US Green Building Council sought to avoid casual and abusive application of the term by qualifying “green” through a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification system. The system codified everything from achieving healthier built environments (from air quality to daylighting) to encouraging the use of sustainable building materials and building practices.
Upon becoming familiar with the system for the book, The Good Office, that I coauthored with Kristen Becker, I was drawn to the emphasis the system put on the value of reducing waste through the reuse of items that would be slated for demolition. The LEED system declared there was a value to this architecture beyond just aesthetics.
When researching projects for my books on restaurant and office design, I found myself drawn to projects that incorporated the reuse of materials. From restaurants that reuse the instruments for eating in their design to an office that created an iconic design piece from items that would have been thrown away, the most green and inspiring designs demonstrated the synergy of a common material.
In my first book, Restaurants by Design, I reviewed a small restaurant in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Confronted with a small space the designers took inspiration from the restaurants theme (seafood) and common serving utensil (the skewer). These applied en masse transformed the space and made you feel like you were on a sea bed amongst grass. The skewers had been collected over time and were reused (after washing) prior to installation. The design is representative of how how a green approach to design can not only transform a space, but take waste material and incorporate it into design.
Only blocks from the Hudson river in Manhattan’s NOLITA, Smith and Mills integrates countless artifacts from a defunct machine factory in Brooklyn into the design for their small restaurant and bar. The former stable was changed into a cozy and hip bar with their collection of old machine jigs, engineering drawings, drafting equipment, and furniture. An old elevator makes the enclosure for the bathroom, all of the tables and stools are direct from the engineering drafting room. The items were selected to maintain an alluring aesthetic that carefully walks the line between a modern cocktail bar and an attic rich with history and long forgotten purpose.
Years before it was trendy to have a Green workplace, the marketing firm of Sedgwick Rd, hired Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects to adapt an old machine shop into a new office space. After seeing the raw undemolished space, the design team saw the beauty in what most would want to throw away. The design team convinced the client to save some pieces for the old space by tapping into the marketing team's philosophy- to share ideas through an open office space . These reused items where integrated throughout the design, but most noticeably in the “Frankenstein” piece-a series of original elements that were mobilized with reclaimed castors mounted on old steel beams that allow for flexible definition of meeting space.
I find inspiration in the spirit and execution of such environmentally and aesthetically responsible designs. Our society has made it easier to throw-away, rather than to save. These designs constantly change my perception of what is possible with everyday materials. It is easy to get comfortable with traditional materials and methods of construction. I have preferences that I defer to because I know them to be beautiful. When a design outside of those constructs catches my eye, it causes me to take a second look and ask critical questions. It redefines for me what is possible in a greener architecture.