Michael Walch

This might get interesting… Frank Gehry vs. LEED

Posted in General Architecture by michaelwalch on 21 May, 2010

A small part of this Chicago Tribune interview with Frank Gehry, Frank gets to talking about LEED, and dismisses the point system for rewarding add-on or frivolous features to environmentally unfriendly buildings.

That LEED needs improvement to be meaningful, that it is part of the ‘greenwashing’ of consumer culture, is inarguable.  But to anyone outside the building profession, LEED is a shining beacon, and criticizing LEED is tantamount to criticizing environmental responsibility.  LEED is a widely-publicized certification system; sustainability is a nebulous, difficult-to-define-or-quantify concept.

Enter Susan S. Szenasy of Metropolois Magazine, who posts “You Are So Wrong, Frank Gehry” in response.  First of all, it’s Metropolis Magazine, and therefore, who cares?  But as it’s being spread around the blogs, let’s assume people do care.  In her article, Ms. Szenasy basically says:

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design : sustainable design :: the Americans with Disabilities Act : accessible/universal design.

This analogy belies an extremely superficial and non-architect point of view.  Firstly, LEED is not a law; it is voluntary.  It would be completely inappropriate to ‘enforce’ the guidelines, and to my knowledge no one is even entertaining this idea.  In the meantime, many building developers are seeking this certification as a marketing tool, with varying degrees of genuine or disingenuous commitment to reducing the environmental impact of their buildings and businesses.  LEED is not the only game in town, by the way; many universities and companies with large facilities have developed their own standards.  In the end, the ADA is a complicated code which, since the initial passing of the federal law, prescribes very specific dimensions as ‘accessible.’  The majority of these specific requirements relate to the mobility-impaired, particularly those in wheelchairs (which is a relatively small part of the population with special accessibility needs).  Have requirements such as 5′-0″ diameter clear areas, 3′-0″ aisles, 1:12 ramps and the lot given us a more accessible world?  Probably.  Is there room for improvement in the ADA?  Of course.  An evaluation of the success of the ADA in producing a more accessible built environment might be relevant to developing a legally-mandated green building code, but it seems likely that a federal green building code modeled on the ADA would barely resemble the LEED standards (think minimum sun-shade dimensions) – for better or worse.

Szenasy didn’t understand the quote from Gehry.  Based on her misinterpretation, she constructed a superficial and somewhat irrelevant analogy.  Gehry is an old, wise man with decades of high-profile architectural practice under his belt.  His comment could be read as cynical, and I don’t recall him ever making claims of great environmental sustainability in his buildings, but his simple statement that the LEED certifications and green building movement in general is political is a worthwhile acknowledgment and one that should be taken to heart.

In the end, the statements about LEED are a tiny part of the interview.  Why aren’t we gossiping about the Gehry-Piano rivalry instead?

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