The first green buildings were the first buildings, period. Mud brick huts, a kind of early adobe, were built in Hierakonpolis, Egypt, almost 5,000 years ago. They were built with local materials, near where people farmed or hunted, in sizes that made sense—maybe just big enough to dry out your goatskins. And these early dwellings were built in concert with the weather: Homes in hot, dry climates were ventilated to push air through, and those in cold ones were sealed with thick, heavily insulated walls, oriented toward the sun for natural heat. Architecture didn’t have much of a carbon footprint, and it was local.

Flash forward to the mid-twentieth century, and you can see how buildings lost their green sheen. In the 1930s, technological innovations like structural steel, air-conditioning, vinyl siding, reflective glass, and panelized, prefab construction allowed for more buildings, faster. The Federal Housing Administration, created in 1934, provided mortgages for middle-class Americans, making the dream of single-family home ownership both realistic and ubiquitous. And the Federal-Aid Highway Act initiated the construction of 40,000 miles of highways, allowing people’s homes to be far from their workplaces. In part a miniature history of sprawl, these events also tell the story of how buildings got de-greened; how we no longer had to build in a vernacular manner. Homes got bigger and farther away and more toxic, and the tract homes in the sprawling suburbs of heat-soaked Phoenix appeared in the icy environs of Minneapolis.

“The building sector is really the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the country and the world,” says Edward Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions produced by new construction. Today, buildings consume up to 76 percent of the United States’ total electricity and emit 43 percent of our greenhouse gases. And the same mistakes are repeated in the 5 billion square feet of built space created nationwide every year.

But now, the next phase in the history of green building is underway. A band of visionary architects, designers, engineers, and builders have recognized how far we’ve strayed from the principles that informed our earliest architecture. They’re harnessing both advanced and ancient technologies to dream up structures that make even the current standard of responsible building—the US Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system—pale in comparison. While LEED certification measures and rewards a reduction in energy use, for instance, the architects behind the next-generation, beyond-LEED structures, called “carbon neutral” or “regenerative,” are aiming for designs that use no energy at all—to be energy positive or net-zero. The green building of the future doesn’t just do less harm to the environment; it improves it. It won’t just use less water; it will collect and treat it. It won’t just force air; it will filter it. And it won’t just save energy; it will create it. Buildings are not only about to breathe like people—they’ll also give back like good Samaritans.

Green Building Background

Green building as we know it today didn’t take hold until 2000, when the USGBC, which was formed in 1993, released its LEED rating system. The LEED program established national guidelines for green building and presented them as a checklist that any architect, designer, or building owner could follow. From there, sustainable practice leapt forward from the fringe. Suddenly our images of green homes transformed from yurts or cob-earth hippie hideouts to glass skyscrapers with wind turbines humming away on living roofs. Nearly 1,500 LEED-certified projects stand today.  There are more than 11,000 under construction and awaiting the silver, gold, or platinum imprimatur, plaques received on earning up to 69 credits for everything from outdoor air–delivery monitoring to water-efficient landscaping.

But even buildings that are LEED Platinum—the highest rating in the system—can use 80 to 100 kilowatts of energy per square meter, and some say the bar is set far too low. “LEED Gold is kind of a C right now,” says James Brew, principal architect with Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI) Built Environment Team. “Maybe LEED Platinum is a B or an A-minus.”

What would an A-plus look like? RMI’s team—a group of Boulder, Colorado–based architects, analysts, and consultants that function as a green think tank—spend their days reimagining structures as what they call “high-performance buildings” that actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, rather than just stabilizing them. They call the initiative “Cooling the Warming.” Under their tutelage, buildings will become giant air or water filters in which people happen to live or work. Extra energy will be produced through concepts like RMI’s Next-Generation Utility—smart meters and programmable controls allowing homeowners to automate their own home energy use—or the Smart Garage, where electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles (another of RMI’s favorite research topics) can tap in to the power grid, either for charging batteries or supplying energy to the grid if they’ve saved more than they need.

One structure on which RMI consulted that has not yet broken ground looks like a long lost hanzi, or Chinese character. Dubbed Energy Plus and planned for the occasionally dreary Gennevilliers area of Paris, the structure’s arms jut out at awkward angles, maximizing exposure to the sun. It will hold 10,800 square meters of photovoltaic cells on the roof—the largest building-integrated solar array in the world—and the Seine River’s water will be used for cooling purposes; no air conditioner needed. Energy Plus is set to consume only 16 kilowatts of energy per square meter, a whole lot less than the 80 to 250 so common among traditional office buildings. In fact, it could produce up to 20 percent more energy than it consumes—hence the building’s name—which the French government will buy back. Its architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, describe it as “a revolution in a glass box.”

Energy Plus is an example of what could be the next step beyond LEED, just one of many projects Brew and the RMI team have been conjuring. And while RMI has been instrumental in shaping LEED, among other rating systems, they don’t offer such a blueprint themselves. “It’s not a rating system,” Brew says of RMI’s approach, “but a way of applied thinking.”

Story by Lisa Selin Davis. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in August 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Part 2: Structures so green they give back to the environment