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LEED Goes to School: Considering Green Design in the Architecture Classroom

“I’m tickled that this is taking like firestorm!”

Having devoted his career to green design, Azizan Aziz, a senior research architect at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture, has watched with great interest as USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system has become a major force in in the buildings industry. With its slick branding and status symbol cachet, LEED represents the first successful mainstreaming of sustainable building. Through it, says Aziz, green design has been embraced by many who once dismissed it as “just for beatniks and hippies.” However, recent reports indicate that many of Aziz’s colleagues in higher education are less enthusiastic about these developments. According to several studies released in the last few years, architectural training has fallen out of step with growing public interest in LEED, and, more broadly, green design.

In a 2006 American Institute of Architects study, Ecology and Design: Ecological Literacy in Architecture Education , researchers praised American universities for making significant efforts to green their campuses, but criticized these same institutions’ failure to carry this commitment through to their curricula. “For some universities, the shift toward sustainability is almost nonexistent in the architecture classroom, but is happening in the campus physical plant – itself another ‘classroom’ for students, faculty, and staff.” Furthermore, when green design is taught, the report claims that it tends to be treated as an alternative to standard practice rather than as a lens through which to view architecture as a whole. Among schools that teach it, “few if any treat sustainability as fundamental to the practice of design.” In terms of LEED, the report offered similarly lackluster findings; a comprehensive survey of the websites of accredited architectural programs in the US found only spotty evidence of LEED-related training.

In Education Revolution: Empowering the Next Generation of Sustainable Designers , a white paper delivered at Greenbuild 2008, researchers from architecture firm RMJM traced differences in aspirations and perceptions regarding green education between the parties most directly affected: students and faculty at architecture schools and employers who recruit there. The study found that students and employers were both significantly more interested in sustainable design than faculty members and considerably less sanguine about the status quo in architectural training. Asked how well their school prepared students in sustainable design, 32 percent of faculty members said very well, compared to 23 percent of students and only 6 percent of employers. Similar dynamics were revealed by questions about LEED training. While 13 percent of students said that third-party rating systems such as LEED were not discussed at all, 100 percent of faculty members said that the rating systems were addressed in the curriculum.

The extraordinary speed with which LEED – and, through it, sustainable design – has made inroads into the construction industry makes these findings somewhat understandable. Started barely ten years ago, when few people had any idea what sustainable design was, LEED has spread to projects in all fifty states and over sixty countries, with Fortune 500 corporations, prestigious cultural institutions, and government agencies generating a great deal of press by buying into the system. With far fewer resources than, say, Bank of America, university design departments will likely take much longer to digest the phenomenon.

However, other, more complex factors are also involved. Generational differences regarding interest in sustainability are an issue (the RMJM report notes that “a leading opinion expressed by faculty is that the interest in sustainable design is student-driven.”) Some schools are reticent to cede territory to issues perceived as merely technical rather than formal or theoretical, or to divert resources to preparing students for a third-party exam. Debates in the sustainable design community about LEED’s value play a role, as do fears of dumbing down green by teaching to the test. Lastly, universities face the difficulty of building the kind of interdisciplinary infrastructure necessary for sustainable design, which, as the AIA report puts it, “goes far beyond energy and materials and involves land use, water, transportation, innovative engineering, landscape, and social justice.”

A number of universities around the country are beginning to work through these issues in classes devoted to LEED. At Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture (currently ranked first in the nation in sustainable design by DesignIntelligence), Azizan Aziz has led several sessions of an elective called LEED Buildings and Green Design Concepts . The course is designed to balance the need to prepare students for the LEED exam with the broader goal of providing in-depth information related to the rating system. For example, each semester, the class visits several LEED projects near the campus. “Being located in Pittsburgh, we have an opportunity to visit a lot of those buildings, talk to the construction managers, see how it is to get the building built,” says Aziz. The class also teaches students about the strengths and weaknesses of the rating system and discusses alternatives. With LEED, says Aziz, “there are quite a lot of limitations, as good as it is. We looked at the European standards, which are quite a bit beyond us. A lot of our LEED projects aren’t comparable to standard European buildings. They’re really pushing.” Aziz estimates that 80 percent of the students who have taken his class have gone on to pass the LEED exam. Due to its popularity, the class has recently been expanded to two sessions per year.

In New York, Pratt Institute began offering an elective LEED class several years ago through its graduate program in Environmental Systems Management. At that time, according to Eva Hanhardt, coordinator of the masters program and professor of urban and environmental policy, it was intended primarily to expose an interdisciplinary group of students to LEED. But in recent years, like the Carnegie Mellon course, the class has served both to educate students about the issues surrounding the rating system and to prepare them for the exam. “The focus of the LEED classes is twofold, and has a lot to do with the importance and the growing expectation that if you’re an architect you’ll be LEED certified,” says Hanhardt.

According to Pratt instructor Gita Nandan, a founder and principal of Brooklyn-based design firm Thread Collective, although students are increasingly coming into the class with at least some understanding of the subject, she spends much of the course providing a general overview of sustainability. “Part of my job is just ramping them up to know what a green building is, let alone what a LEED building is.” She estimates that approximately a quarter of her lessons focus on exam prep, but counsels students that they must commit to a significant amount of independent study to pass. “During the course it’s too much to absorb while taking five other classes,” she says.

When it was first offered, the course was open to between ten and fifteen students once a year. Since the fall semester of 2007, growing demand has prompted the school to offer the class every semester. Interest continues to grow. Even with the additional classes, enrollment is very high relative to similar courses. Typically, the class is made up primarily of graduate students in architecture, with a smattering of students from interiors, planning, facilities management, and related disciplines.

Both Aziz and Nandan are confident that their classes serve a valuable purpose in terms of both advancing sustainable design and helping students improve their career prospects. “There are many, many critics out there, and I’m still critical of the whole standard, but there’s no alternative. . . . The reason why it’s voluntary and it’s becoming quite popular is that it’s easy, and it’s understandable, and everyone’s talking about it,” says Aziz. According to Nandan, familiarity with LEED has proven very valuable in her practice. “In this day and age, a lot of my clients come to us and want us to do a LEED project. If we say that we’re doing a LEED project and that we’re LEED certified, that makes them trust us more. If you really want to be in the green building industry you should know about these systems.”

But echoing the recent studies on the subject, both expressed a desire for LEED and sustainability to be integrated into all design education rather than relegated to its own subcategory. “LEED is common sense,” says Aziz. In architecture schools, “we talk about form in first year. Environment should be part of form. You can’t just make willy-nilly architecture without thinking about the people inside.”

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2 Responses to LEED Goes to School: Considering Green Design in the Architecture Classroom

  1. Richard Parvey January 28, 2009 at 11:42 am #

    I wonder if style has anything to do with the slow adoption of green building principles in certain schools of architecture. Many people associate “green building” and LEED certification with Modernism (certainly the public and the media does)and there are numerous architectural programs around the country that are more oriented toward New Urbanism and traditional architecture. In reality, traditional architecture can be built as “green” as modern architecture. Maybe this is a partial explanation.

    Richard Parvey

  2. Stephen Del Percio January 28, 2009 at 3:02 pm #

    Thanks for the comment, Richard, maybe we can get Sarah to chime in as well. I think you make a very interesting point and I would also suggest that some of our most sustainable buildings are those that predate Modernism- take a look at 14 Wall Street, for example, which dates from the turn of the century, has undergone an extensive capital improvement program in terms of modernizing building infrastructure, and has been performing extremely well in a very difficult leasing environment.

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