BedZed  Credit Chris Twinn. Copyright Arup/Chris Twinn.

+ Great design rarely evolves from capitulation to generic checklists.

Last year we celebrated the arrival in Melbourne of the first building in the world to score 100% against a whole-building rating scheme. Grocon’s Pixel Building is a remarkable achievement in green building design, but it also begs the question: what next?

Rating tools such as BREEAM and LEED® have been hugely successful in encouraging mainstream developers to embrace design measures they wouldn’t otherwise have considered. Those basic measures eventually become business-as-usual considerations thanks to these invaluable, market-transforming processes. But historically these assessment tools weren’t intended to inspire pioneering green schemes (BedZED for example), where teams were already highly motivated, informed and committed.

In recent times the temptation to over-achieve against such formulaic yardsticks has proved hugely seductive. Even the BRE succumbed after almost two decades, declaring a new and shinier trophy class of ‘Outstanding’. This bait was swallowed within 12 months. LEED are presumably finding it harder to announce a badge that sounds more valuable than ‘Platinum’.

Progressively raising the green bar in some way is, of course, vital. The difficulty arises when manic point-chasing diverts attention from, or even conflicts with, efforts to attain longer-lasting but less instantly measurable sustainable outcomes. 'Pounds per point' risks being the dominant decision-maker as the rating bar rises higher.

This could, for example, motivate a hospital design team to incorporate a blackwater treatment plant (despite possible infection implications) rather than intensifying efforts towards configuring a more therapeutic environment for patients, if this were under-rewarded in the project points race. Great design rarely evolves from capitulation to generic checklists and great contextual design solutions are what the planet needs, now more than ever before.

As we strive towards truly sustainable outcomes, real-world effects mean that conventional approaches to green building design produce diminishing returns. For example, improving the efficiency of air-conditioning systems reduces their running costs, which could encourage people to use them more – cancelling out the benefit.

Achieving buy-in from occupants and facilities managers is set to be more important than ever. Melbourne City Council is doing just this by linking employees’ salary increases to sustainability targets for energy, waste and transport.

More widely, we may need to radically re-think what we need from our buildings. We risk being negligent if we don’t challenge current definitions of value, comfort, convenience or even quality.

Can you confess to sustainable design compromises induced by a very high green rating target? If so, I’d also welcome your thoughts on remedies for our industry’s insidious addiction to shiny badges.

Further reading: Closing the green gap – are we there yet? (PDF)