Cacti and highrises, beauty and performance – notes from Living Future 2014

Last week I joined a thousand other greenies at the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI) annual “unConference,” held at the Hilton in Portland this year.  ILFI is the organization that created the Living Building Challenge and leads the charge to make green buildings (and communities) restorative, not just benign – an audacious and inspiring mission.  We’ve become friends and supporters of ILFI since moving our Seattle office next door to them in the Bullitt Center.

This was my first experience at a Living Future conference, and the 2014 focus on “beauty and inspiration” was an apropos introduction.  Here at Hammer & Hand we had just completed our inaugural perFORM design competition, aimed at promoting the nexus between design and performance, so the prospect of diving deeper with leading thinkers and practitioners was exciting.  (We’re a “traditional” builder in that we don’t do any design in-house, but we love great design and get to collaborate with some of the region’s best architects on our projects.  Over the years we’ve become increasingly passionate about bringing together high design with high performance building.)

The conference didn’t disappoint, and before details fade from my brain I wanted to share a few highlights here.


At Living Future 2014, both Jason McLennan (founder of the Living Building Challenge and ILFI) and Lance Hosey (architect and author) described false dichotomies that stand in the way of creating sustainable buildings.

McLennan unpacked the “all or nothing” attitude that we often bring to our relationship with beauty.  It’s either “beauty is everything,” which he described as dangerous, or “beauty is nothing,” which he described as unfortunate.  We all know how damaging our society’s crazy beauty ideals can be to body image, self-esteem, and relationships between men and women.  “When beauty is everything, ugliness prevails,” said McLennan.  That’s true in the built realm, too.  Glass jewel boxes can hide “ugly” energy waste (unless built with the very best high performance glazing.)  Frank Gehry’s whimsical undulations can hide an “ugly” disregard for conservation of material.

But “beauty is nothing” is not the answer, either.  We humans need beauty.  And “green” buildings that are ugly not only turn people off, they also aren’t sustainable.  “In the end, we conserve only what we love,” wrote Senegalese poet Baba Dioum, a quote shared by Lance Hosey.

By the way, this notion that good design is the bedrock of sustainability is the architect’s parallel to a maxim that drives us as a green builder: that durability (to build to last) is the most fundamental definition of sustainable construction.

In his conference presentation, Hosey, author of the excellent book “The Shape Of Green,” dismantled our notion that art and science, and therefore building design and performance, are separate.  He cited research showing that our brains are hard-wired to appreciate beauty, and pointed to the natural forms that create beauty around us simply through their expression of life-perpetuating function.  Hosey challenged the audience to move beyond simply making green “look good” while hiding performance “under the hood” of building design.  Instead he urged that we view beauty and “green” as one-in-the-same, and integral to design, citing Buckminster Fuller’s famous quote:

“When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty…but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

Hosey’s contention is that if our green building designs are not beautiful expressions of performance then we’re missing the mark.  Put another way, the Art of Architecture = the Science of Building.  The saguaro cactus is an oft-cited example of this fusion in the natural world; its self-shading vertical ridges become more pronounced in drought but virtually disappear after a replenishing rain.  Form and performance are one.


Shading Fins on Federal Building in Portland - Biomimicry in Green BuildingThis idea that form should be integral to a building’s performance resonated with architect James Cutler’s description at the conference of his approach to designing the rebirth of the Edith Green – Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland.  His final design for the project shares some parallels with the saguaro cactus, incidentally.  A series of vertical shading fins shield the entire western façade of the high-rise structure from afternoon sun.  (Photo by Robert Lochner, some rights reserved under a creative commons license.)

“The most important thing in architecture is to tell the truth,” Cutler said.  Of his design for the Federal Building he added: “It’s not driven by whim.  It’s not driven by style.  It’s driven by circumstance.”

In this case, circumstance involved the task of taking an inefficient, nondescript 1970s skyscraper and transforming it into a LEED Platinum building with good energy performance.  Circumstance also included a political climate that made Cutler’s initial “living wall” concept for the western façade untenable – that plant-centric idea made Sen. John McCain’s “boondoggle” hit list in the early days of the Great Recession.  Cutler’s final fin design solved both performance and political problems.

The performance solution is integral to the form of the building.  And it’s beautiful.


Jay Harmon, CEO of Pax Scientific and author of “The Shark’s Paintbrush,” has dedicated his career to adapting shapes and strategies found in nature and applying them to human problems, a design process known as biomimicry.  His “frozen whirlpool,” for example, has harnessed a form found in nature to revolutionize pump efficiency around the world.  See this video:

On the final day of the conference Harmon described an ongoing, and about-to-explode, industrial revolution powered by advances in biomimicry.  Admittedly, he’s a hope-filled guy, but he left us all with the powerful truism that nature doesn’t change unless there’s a need.

Crisis brings evolution.

So yes, global warming has already begun, it’s scary, and we’re just now as a species really understanding how big and urgent it is.  But this awareness of crisis sets the conditions for an evolution in the way we relate to the planet, including how we design and build buildings.

By appreciating that beauty and performance are both inseparable and vital we can speed that evolution.


Saguaro Cactus photo above by Robert Lochner (some rights reserved under a creative commons license).

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