Building Better in USA, India and Globally, with Inspiration from Chef Dan Barber

Talo – Green Passive Architect – since 1984

Tapani A. Talo, AIA

Building Better in USA, India and Globally, with Inspiration from Chef Dan Barber

DSC_0351-B-MThe Third Plate, Chef Dan Barber’s book on how to create new, better food systems, has a fairly simple premise for good food. To summarize, food should be grown in naturally healthy soils without chemical interventions that burn away the microorganisms that allow and create the conditions for a full range of nutrients to exist. In the U.S. today, farmers are mainly giant stakeholders employing machinery to farm monocultures like corn and soybeans on farms made possible only with the application of literally tons of fertilizers and pesticides. There is no connection to earth and no motive other than immediate profit.

The way we build is also primarily based on the profit motive, whether in the US, or, as I witnessed last week on a trip to Bhubaneswar, Odisha, in modern India. The trend means minimal greening, or, to put it in numbers, 20 to 30% improvement in energy efficiency at best. Developers and architects alike think this is ok.

Why? A few trends point the way. When I started working in New York City in 1980, the core to window wall ratio was getting larger and larger all the time, thanks to lighting and HVAC systems that could bring a facsimile of fresh air and real light deep into the heart of buildings. A perfect example was Three Nutrients on 200 Vesey Street, designed in 1982, and started in 1983. Its 40,000 square foot floor plates (200 by 200 feet) were made possible by HVAC and Lighting. Architects like myself thought at the time that this was nuts – but that’s what corporate clients and thus developers – wanted and insisted.

In Germany and Switzerland even secretaries have to have daylight, as the health issues of going without are extremely well documented (to their credit, our AIA has for years been touting this issue, to no avail), creating health bills that dwarf the cost of building itself. Not only do we demand endless hours from our staff, but with space maximizing floor plans, we deny real light and real fresh air to employees in the name of efficiency.

Building plans (and new buildings in India, China and everywhere) have followed suit. In the 70’s I remember a study where British workers were compared to Germans. In the UK they worked longer hours, but produced less than the Germans who had extremely long holidays too.

The German and Swiss (and now Austrian) buildings are extremely well insulated, with hardly any major mechanical equipment to supplement natural air, or well treated air and light, and have operable windows made possible partially due to a good climate. Passive buildings even for office space are becoming a norm, with the result that a 20 story commercial uses as much energy as a large normal private house in the states. Payback for building alone – about 8 years, with staff health near immediate.

It’s not as if larger, artificially enhanced buildings produce a net benefit either. The U.S. spends a trillion in wasted energy a year, a 1/3 more than military budget, and equal to our general annual budget as a whole. Yet the so-called efficiency of large office floor plates, lots of equipment pushing heat and cool and simple double glazed windows is still the norm.

We do not get real energy numbers from China, but it cannot be any different. And India’s electric grid is struggling to cope with demand during summer heat waves. There is no government (or people serving in their respective parties) beyond Germany, Austria, Switzerland (and Scandinavia, to a large extent) that understands even a little bit of this, or how to do something about this rather sad gas guzzling situation where we jam people like chicken farmers jam chickens into sheds, sacrificing quality of space and energy in the name of efficiency and market ‘norm’.

Our buildings are big monocultures, like corn and soybeans, stuffed with people to produce as much as possible and sacrificing air, light and working environment, like the taste and nutrients in food, for a few basic, sellable outcomes. Unlike a kernel of corn, however, the workers in these environments have to contend with health and psychological issues that extend beyond those four walls.

NY City future DSC_0171If architects, building department officials, engineers and developers were trained right from the start of their education on basic energy efficiency, we would not have this trillion-dollar monkey on our backs, and would live in a world where healthier, happier workers could produce more and better ideas. And where does that trillion go – to atmosphere – and as in India this summer, boiling pavements, roads and people without AC.

The Third Plate paints a clear relationship between soil sustainability and healthy food. Likewise, the architects of today need to think about what people and society as a whole need, and treat the environments where they live and work with the same focus on sustainability and quality.

A good architect can design anything, with the right training. But we need a lot more of it, and now.

But cannot, as there are no incentives by banks or governments as they are clueless having grown up in this system and unable to re-think the building like a gas guzzling trucks. Both products of engineering but buildings are for 50 to 100 years each.

Tapani Talo, AIA


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