Toward Resilient Architectures 2: Why Green Often Isn’t

by Michael Mehaffy, Nikos A. Salingaros, originally published by

Something surprising has happened with many vaunted new “sustainable” buildings: when actually measured in post-occupancy assessments, they’ve proven far less sustainable than their proponents claimed. In some cases they’ve actually performed worse than much older buildings.

A 2009 New York Times feature article, titled “Some buildings not living up to green label”, documented the extensive problems with many sustainability icons. Among other reasons for this failing, the article pointed to the widespread use of expansive curtain-wall glass assemblies and large, “deep-plan” designs that put most usable space far from exterior walls, forcing greater reliance on artificial light and ventilation systems.

Before its cancellation, the Anara Tower was planned to be one of Dubai’s tallest buildings, and an icon of sustainability — despite its west-facing glazing, high embodied energy in materials, and, remarkably, a giant non-functional (i.e. decorative) wind turbine. The building offered the consumer packaging of an “image” of sustainability at the apparent expense of real sustainability.

Image by WS Atkins PLC

Partly in response to the bad press, the City of New York instituted a new law requiring disclosure of actual performance for many buildings. That led to reports of even more poor-performing sustainability icons. A New York Times article entitled “City’s Law Tracking Energy Use Yields Some Surprises” noted that the gleaming new 7 World Trade Center, LEED Gold-certified, scored just 74 on the Energy Star rating — one point below the minimum 75 for “high-efficiency buildings” under the national rating system. That modest rating doesn’t even factor in the significant embodied energy in the new materials of 7 World Trade Center.

Things got even worse in 2010 with a lawsuit [“$100 Million Class Action Filed Against LEED and USGBC”] against the US Green Building Council, developers of the LEED certification system (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). The plaintiffs in the lawsuit alleged that the USGBC engaged in “deceptive trade practices, false advertising and anti-trust” by promoting the LEED system, and argued that because the LEED system does not live up to predicted and advertised energy savings, the USGBC actually defrauded municipalities and private entities. The suit was ultimately dismissed, but in its wake the website Treehugger and others predicted, based on the evidence uncovered, that “there will be more of this kind of litigation”.

What’s going on? How can the desire to increase sustainability actually result in its opposite?

One problem with many sustainability approaches is that they don’t question the underlying building type. Instead they only add new “greener” components, such as more efficient mechanical systems and better wall insulation. But this “bolt-on” conception of sustainability, even when partially successful, has the drawback of leaving underlying forms, and the structural system that generates them, intact. The result is too often the familiar “law of unintended consequences”: what is gained in one area is lost elsewhere as the result of other unanticipated interactions.

Energy-wasting glass box from the 1960s compared to a new LEED-certified curtain-wall building. Spot the difference? The trouble is, (paraphrasing Albert Einstein) we cannot solve problems with the same basic typologies that created them.

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

For example, adding more efficient active energy systems tends to reduce the amount of energy used, and therefore lowers its overall cost. But that lower cost in turn tends to make tenants less careful with their energy use — a phenomenon known as “Jevons’ Paradox”. Increasing efficiency lowers cost, and increases demand — in turn increasing the rate of consumption, and wiping out the initial savings. The lesson is that we can’t deal with energy consumption in isolation. We have to look at the concept of energy more broadly, including embodied energy and other factors.

There are often other unintended consequences. A notable case is London’s sustainability-hyped “Gherkin” (Foster & Partners, 2003), where the building’s open-floor ventilation system was compromised when security-conscious tenants created glass separations. Operable windows whose required specifications had been lowered because of the natural ventilation feature actually began to fall from the building, and had to be permanently closed. The ambitious goal of a more sophisticated natural ventilation system paradoxically resulted in even worse ventilation.

No building is an island

Another major problem with green building programs happens when they treat buildings in isolation from their urban contexts. In one infamous example [“Driving to Green Buildings”], the Chesapeake Bay Foundation moved its headquarters to the world’s first certified LEED-Platinum building — but the move took them from an older building in the city of Annapolis, Maryland to a new building in the suburbs, requiring new embodied energy and resources. Even the added employee travel alone — what’s known as “transportation energy intensity” — more than erased the energy gains of the new building.

The theory of resilience discussed in our article “Toward Resilient Architectures 1: Biology Lessons” points to the nature of the problem. Systems may appear to be well-engineered within their original defined parameters — but they will inevitably interact with many other systems, often in an unpredictable and non-linear way. We look towards a more “robust” design methodology, combining redundant (“network”) and diverse approaches, working across many scales, and ensuring fine-grained adaptivity of design elements.

Though these criteria may sound abstract, they’re exactly the sorts of characteristics achieved with so-called “passive” design approaches. Passive buildings allow the users to adjust and adapt to climactic conditions — say, by opening or closing windows or blinds, and getting natural light and air. These designs can be far more accurate in adjusting to circumstances at a much finer grain of structure. They feature diverse systems that do more than one thing — like the walls that hold up the building and also accumulate heat through thermal mass. They have networks of spaces that can be reconfigured easily, even converted to entirely new uses, with relatively inexpensive modifications (unlike the “open-plan” typology, which has never delivered on expectations). They are all-around, multi-purpose buildings that aren’t narrowly designed to one fashionable look or specialized user. And perhaps most crucially, they don’t stand apart from context and urban fabric, but work together with other scales of the city, to achieve benefits at both larger and smaller scales.

Older buildings perform better… sometimes

Many older buildings took exactly this “passive” approach, simply because they had to. In an era when energy was expensive (or simply not available) and transportation was difficult, buildings were naturally more clustered together in urban centers. Their shape and orientation exploited natural daylight, and typically featured smaller, well-positioned windows and load-bearing walls with higher thermal mass. The simple robust shapes of these buildings allowed almost endless configurations. In fact many of the most in-demand urban buildings today are actually adaptive reuse projects of much older buildings.

The results of this passive approach are reflected in good energy performance. While New York’s vaunted 7 World Trade Center actually scored below the city’s minimum rating of 75 out of 100, older buildings in New York City that had been retrofitted with the same efficient heating, cooling, and lighting technologies fared much better: the Empire State Building scored a rating of 80, and the Chrysler Building scored 84.

But just being old is clearly not a criterion of success. The 1963 MetLife/PanAm building (Walter Gropius & Pietro Belluschi), now a half century old, scored a dismal 39. Another mid-century icon, the Lever House (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1952), scored 20. The worst performer of all was Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe’s iconic Seagram building, built in 1958. Its score was an astonishingly low 3.

What’s the problem with these buildings? As the earlier New York Times article noted, they have extensive curtain-wall assemblies, large window areas, large-scale “deep-plan” forms, and other limitations. On a fundamental level, as we can now begin to see from resilience theory, they lack many crucial resilient advantages of older building types. There may be something inherent in the building type itself that is non-resilient. The form language itself could be an innate problem — something that, according to systems thinking, no mere bolt-on “green” additions can fix.

“Oil-interval” architecture

Architectural critic Peter Buchanan, writing recently in the UK magazine The Architectural Review, placed the blame for these failures squarely at the feet of the Modernist design model itself, and called for a “big rethink” about many of its unquestioned assumptions [“The Big Rethink: Farewell To Modernism — And Modernity Too”]. Modernism is inherently unsustainable, he argued, because it evolved in the beginning of the era of abundant and cheap fossil fuels. This cheap energy powered the weekend commute to the early Modernist villas, and kept their large open spaces warm, in spite of large expanses of glass and thin wall sections. Petrochemicals created their complex sealants and fueled the production of their exotic extrusions. “Modern architecture is thus an energy-profligate, petrochemical architecture, only possible when fossil fuels are abundant and affordable”, he said. “Like the sprawling cities it spawned, it belongs to that waning era historians are already calling ‘the oil interval’.”

Cities built using a form language whose dominant feature is to maximize the consumption of fossil fuels. Though a successful economic development strategy during the “oil-interval” era, it has left us with a looming catastrophe.

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

Buchanan is not alone in calling for a “big rethink” about the assumptions of Modernist design. It is fashionable among many architects today to attack Modernism, and argue instead for various kinds of avant-garde and “Post-Modernist” styles. Buchanan lumps these styles together under a category he calls “Deconstructionist Post-Modernism”. But he insists that the Deconstructionists have not actually transcended the Modernist paradigm they attack: they still operate almost entirely within the industrial assumptions and engineering methodologies of the “oil interval”.

Once again, resilience theory provides insight into the serious flaws carried by this family of related form languages — and indeed, flaws in their very conception of design. (Those will need to be examined in great detail.) Ironically, this “modern” model is now almost a century old, belonging to an era of “engineered resilience” — that is, resilience within only one designed system, but unable to cope with the unintended consequences of interactions with other systems (like urban transportation, say, or true ecological systems).

Because the Modernist form language and its successors are tied to the old linear engineering paradigm, they cannot in practice combine redundant (“network”) and diverse approaches, nor work across many scales, nor ensure a fine-grained adaptivity for design elements — though they can certainly create the symbolic appearance of doing so. Contrary to such dubious claims (in what sometimes takes on aspects of a massive marketing effort), they cannot actually achieve what C. H. Holling called “ecological resilience”. This seems to suggest an important explanation of the alarmingly poor performance of these buildings and places, when actually evaluated in post-occupancy research.

Seen in this light, the various avant-garde attempts to transcend Modernism appear more as exotic new wrappings for the same underlying (and non-resilient) structural types and industrial methods. But as Albert Einstein famously pointed out: “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” Just as it is not possible to achieve resilience by merely adding new devices like solar collectors to these old industrial-Modernist building types, it is not possible to get meaningful benefits with dazzling new designer permutations and tokenistic ecological thinking within the same essentially industrial design process. We do need a “big rethink” about the most basic methods and systems of design for the future.

A wave of neo-modernism

Yet if anything, in recent years there has been a remarkable resurgence of an even more unapologetic form of Modernism. In light of the evidence, this is a decidedly reactionary trend: we seem to be witnessing a “back to roots” movement — one that, like other such movements, is based more on doctrinal belief than on evidence. This fashionable Neo-Modernism ranges from outright “retro” boxy white buildings, interiors, and furnishings, to swoopy futuristic-looking buildings and landscapes. Stylistically, the shapes are eye-catching and often edgy, and some people (especially many architects) clearly like them.

Curiously, after one century of unfettered design experiments, the Modernist form language evolves back to the traditional glass box.

Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros

Not everyone seems to care for this new/old aesthetic, however. Some see the new structures as sterile, ugly, and disruptive to their neighborhoods and cities. Defenders of the designs in turn often attack these critics for being presumably unsophisticated, nostalgic, or unwilling to accept the inevitable progress of a dynamic culture. This “battle of stylistic preferences” rages on, with the Neo-Modernists claiming the avant-garde high ground, where they tend to dominate the media, critics, and schools.

Of course, fashions come and go, and architecture is no different: in a sense this is just another phase in the more or less continuous waxing and waning of architectural Modernism for almost a century now, along with raging debates about its aesthetic merits. Those debates have never really died down. Critics like Buchanan are not new: in the 1960s and 1970s equally vociferous critics like Christopher Alexander, Peter Blake, Jane Jacobs, David Watkin, and Tom Wolfe made withering critiques, but little has changed.

What has now changed, however, is that we are asking newly urgent questions about the resilience of this kind of structure, at a time when we need to rigorously assess and improve that resilience. As this discussion suggests, it is not only the particular and practical issues of expansive glazed curtain walls, bulky and transparent buildings, and exotic assemblies overly reliant on petrochemical products that are the root of the problem. It is perhaps the very idea of buildings as fashionable icons celebrating their own newness, a quintessentially Modernist idea, which is fundamentally at odds with the notion of sustainability.

As they age, these buildings are destined to be less new and therefore less useful, not more so. The pristine Modernist (and now Post-Modernist and Deconstructivist) industrial surfaces are destined to mar, weather, and otherwise degrade. The eye-catching novelties of one era will become the abandoned eyesores of the next, an inevitability lost on a self-absorbed elite fixated on today’s fashions. Meanwhile the humble, humane criteria of resilient design are being pushed aside, in the rush to embrace the most attention-getting new technological approaches — which then produce a disastrous wave of unintended failures. This is clearly no way to prepare for a “sustainable” future in any sense.

Modernism is more than just a style

In this light, why have the form language and design methodologies of Modernism proven so stubbornly persistent? The answer is that Modernism is not merely a style that one may care for or not. It is part and parcel of a remarkably comprehensive — even totalizing — project of aesthetics, tectonics, urbanism, technology, culture, and ultimately, civilization. That project has had a profound effect upon the development of modern settlements, for better or worse, and (especially visible in the light of resilience theory) made a huge contribution to the current state in which we find our cities, and our civilization.

The origins of architectural Modernism are closely affiliated with the progressive goals of the early Twentieth Century, and the humanitarian ideals — even the utopian zeal — of well-meaning visionaries of that day. Those individuals saw a promising capacity, in the dawning industrial technology of the age, to deliver a new era of prosperity and quality of life for humanity. At their most credulous, its leaders were clearly enraptured by the seemingly infinite possibilities for a technological utopia. From that they developed an elaborate — and in surprising ways, still poorly-evaluated — theory about the necessary new tectonics and form languages of the civilization of the future. Their followers today still argue that it is, unquestionably, Modernism that is best positioned to don the mantle of sustainability.

Many things did improve under this technological regime, of course, and today we can cure diseases, reduce backbreaking toil, eat exotic foods, travel fast in comfortable motoring and flying craft, and do many other things that would astonish our ancestors. But along with that new regime has come a calamitous ecological depletion and destruction of resources, and an erosion of the foundation on which all economics and indeed all life depends. So today, in an age of converging crises, it is well worth our asking hard questions about the assumptions of that industrial regime — and the complicity of architectural Modernism as a kind of alluring “product packaging” within it.

The story goes back to a remarkably small group of writers, theorists, and practitioners in the early 20th Century, and notably the Austrian architect Adolf Loos. We will need to look more closely at this history — and what its ongoing legacy means for us, and our very daunting design challenges today.


Michael Mehaffy is an urbanist and critical thinker in complexity and the built environment. He is a practicing planner and builder, and is known for his many projects as well as his writings. He has been a close associate of the architect and software pioneer Christopher Alexander.  He is a Research Associate with the Center for Environmental Structure, Alexander’s research center founded in 1967, and Executive Director of the Sustasis Foundation, a Portland, OR-based NGO dedicated to developing and applying neighborhood-scale tools for resilient and sustainable development.

Nikos A. Salingaros is a mathematician and polymath known for his work on urban theory, architectural theory, complexity theory, and design philosophy. He has been a close collaborator of the architect and computer software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Salingaros published substantive research on Algebras, Mathematical Physics, Electromagnetic Fields, and Thermonuclear Fusion before turning his attention to Architecture and Urbanism. He still is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is also on the Architecture faculties of universities in Italy, Mexico, and The Netherlands.

Read more articles in this series on resilience here.

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