beyond green checklists

Although they applaud the building industry's environmental progress, some green pioneers believe true sustainability means rethinking our entire building system. "You can't exactly say that what is going on at the moment will produce a green house," says Pliny Fisk III, who helped found the Austin, Texas, Green Building Program —the first in the country—and now heads the Austin-based Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems. Instead, he says, "We must look at more international trends toward doing open, flexible building systems that adapt and change over time, and at more plug-and-play technology."

It's an idea that Dr. Stephen Kendall, RA, CIB, a professor of architecture at Ball State University, also explores in his book Homeworks (Trafford Publishing, 2006). Kendall, who serves as director of the university's Building Futures Institute, foresees a time when developers will build high-rise or townhouse shells with strategically placed service connections that allow for a variety of floor plan options (see www.bsu.edu/bfi). Each fit-out package, including piping and wiring bundles, would plug into the building's connectors. "Once you get the idea that a building isn't a whole thing—it's made up of levels of intervention—then you can try to optimize its sustainable performance," Kendall says. "Some people think that if builders and developers would order housing this way, it would make it easier to introduce smarter materials and the latest nontoxic subsystems. As new products come online, it makes it possible to swap out the infill with the better LEED-rated materials and recyclable stuff—mechanical systems, finishes, lighting—without jerking around the whole building."

Taking this idea a step further, the Dutch government several years ago funded a program called IFD, an acronym for Industrialized Flexible Demountable. The idea was to get industry to produce components that allow buildings to be flexible so they can eventually be disassembled and their parts reused. "The Dutch built 150-some projects, and the program finished about two years ago," Kendall says. "Now it's a question of whether the industry will reorganize itself."

The problems aren't technical; they're related to market demand, he adds. In the United States, for example, the biggest hurdle is the low cost of energy, along with real estate and banking industries that discourage innovation. "Things are too easy to build, and shoddy," he explains, "and the real estate industry has few incentives to think long-term."