Best-laid plans: How we can interpret our past and build a sustainable future | U.S. Green Building Council
Please upgrade your browser. This site requires a newer version to work correctly. Read more
Published on
Written by
Posted in Industry
Published on
Written by
Posted in Industry

Building performance score improvements aren't just for energy and water use, but also for occupant experience.

“The Burnham of his generation.” That’s what historian Franz Schulze once called Bruce Graham, architect of the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower).

Last November, while I was in town for Greenbuild Chicago, I spent some time exploring this city’s most extraordinary structures—including a few of Graham’s.

Of course, these names were not new to me. Like many in my industry, I have long been aware of Daniel Burnham’s career as Chicago’s preeminent urban designer in the late 1800s and early 20th century. And Mr. Graham’s work is the stuff of architectural legend.

But it was only during last year’s conference, when I visited the LEED Gold Willis Tower, that I saw firsthand the connective tissue between the two men, and more personally, how that connection was relevant to my own work and the future of green building. This certification wasn’t just a succession. It was part of a story that was—and is—still unfolding.

At the turn of the 20th century, Burnham planned for an urban hub of culture and innovation. His blueprint was for a booming and successful metropolis.

Decades later, designers like Graham came along, ones who truly believed, as he put it, that architecture was a “language.” And what did they do? They took that blueprint and tried to interpret it, like you would any language. They looked at societal changes leading to urban decay and attempted to reverse those shifts in favor of what was at the heart of the original city plan: bringing people together.

And today, with the renovation of buildings like the Willis Tower, we are seeing a new generation of designers, engineers, contractors and architects committed to environmental justice, sustainable architecture and building on—not abandoning—Burnham and Graham’s legacies.

Graham liked to say his work wasn’t about building buildings, but instead building cities. The same is true of green building.

Building a sustainable city means building lasting relationships and communities. It means doing what the people at Willis Tower are doing—building—quite literally—on an existing blueprint, to create a better standard of living for the people who use it.

The day after Willis Tower celebrated their LEED Gold certification, we launched USGBC’s Living Standard campaign. With this initiative, we have begun examining how best to show the value of green building in the fight against climate-related risks.

Thus far, our Living Standard research has taught us an often overlooked lesson—statistics are not stories.

Last year, Willis Tower completed its biggest restorative transformation in the building’s 43-year history, adding 300,000 square feet of new retail, dining and entertainment space. During the certification process, they pursued an initial LEED 2009 certification while also simultaneously completing LEED v4.1 recertification. And using the Arc performance platform, they were able to use data over a 12-month time frame to achieve LEED Gold in both rating systems—and to also establish a system to monitor their performance and make future improvements. As Willis Tower continues to track their annual performance through Arc, they hope to witness score improvements not only in energy and water use, but to see increased occupant satisfaction scores.

Now, I could tell you that, for example, because of the high-efficiency lighting, HVAC exhaust improvements, and changes to their cooling towers and electrical infrastructure, the tower will emit 35% less CO2 into the atmosphere.

But that sentiment is incomplete. I should instead tell you that because of that reduction in CO2, a person working at Willis Tower will have an easier time focusing, will have fewer headaches and less drowsiness, and will breathe cleaner air.

Our second and latest public opinion research report, Standard Issue Vol. II, takes a deeper dive into understanding our differences in language and into exploring the notion that in the age of climate-related risks, building a better world starts with building a better dialogue.

I’d like to think that Burnham and Graham, two green builders in their own right, would agree with our interpretation:

The stakes are in the stories. If you want someone to truly understand the power of building, you have to talk to them about the people inside it.

Access the second Living Standard report