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.

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That began to change in the 1970s with that decade's oil shocks, which produced a short-lived vogue for alternate heating technologies. The simultaneous rise of environmentalism also inspired what you might call hobbit architecture, cottages crowned with listless greenery and the odd solar panel. Paolo Soleri's ecotopian settlement, Arcosanti, began to take shape in the Arizona desert. But it wasn't until the 1990s that green architecture gained a foothold in mainstream building. That was partly the result of a growing realization that "sustainable" buildings have lower long-term heating and cooling costs. States began offering tax incentives for construction that put less pressure on power grids or water supplies. Coming of age at the same time was a generation of architects who were knowledgeable about environmentally conscious construction materials and techniques.

Four years ago, the U.S. Green Building Council, an association of architects, builders and other green specialists, adopted the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system, which sets out standards that a building must meet to qualify as environmentally friendly. The council estimates that today at least 3% of new building starts each year have some Earth-friendly features. "The growth of green building is driven partly by energy efficiency and other cost savings," says council president and CEO Christine Ervin, "but also by the need of businesses to attract the best employees. These buildings can make very attractive workplaces."

Some of them turn up in unlikely places. In Manhattan's Times Square, the 48-story headquarters of the Conde Nast publishing company produces nearly 10% of its electricity with photovoltaics and hydrogen-powered fuel cells. In what was once the derelict B&O railroad site on the riverfront in Pittsburgh, Pa., you now find the PNC Firstside Center, with many of the standard green features plus eight electric-car recharging stations to encourage the use of energy-efficient cars.

Some of the most prominent names in architecture have turned green, at least for selected projects. The three-sided Commerzbank headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany, is a major work by a renowned British architect, Sir Norman Foster. At 53 stories, it was until recently the tallest building in Europe. It is also one of the leafiest. All around its triangular interior atrium are gardens in the sky, set at different elevations, so that no worker is more than a few floors away from a sizable patch of greenery. "Building allows us to explore nature in a different way," says Jeremy Edmiston, of System Architects, who is conducting research on green-design principles for the Lindbergh Foundation. "We're looking at ways to put parks into high-rise buildings."

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