founder of the Canada Green Building Council, he helped make LEED widespread in Canada. But he tells AN Midwest Editor Chris Bentley that the certification system’s future is uncertain. Instead, his focus is on climate resilience and performance.

 
Peter Busby.
Marina Dodis
 

Chris Bentley: You created Perkins + Will’s (P+W) Sustainable Design Initiative. How do you corral the efforts of a huge firm like P+W around a massive topic like sustainable design? Care to share any advice for architects looking to do the same for their firms?

Peter Busby: Our plans are published on our website, so anyone who wants to see what we’re doing can actually download the documents. I’ve actually been into competitors’ offices and seen our plans on their desks, so I know some people are doing that. We’re currently on our fourth overall plan. We feel that plans for greening a firm need to evolve over time, they need to be flexible. The core of the Sustainable Design Initiative is five pieces: research, education, communications, demonstration, and best practices, and obviously a marketing and awareness piece. The hardest work was the education.

We’re now moving away from LEED-centric education and moving into other more specialized areas. We have task forces around material health, resilience, regenerative design, benchmarking.

What’s the biggest challenge to keep that momentum going?

The biggest challenge is education. First of all educating ourselves about sustainable design, understanding how to do it in every climate zone we work in. There’s no textbook on sustainable design—it’s a learned art. And then education of our clients, of approving authorities, and overcoming bureaucratic hurdles. Things like the requirement for potable water in toilets that exists in almost every jurisdiction in North America.

The education requirement is constant, non-stop, all the time, everywhere. As sustainable design changes, continuing the education movement to move new ideas out into practice is an ongoing effort. It is very rewarding.

There’s an argument that good design is by definition efficient. That designing for climatic and human needs is a given in this day and age. But we’re struggling to get greenhouse gas emissions under control in time to avert substantial warming. Are we doing enough to move the needle?

We’re failing miserably! Although, McGraw Hill published data that seems to indicate 60 percent of construction in North America is in one level of LEED or another, it doesn’t seem to have had a measurable impact on the growth of carbon in the atmosphere, globally. If you look at carbon emissions in the U.S. specifically, they’ve plateaued and in fact are decreasing. We’re not sure if that’s because of the recession, the cheapness of natural gas, or whether it’s because of the offshoring of manufacturing.

We like to think that the building sector has had an impact. It should have an impact. It must be making a difference, but then there’s no factual evidence related to that. Part of the problem is that 90 percent of the building stock at the end of a decade is still existing buildings. Replacing buildings is a 100-year enterprise. So it’s going to take decades to get better performance out of the existing building stock.

Notwithstanding that, it seems tenants want better performance, and tenants drive landlords, so they’re starting to look at higher levels of performance. It used to be that landlords subscribed to everything BOMA (Building Owners and Managers Association) said. But now the big landlords and builders seem to have a great deal of interest in higher levels of performance. So there is traction.

The most interesting thing that’s happening right now is that, for the last 10 years we’ve been pursuing certain goals that are around reduction of carbon emissions in buildings in the face of global warming. Today we know global warming’s here and we’ve seen the impacts of it on storm surges and so on. So now there’s two fronts to fight: one is to continue to reduce carbon in our buildings, and we’ve got to adapt and create resilience for buildings.

The Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital project is designed for disaster resilience, which of course has been a hot topic at least since Hurricane Sandy. What’s missing from the ongoing discussion about disaster resilience in design?

There are all kinds of wonderful initiatives to look at resilience; all kinds of interesting projects—mostly speculative—in New York as a result of it. But the general ideas of resilience are sensible, deep green ideas that have been the core of high-performance buildings.

The ability to support life without electrical or mechanical systems connected to a grid, so all high-performance buildings have the ability to do that. To tap into freshwater on site, to open windows and get fresh air, the ability to withstand temperature changes and storms. It’s about the quality of the envelope, which is a sustainable design strategy. We’re focusing on the envelope itself so when power shuts down, people stay warm or cool, and the building’s able to resist wind.

Flooding is relatively new. I guess we weren’t thinking about that so much 15 years ago. We knew that predictions for sea-level rise were one, two, three feet depending on the decade or the prediction. But it’s the combination of general sea-level rise and the increasing violence of storm surges, the increasing power of storms to release precipitation. There’s much more moisture in the storms that are coming at us, much higher velocity of wind driving much higher crests of wave. The impact you saw in Sandy and Katrina is quite profound.

Some of your projects, like the Vale Living with Lakes Centre for Applied Research in Environmental Restoration and Sustainability in Sudbury, are designed to respond to a 2050 climate. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the specific impacts of a warming climate on that kind of timescale, so what do you consider in designing for 2050?

That was a unique project to consider this issue. It was a few years ago when our knowledge of climate change impact was less sure than it is today. We selected a design year of 2050 where the nine major mathematical models of climate change all indicated impacts. For this particular area they indicated a temperature moderation in the wintertime of about 15 to 16°F and the need for cooling in the summertime of something like 8 or 9°F. These were dramatic numbers when we heard them.

Just like storms and water, temperature-wise climate change has profound swings locally, particularly in more extreme climates. Moderate climate zones are less affected, and Sudbury’s far enough north that they’re seeing really dramatic temperature changes.

We accepted the challenge, accepted the premise and designed mechanical systems that would withstand them. We proposed fire places that were wood pellet driven, which is a renewable source of energy and a waste product coming from saw mills in that part of the world. It was the first time we’d actually designed a mechanical system that anticipated climate change and would reach its optimal performance after the impacts of climate change had had an effect on the climate of the building itself.

How do we apply those lessons today in our practice? We’re all that more adamant of the performance of the building to deal with warming. Better shading, better glass, better natural ventilation. We’re more adamant about shading coefficients because it’s only going to get worse. It might have a payback of 5 years or 10 years, but in 20 to 30 years when those envelopes are still sitting there it’s going to have an even more powerful effect.

You were one of the founders of Canada’s Green Building Council. What do you make of some of the criticisms of LEED, like that it can legitimize unsustainable development and enable greenwashing? Is it a positive trend that municipalities are requiring LEED adherence for new construction, or is there a better way forward for sustainable design?

I don’t want to put the wrong spin on this—USGBC and LEED have been extremely powerful at changing the marketplace. It’s exceptionally successful; it’s well known the world over.

Notwithstanding that, it is subject to political and lobbying pressure. The flexibility of the system to grow and change over time is being slowly tested, as it now takes four years to bring out an upgraded version as opposed to the two-year cycle it used to be. The ability to get dramatic change is more limited than it used to be.

We still don’t see anything like European standards where you have mandated maximums of so much energy per square meter. Where are those types of performance measures? Carbon emissions ultimately need to be the measuring stick for LEED performance. There are still lots of credits given out for less meaningful issues.

Another problem with LEED is the cost. The cost of certification, of reviews, has not come down. In every other industry standard like this, over time the pioneers get through and it becomes mass levels of usage and the costs reduce significantly. LEED is still a cumbersome organization that requires a lot of intellectual effort and financial investment to gain certification.

Those are my criticisms of LEED. Don’t misconstrue them—I’m a huge fan of the system. It’s not front and central in terms of what P+W is doing anymore. We take it as a given, it’s kind of like breathing. Recently we’ve been focusing on the Living Building Challenge and net-zero design. These are the challenges that are out there for progressive environmental design.

Is performance the first order of design? Does form follow performance for you?

I wouldn’t say that, but I would say that form has to be influenced by performance. Form is shaped by several things. If it were only shaped by environmental design, you might not end up with the right solutions. Architecture’s a very public art. Painters paint in the studio, carvers carve in their studio, dancers dance in their studio, but architects perform their art in public. So there’s a responsibility that goes with that to create beauty, elegance, and simplicity, to contribute to the urban condition. It’s a broad art.

It’s interesting. We just finished our internal design review and I can say that there are no buildings in P+W at the moment that are not physically affected by environmental design criteria. Even five years ago we were still producing high-rise, glazed buildings in Riyadh with no solar protection and all four sides had floor-to-ceiling glass. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s what the client wanted and we gave them what they wanted. Well, guess what? You’ve got some other responsibilities as well. It’s not just about the client’s needs.

Chris Bentley