Buildings That Breathe

The best of the new architecture uses nature instead of fighting it

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Mary Carty / AP

The Philip Merrill Environmental Center, the new headquarters for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is seen August 23, 2000, during construction in Annapolis, Md.

At first glance, you might not suspect that the Philip Merrill Environmental Center in Annapolis, Md., is as Earth friendly as an old windmill. The headquarters of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, it displays more wood construction than the typical large building these days. But to understand what the designers, SmithGroup, did to make it truly different, you would have to know that one-third of its energy comes from geothermal heat pumps that utilize the earth's warmth and photovoltaic building panels that convert sunlight into electricity. Or that rainfall collected on the roof can be channeled into huge holding tanks for reuse in irrigation. Or that its sunscreen overhangs are made from recycled pickle barrels. Whole platoons of enforcement lawyers for the Environmental Protection Agency could not be more ecologically effective than its waterless composting toilets, bamboo flooring and timber cut from sustainably harvested wood.

The Merrill Center epitomizes the new wave of "green architecture," a catchall term for design and construction practices that take into account a whole checklist of environmental goals. How a building is sited, how well it reuses its wastewater, how efficiently it is heated and cooled--those are all questions green architects examine closely. To answer them, they have access to a new generation of supplies that include nonpolluting paints, low-flow toilets and windows glazed to admit sunlight but reduce heat radiation. The Adam J. Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College even has a state-of-the-art disinfectant system that cleans toilet water for re-use. (No, not in drinking fountains.) But green design is not all about high tech. One simple idea: windows on high-rises that actually open. That facilitates natural air-ventilation systems, also known as breezes.

The thing about buildings is that they are, par excellence, the very thing nature is not. Ever since people moved out of caves, which were pretty much all natural if you didn't count the paintings on the walls, structures have been the prime markers of human settlement, a process that often comes with unhappy consequences for the environment. John Denver's Rocky Mountain High--"More people, more scars upon the land"--is not a song you hear much at architecture conventions.

No one can deny that when it comes to the environment, buildings are right up there with automobiles as polluters. Homes, schools, office towers and shopping centers dirty their own little rivers of water every day. With their air-conditioning and heating systems, they waste large amounts of electrical and fossil-fuel power. Toxic ingredients leach from building materials and foul the air. Thirty years ago, only a few environmentally minded architects cared about such things. "Classic Modernism didn't even think about the environment," says James Wines, founder of SITE, a pioneering green-design firm. "The Modernists worshipped industrialism and industrial material because that was the future."

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