On September 11, 2011, Americans will turn their eyes to New York City, and the vacant space in the skyline where the towers that fell 10 years ago would still be. On Sunday, that patch of cityscape will be dedicated as the National September 11 Memorial, a tribute to the nearly 3,000 lives lost in the attacks on that day.
The long hand-wringing over what might fill such important space in the city in the end boiled down to particulars: designs, blueprints and a construction site. And the building of the 9/11 Memorial, along with the office building known as 7 World Trade Center and the three buildings under construction at the Ground Zero site represent a massive shift in New York City architecture toward sustainable design. 7 World Trade Center is the first office building in Manhattan to be certified as “green,” and the Memorial has environment-friendly features such as stormwater management infrastructure.
Here Neil Chambers, a green building designer who led the movement for the World Trade Center site to be an example of green design, and author of the recently-published book Urban Green, shares his insight into current debates on sustainable urbanism.
RS: How did the attacks on 9-11 factor into your career path as a green architect?
Chambers: I saw the towers fall on Sept 11. I was down at the site. I had friends who died there. I was shocked for weeks afterward. There was smoldering ash, the National Guard, impending war.
In 2001 I had been doing environmentally-sensitive designs for six years. At the time of the attack I was working on a subway terminal that has solar panels on the roof – the first ever in the US like this. I remember waking up one day and said to myself, ‘Neil if this doesn’t give you a reason to really try to do something, you will never find a reason.’
I started a nonprofit called Green Ground Zero in 2002 that advocated for a green reconstruction of Lower Manhattan. At that time, Mayor Bloomberg and Ground Zero site developer Larry Silverstein wanted nothing to do with LEED or anything else.
We were advocating and educating the NY community about green methods of how to rebuild. We held events constantly for about a year and a half. We met with [architectural firm] SOM and we met with the environmental consultants for the Freedom Tower [as it was formerly called].
How did you see your organization creating impact as you spread information?
Before September 11 no one in this country, or city, was talking about architecture. Then they produced those first options for rebuilding and there was a huge outcry – and then everyone was talking. In those designs, there was no character, no master planning, just these white buildings stuck there.
In 1998 the LEED rating was introduced to the public. By 2001 people still hardly knew what it was. Today everybody knows. So there was a natural evolution of a standard. But when September 11 happened and organizations like ours insisted that we had to do it green, people asked, what does that even mean?
Our impact was that we helped change the perspective. We started to give people a good understanding of green and what it could be.
And what were your takeaways from your outreach efforts?
I wrote my book, Urban Green, because I was frustrated by what people call green. This was something I saw while I was running Green Ground Zero. People were squeezing ‘green’ aspects into their projects. But at my events people said, ‘This is something people want. Why aren’t we pushing this more?’ So I started my own company in 2005 because as a nonprofit we couldn’t really do anything.
What is ‘green’ building’?
A green building consists of four main things: energy-efficiency, water-
efficiency, good indoor air quality, and sustainable materials. But we need to think more broadly about green building if we’re going to use architecture to enrich the planet.
Those four qualities only apply to a finished building. Right now no one considers anything beforehand, like the life-cycles of materials. Typically you use more energy to produce all the things that go into a building than a building will ever use in its life span.
So you might have bamboo floors – a renewable product – but it might have taken fifteen times more energy and water to make them. But the life-cycle of that product isn’t being considered, so it’s seen as sustainable.
The three new World Trade Center buildings will be running on a fuel cell. By how much does a fuel cell reduce a building’s carbon footprint and how widespread can this technology be used?
Fuel cells emit 10 percent of the carbon that a normal building emits. They are powered by natural gas, which brings up the issue of fracking. [Fracking refers to the process by which natural gas is extracted from the earth and is a controversial issue for environmentalists.] Fracking can be nasty but compared to coal it’s not as bad. It’s the lesser of two evils. And nuclear power is just as bad as coal – if you look at the life-cycle analysis – if not worse. Not all fracking sites have had the water problems that have been documented in some cases. Right now, there’s not a lot of options besides natural gas if you want to reduce carbon emissions.
Fuel cells have heat recovery so you can heat water for free with high-quality domestic water that’s heated to 270 degrees or more. It creates good hot water, it costs less, and it reduces your carbon by 90 percent or more. And it’s more reliable and less costly than an electric grid.
In the near future, fuel cells will probably become standard for large-scale buildings. They are expensive to install – 2.7 million dollars for a 400 kilowatt unit- but overall they save money.
In your book you explain the importance of ecomimicry, which you define as the ‘integration of human civilization with the components of the natural world essential for ecological health so that all species have the ability to thrive, not just survive.’ How you see this concept playing into cities of the future?
Look at beavers – they are completely unsustainable in their practices and they deplete natural resources when they build dams.
But the difference between humans and beavers is that they are a keystone species so they help the overarching ecosystem thrive. An ecologically-healthy city or society will act the same way.
If we want to establish an ecologically-healthy society we need to be more discerning about where we build. For example estuaries have a huge potential to sequester carbon and improve biodiversity. Estuaries house oysters, which filter pollutants in water. One oyster cleans four gallon of water per hour. But we’re building on top of those places, so we’re destroying that opportunity.
Would that best be achieved through policy reform?
No, not necessarily. Our political system is so polarized and regulation is like a bad word. You lose people right away when you use that word. ‘Green’ has become politicized.
Instead, we need to create incentives that help people change their behaviors.
But I’m not against regulations. If we get rid of environmental regulation we’re talking about going back to levels of air pollution that China has – and 656,000 people die there each year from air pollution. Another 95,600 people die from water contamination in China. In the US, we take for granted what regulations have done.
In your book you emphasize the importance of focusing urban planning efforts on megalopolises, extensive, sprawling metropolitan areas. How might this be done?
We are using an outdated model for thinking about urban growth. This growth is happening in metropolitan areas, including suburbs, not inner cities.
Suburban areas have always been a part of urban areas. In New York, neighborhoods like Brooklyn and Flatbush were once their own cities. The next step was becoming a metropolitan area. Now that includes Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania.
From Washington DC to Boston is a megalopolis. It acts and will be acting more like one large economic engine. If this becomes completely developed with no natural spaces, this will be a problem.
We need to think carefully about where and how we build as this region expands. We need to think about preserving things like old-growth forests as we make a master megalopolis plan.
Interview has been edited and condensed.