News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |  NECN   Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

Healthy building syndrome

Is today's vogue for "green architecture" a veritable revolution, or just feel-good hype?

WITH THE COMFORTING voiceover from "West Wing" actress Allison Janney, the radio ad that played in major markets throughout the country this fall sounded at first like it could have been for a health maintenance organization, or a charitable campaign, or possibly a warm-and-fuzzy presidential candidate.

"Picture a boy with a hundred-and-four fever. His parents take him to the hospital to have him checked out," the ad script reads, before hitting listeners with the big surprise. "Did you know one of the first people to make him comfortable is an architect? Specifically, a member of the American Institute of Architects. When the hospital built their new ER, they involved an AIA architect early on. To design a child-friendly pediatric ER wing, so that hundred-and-four fevers maybe don't feel so bad."

The ad campaign is designed to encourage the hiring of AIA-accredited architects, early on, in projects large and small. But the script's central message -- that an architect could actually make a child feel better -- reflects a larger theme in the design professions today. The message is that architects are no longer obsessed with form. They are here to help.

In a kind of architectural correctness that has taken hold in the profession, it's not enough to build something that looks interesting or makes people think. A new building has got to make people feel good; it should be healthy for the planet; and -- not least -- it ought to foster its occupants' physical activity.

The new approach is partly intended to make up for the sins of modernism, to redeem the era that gave us Boston's City Hall Plaza and the Le Corbusier-inspired public housing slabs that have come crashing down in urban neighborhoods from coast to coast. Today, the mind-bending shapes of architects like Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry are sharing the spotlight with William McDonough's environmentally friendly designs and the guiding philosophy of Christopher Alexander, who suggests that every act of construction should be an act of repair.

The "green building" movement has been at the vanguard of this trend. Ever since the 1999 construction of the Conde Nast building in Times Square and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's encouragement of the "green roof" -- lush grass and plants on rooftops -- building in an environmentally friendly manner has become a new ideal. Under this dispensation, building materials should be recycled whenever possible and produced locally. Office towers should no longer be hermetically sealed but heated and cooled using natural ventilation and sunlight that gets absorbed by specially treated glass.

New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh have been leaders in green building, but the movement has arrived in Boston as well. The ManuLife building on the South Boston Waterfront, scheduled to open in the spring, looks like a conventional glass office tower, but it has a double-skinned curtain wall that allows the circulation of air for natural heating and cooling purposes. The Genzyme Center in Kendall Square in East Cambridge, where 900 employees moved in this month, aims for a "platinum" rating from the standards-setting US Green Building Council. The 12-story structure features sunlight-reflecting mirrors and automatic blinds to make maximum use of natural light, views of the outdoors from every desk, toxics-free carpets, paint, and building materials, waterless urinals and water-conserving toilets.

Green building has also become a marketing tool. Commercial real estate agents assume tenants want an environmentally friendly building with natural ventilation -- a place where the windows can actually open -- the same way they want a Starbucks or a health club in the lobby. After all, a worker in a building with no noxious chemicals is a happy, more productive worker.

Of course, only a handful of well-publicized buildings are really green. Most clients are wary of the fact that environmentally conscious construction can cost more up front, even if savings are promised in building operations over the long haul. Still, as Jane Thompson of Thompson Design Group in Boston noted at a meeting of the Institute for Urban Design earlier this year, in competitions for high-profile jobs, "It's at the point where no one proposes anything that isn't green."

If buildings are expected to be good for the planet, they are also expected to be good for their occupants' physical fitness. In the field of urban design, the built environment is increasingly seen as a key component in the war on obesity and the promotion of better health generally. Town centers, residential villages, and recreational paths are meant to encourage walking, climbing stairs, biking, and less dependence on driving a car.

It has even got its own name: Physical Activity Oriented Development, which emphasizes sidewalks and bikeways and corridors and destinations "that would compel people to engage in physical activity as part of a routine part of the day," as Anne Lusk, visiting scientist at Harvard's School of Public Health, puts it. Lusk organized a forum earlier this month on the links between physical design and physical health. (The September issue of the Journal of Public Health is also devoted to the topic.)

The Somerville Community Path, a planned route for bicyclists, runners, walkers, and in-line skaters leading from Davis Square to Lechmere, was recently awarded a $200,000 grant by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The 2.5-mile extension project was chosen for its potential to convince commuters to pedal into Boston or to a subway station where they can store their bike. Meanwhile, the developers of the proposed North Point project near Lechmere are talking about using shower facilities to encourage workers to bicycle to the offices and labs planned for the site.

According to Lusk, "post-occupancy evaluations" of buildings and their surroundings will soon measure "physical activity and personal interactions by occupants." In other words, instead of providing sterile lobbies with elevator banks leading to cubicles, buildings will be expected to maximize opporunities to use the stairs, to walk around, and to gather in social spaces.

Physical activity is heaped on top of other jobs that architecture and urban design today are expected to do. Walkable neighborhoods for aging baby boomers means that seniors don't have to drive everywhere, potentially reducing accidents involving older drivers. Compact developments with front porches are touted for reducing crime and promoting a sense of community.

It all sounds like a heavy burden on the shoulders of architecture and urban design. The danger, of course, is that all the emphasis on personal and planetary well-being could stifle artistic expression. Architects who have long grumbled about having their hands tied by the Americans with Disabilities Act may face a whole new set of guidelines they are expected to comply with -- and in the case of physical activity, guidelines that could conflict with the ADA.

The best in the field -- Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano, Richard Meier -- manage to create environmentally sensitive buildings that are also aesthetically ambitious. Foster's proposed cucumber-shaped Swiss Re building in London, with an all-natural heating and cooling system, is a leading example. The series of traingular glass sections in the building's skin, cascading upwards, accomplish energy efficiency and look interesting, too.

But with the new mandates in place for architecture, the balancing act will only get tougher. The designers of the future will have to keep in mind the principles of Vitruvius of ancient Rome: that buildings should possess not only commodiousness, but also delight.

Anthony Flint is a member of the Globe staff. "A Sense of Place," his column on urban design and public space, appears in the Sunday City Weekly section.

Globe Archives Sale Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months