My journey with Climate Change as an architect. Trying to find a design solution to save the world.

In 1994 I started my career as an architectural student at a University focused on sustainable design. We did not call it that yet, but the name came soon. William McDonough, that year, was named a hero of the planet by Time Magazine for his innovative design work. He was the new Dean at The University of Virginia School of Architecture and was setting a new direction for what architects investigated. The discussions had started about reducing energy use, healthy materials, and conservation.

When I graduated in 1999 I started pushing for different design solutions, better solutions for the “because that is the way we always do it” ways in our industry. I was young and thought I could change minds. I asked a lot of questions. I challenged a lot of answers. I am lucky I did not get fired. I am lucky I did not get kicked off of job sites. I had little influence. I was viewed as “full of unrealistic ideas” learned in academia that don’t apply to the real world.

I left the “real world” for Graduate School for a couple of years to figure out my beliefs about design. At The University of Tennessee I studied sustainable design, LEED, and building science. I learned that there was a strong movement in the industry, it just was not mainstream. When I returned to the industry in 2003, things had changed. I joined a committee that eventually adopted the EarthCraft building standard statewide in Virginia. I designed the first LEED for Homes project in the Southeastern United States. I had traction on job sites with changing some minds. It was still a limited influence and not mainstream.

In 2006 the movie An Inconvenient Truth was released and the conversation became mainstream. The economy was booming but trouble was on the horizon. The discussion became political thanks to Al Gore. The discussion became unpopular thanks to the economic collapse in 2007/2008 (and because it became political).

Here is just a brief look at the evolution of media coverage on a topic of global warming.

January 2007

March 2007

April 2007

April 2007

August 2007

Notice the gap here as the debate heated up between the new ‘sides’ believers vs deniers. The conversation seems to have disappeared from mainstream media. Where it was once covered and debated it turned to political fights. The conversation turned to who is right rather than how can we fix it. It became a choice to go green or not. I have always seen it as doing it right – which does not leave a choice.

April 2009

November 2009

Now that disaster has hit one of the highest populations areas in the United States I wonder if we will continue to debate how to deal with it? I wonder if we will continue debating if it is real?

August 2012

September 2012

There are solutions that we can implement now. Will it slow down climate change? Will it reverse climate change? I don’t know, but for 20 years now I have stood by the same position: We know how to do it better, it does not cost more to do it right, and it is the least we can do for the next generation. 

7 Comments Add yours

  1. jam4u says:

    Sad, one-sided rhetoric that ties normal weather events to so-called global warming. This diatribe shows NO facts supporting his position, rather it only attempts to shame people into believing in what he is selling. Injecting Al Gore and his unfounded and disproved “An Inconvenient Truth” into the discussion only goes to further negate what he claims since Al Gore has been discredited over and over again. Additional claims of carbon dioxide killing the planet are likewise without merit as it is only a trace element in the atmosphere and necessary for growth of plant life. No reasonable person is against taking reasonable steps to save energy, reuse/recycle materials or be sympathetic to the environment. However, to cloak this as some sort of world saving action fails to even acknowledge the “climate change”, both colder and warmer, of past centuries. Why don’t we drop the imagined man-made global warming mantra in favor of simply looking at ways to better manage and use the resources we have on this planet? By the way, LEED does cost more than non-LEED. To claim otherwise simply ignores the facts. Design and build smart, quality buildings; just forego LEED and its mountains of paperwork, illogical “points”, unproven and low quality “green” products, and wasting time worrying about carbon emissions.


  2. Jam4u, please sign your comments in the future so that we can have a discussion.

    Thank you for illustrating the “because that is the way we always do it” attitude in the industry. I hope we can move past this angry response and talk about quality design. I encourage you to help me better understand how to deliver the highest possible quality product to my clients. It seems you have strong opinions and have done extensive research.

    I am not sure where your comments came from as this was not a political post and does not attempt to guilt the reader into any belief. I have simply explained my path of learning a better way and stated that I hope we will start addressing the issues rather than arguing who is to blame. If global warming is not contributed to by man, there is still a better way of building that saves money, creates healthier indoor environments, and more durable buildings. These ideas deliver a higher value to your clients. It also just happens to reduce our carbon emissions from buildings.

    Al Gore used scare tactics to create a movie. I simply stated that his movie made the issues political. I did not substantiate any of his claims or my beliefs with the movie. Did you read my post?

    Some facts to ponder: 97% of all climate scientists believe that climate change is real. 75% of all Americans believe we should make changes to address the possible causes.

    This is not going to go away because we don’t want to deal with it. We need to start designing better buildings. If Architects are not willing to lead the way then who will?

    Our firm has shown repeatedly that good design does not cost more and that good design is certifiable in the LEED program. LEED does cost more than a code minimum design, no question. However, code minimum is the worst possible product allowed by law. Typically our clients want quality in their buildings. A quality building can be designed to meet LEED standards at no additional costs. LEED is not the answer, just one of the tools in the toolbox for designers to use to evaluate and measure goals.


  3. jam4u says:

    Unfortunately, you misread my post. I was not angry, nor am I a “because that is the way we always do it” person. I keep up with the technology, but I don’t randomly apply something because it is claimed to be “green”. I look at ways to best serve my clients as well as how to design buildings of high quality (from many different aspects) within the budgetary constraints allowed.

    Your supposed fact of “97% of all climate scientists believe climate change is real” is also unfortunately not a fact. That is simply a distraction in an attempt to get people to believe in the lies. Many more real scientists believe climate change is simply a part of normal weather patterns that change, sometimes going up and sometimes going down. This is clearly visible in history, both long term and short term.

    Another fact you claim is that good design does not cost more – this is irrelevant as you are not talking about good design, nor have you defined what good design really is. Rather you are promoting “green” and other design, claiming it as “good” and any other design is bad. As the early “green” designs fail and have to be replaced, retrofitted and other repairs made to correct the problems, you will see the real “good design” rise to the surface as it survives to take the place of the illusion called “green.” Yes, some of the ideas will be the same, but the applications and more broad view approach will reveal a better way to design than applying subjective and illogical metrics by virtue of a poorly contrived and politically charged system. This will become the new normal for building technology, not based on fear of global warming myths, but based on real products and data that rise to the top in both quality, cost savings and performance.

    Furthermore, LEED DOES cost more than “good design”. Just compare two buildings built exactly the same way with one submitted for LEED approval, but the other not. The one submitted for LEED will ALWAYS cost more just from the mere amount of paperwork, documentation, follow-up and expense by the Owner, Contractor and Architect of meeting the monitoring requirements. Your straw man argument of comparing a LEED building with a “code minimum design” is false and not relevant since nobody realistically compares apples and oranges.

    Again, your claim that “this is not going to go away” mixes good design with the false notion that only LEED buildings or their equivalent represent good design because they supposedly address climate change. No one that I know attempts to do away with good design in favor of poor design, although I’m sure some developers and others have that mindset. What would make more sense in this discussion is looking at good design, not from the scare tactics or false claims vantage point, but from what constitutes measurable, aesthetic and sensory qualities instead of garnering some points based on mythical parametrics.

    Finally, it appears we are having a conversation without “signing” my post. With the blind followers of “green” comes a lot of vitriolic talk and attacks to which I don’t feel a need to directly expose myself. Hopefully, if Architects lead from a point of quality design using high performing materials and systems that are durable and appropriate, we can get beyond the time-wasting diatribe about carbon offsets, LEED points and the misnomers of sustainability (nothing is truly sustainable in the long run) or net-zero (nothing nets zero in the big picture) construction, and get to continually improving advancement of real architecture and the built environment. This will indeed help future generations as they won’t have to be replacing the failed structures that were built under the illusion of being “sustainable”, yet without any real idea of what that entails since people have been duped by false claims of “sustainability” as well as failing to look at the big picture of long term impact which many of the supposedly sustainable materials avoid doing. Surely, you are entitled to your opinion, and I’m sure your design ideas have some merit. However, by claiming we all need to do things your way, it fails to even consider other ways that are equally viable, perhaps even more cost-effective, although they may not conform to subjective LEED or other methodologies.

    Have a great Thanksgiving!


  4. I encourage you to open your mind about new technologies and ways of thinking. These angry posts are not advancing this conversation.

    A few points of clarification: As a trained professional I also don’t randomly apply something because it claims to be green. I do sound research, learn, then speak. As I said previously, adding quality to a project always costs more, implementing sound building science strategies does not add cost. Green and LEED are not the same thing as you are implying. LEED is simply a tool in the toolbox that can allow for measurement of a building against another building. 97% of all climate scientist do agree that climate change is real this is not a made up fact. The debate exists in the question are humans contributing to it. The climate has changed in a manner that is drastically different from any “normal weather pattern.”

    You clearly don’t like LEED or the term green. I also have issues with the LEED program. However, if you were to move beyond the failed argument that LEED is a tainted system because it requires you to specify certain products (which it does not) and delivers inferior buildings (which it does not), then you would see that building science is what I am talking about and is proven. Poor designs exists in both green and non-green projects. Design is not mandated by the LEED program, any building type of any style can be certified. LEED is a measure of strategies implemented into a design. It does not indicate the way the user will run the building, how the products will perform after installation, or if the designer understood building science completely.

    There are many false claims out there about products being green, but that is why a professional should be hired to evaluate and specify the solution and not leave it to false claims to make the decision. There are also many bad designers out there that claim the new products are all bad – because they are new. Green, sustainable, or just doing it right, I do believe there is a better way than the way many are doing it. Aesthetics is the primary focus in our industry and it should only be part of the conversation. We have to look at function, performance, durability, energy efficiency, and beauty to design better buildings. I have heard of LEED project that have failed, but more often the checks and balances in the LEED program lead to better buildings. I would encourage you to stop attacking the rhetoric and add to the debate. My post specifically calls out the unfortunate point that this discussion has become political. We should all focus on the problems that we face: climate change (man made or not), peak energy demand, energy wasteful designs, failing infrastructure, polluted indoor environments – and look for solutions rather than just casting stones.

    If you had approached this conversation differently I am sure we could have learned from each other. With your approach you have built a wall implying that I am not a good designer because I endorse energy efficient, healthy, durable design solutions (green). I encourage you to stop being so angry with the world and open your mind to new ways of solving the real problems we face in this country.

    I find it interesting that you will not sign your posts to avoid being attacked when that is exactly what you are doing on my blog. Let me assure you, I enjoy opinions that differ from mine, I don’t believe I have all the answers, and I continue to search, learn, and grow in my design abilities everyday. I have no interest in angry comments, comments that simply cast stones, or comments that insult me or anyone else. If you want to have an intelligent discussion about building better I encourage it.


    1. jam4u says:

      I guess you didn’t really read my post, as you claim I didn’t yours. I diligently research new technologies and ways of thinking, but don’t buy into all their claims, such as the climate change nonsense. It is clear from your continued writings that you embrace the majority of the implications asserted by climate change. It is also clear that you disregard facts and continue to assert the discredited “97%” figure. To use your slant, had you written your original post in a manor that was open to other solutions, you might have received a better response. Unfortunately, your original post made false claims that implied only those embracing the climate change mantra and its “required” changes represented “good design.” I disagree, yet I am not angry, only sad that so many in our profession have left common sense behind and begun changing their designs solely because of the supposed climate change. These changes have resulted in many new “sustainable” buildings that are ugly, ignore the needs of the users and in the long run will fail due to the use of new products that don’t have a long term track record, nor do they have a common sense approach to their usage.

      Simply claiming I am angry doesn’t make it so. In fact, I have to laugh sometimes when I see how many people in our profession have been duped by the false claims as well as the implausibility of the basis behind those claims. In the 70’s some solid ideas on energy savings, techniques and methodologies were borne out of the oil price wars from the middle east. These ideas had merit in many cases because they sought to achieve a goal that was financially feasible as well as incorporated the technologies into good design (not every case, of course). Today, the goal seems to be incorporate the technologies first, then see if you can make them look acceptable later. It’s the old “cart before the horse” technique. Energy efficiency, water conservation, recycling of materials and alternative energy technologies all have a place in today’s design. Yet, each can be abused, wrongly applied or even blindly used without concern for the consequences. We see that in cities like San Francisco where they are having to spend millions of dollars to replace clogged sewage lines since their policy of waterless urinals and ultra-low flush and water flow fixtures no longer moves the waste through the pipes. We see several examples of meeting the intent and credits of LEED, yet still using just as much, if not more energy than like buildings.

      My issue is not you or your design techniques. You actually sound quite reasonable in your responses. Your original post, however, made huge leaps of faith attempting to accept the idea of man-made global warming (which has in fact been debunked by real scientists) by tying Hurricane Sandy to continuing the debate about whether it is real. This extremely rare event has occurred in the past (early 1900’s), so it is not unheard of, nor is it tied to any global warming trend. If one was to look at global warming, the last 15 years have actually gotten cooler, not warmer. Yet, now you claim to not no all the answers. Thus, you have made claims to stop the debate, even though you don’t know all the answers and continue to search. Part of such a search may need to be done around the premise that we are causing global warming (we are not, at least according to science).

      On the other side, however, it would seem to me that we should all discuss, rationally, and without fearmongering, the best ways to reduce energy, the performance of materials and products, and effective, yet rational methods of design to accomplish better buildings and better user experiences in those buildings. To tie those goals to some whimsical and irrational ideas such as global warming only leads to dividing, not uniting. As Architects, we should be better than that. The angry “do it my way or you are wrong” statements by extremists in the global warming movement are what has caused any rifts in our industry. Unfortunately, we will always have those who wish to continue the status quo. On the same hand, we will also always have the alarmists who raise issues without looking at the true science (e.g. DDT detractors that have caused millions of deaths due to faulty claims that DDT killed people; the malaria is the real killer, not DDT).

      I would propose that we stop using the rhetoric and begin seeking approaches to continue advancing design based on the goals for buildings. To attempt to link our design, good or bad, to some sort of global impact is naive at best. Rather, we should, as an industry, promote good design for the sake of representing our abilities as professionals instead of demonstrating foolishness, such as global warming, so that people will take us seriously. If we demonstrate that the buildings we design perform well both aesthetically and functionally, than we can truly make a difference in society. But if we browbeat people to toe the mythical green line, we achieve nothing. I for one will continue to seek good design, new technologies, high aesthetics and functional relevance, based on my desire to perform at the highest level as an Architect. I won’t do it to appease the environmental whackos that truly avoid real science in favor of emotional plays toward doing whatever it is they feel at the moment. I would rather my buildings be seen as more timeless and less like a fad.


  5. I stand by my statement that green design is good design. If you define green design with faulty products and ugly buildings then we clearly have different definitions. A building has to be energy efficient, durable, healthy, water efficient, and aesthetically pleasing to be considered a green (good) building. I think we agree on all but the term “green” here. I am the first to admit, the term has been abused and placed on everything from carpet to cleaning products with little regard to the characteristics of the product. I should have perhaps included my definition of the term green building to clarify that I understand the difference between the marketing term and ‘good’ design.

    There have in fact been some unexpected results to some practices that have been implemented. The sewer problems you mentioned are new to me. I have heard of snow not melting off of LED stop lights and from years ago, sick building syndrome. We have to work through these issues and think more holistically. There are going to be unintended consequences for all new ideas that are implemented into our society. This is where architects should exist, in this gap of design to implementation. We should lead this movement. We have to stop following and start leading.

    So after some very lengthy comments we will agree to disagree on climate change, agree that architects should be leading the investigation into better building practices, and both I hope will have very enjoyable Thanksgiving meals with our families.


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