World’s Greenest Building

The building is touted as one of the most efficient in the world, but it doesn’t wear its sustainability on its sleeve

The headquarters of the federal environment agency in Dessau, Germany, occupies a low-slung building on the edge of an abandoned gasworks. Dessau, a center for munitions production during the war, was virtually obliterated by Allied bombs. Over the next 50 years, East German factories saturated the soil with chemical and industrial waste. Yet both the agency building and its location might be said to embody a new, ecologically sensitive Europe.


Designed by a young Berlin-based firm, Sauerbruch Hutton, the building is touted as one of the most efficient in the world, but it doesn’t wear its sustainability on its sleeve. Four stories high, it wraps around a vast interior courtyard that is cooled and heated by a system of underground pipes. Vents in the glass roof allow hot air to escape, and an occasional breeze passes through the courtyard’s gardens. The sinuous wood structure is clad in horizontal bands of candy-colored, enameled glass panels, in shades of green, red and blue. The pattern, it turns out, is carefully tuned to the surrounding environment: the green reflects a nearby park; the red, the brick facades of an industrial shed; and the blue, the sky.

After more than a decade of tightening guidelines, Europe has made green architecture an everyday reality. In Germany and the Netherlands especially, a new generation of architects has expanded the definition of sustainable design beyond solar panels and sod roofs. As Matthias Sauerbruch put it to me: “The eco-friendly projects you saw in the 1970s, with solar panels and recycled materials: they were so self-conscious. We call this Birkenstock architecture. Now we don’t need to do this anymore. The basic technology is all pretty accepted.”


In the United States, architects cannot make the same claim with equal confidence. Despite the media attention showered on “green” issues, the federal government has yet to establish universal efficiency standards for buildings. Yet, according to some estimates, buildings consume nearly as much energy as industry and transportation combined. And the average building in the U.S. uses roughly a third more energy than its German counterpart.

Americans did not always lag so far behind; much of our most celebrated architecture has had a green strain. Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra all sought to create a more fluid relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces, man and nature. At the height of the cold war, architect-engineers like Buckminster Fuller envisioned marshaling the immense resources of the American military-industrial complex to create a more ecologically balanced world. Fuller’s geodesic domes, which he hoped would one day house all humanity, were cheap and lightweight yet held up in extreme weather. They could also be erected in a matter of hours. In the late 1960s and ’70s, the Whole Earth Catalogue, with its D.I.Y. ethic and living-off-the-land know-how, encouraged a whole generation to dream of dropping off the grid.20euro.420euro.4

By the ’80s the green dream had faded somewhat. Faced with corporate and governmental clients who saw little financial benefit in investing in sustainable design, American architects often ignored ecological questions. The few who didn’t tended to focus on small-scale projects that could serve local populations: mud-brick construction in Arizona or rural shacks made of recycled materials in Alabama.

In Europe, by contrast, where the E.U. and national governments often play a greater role in planning and regulating building, the effort to develop sustainable architecture gathered momentum. By the mid-90s, all new construction in Europe had to meet basic requirements in energy consumption, and many European architects began to make sustainability a central theme in their work. This was true of established architects likeNorman Foster, whose 1997 Commerzbank in Frankfurt was conceived as a soaring high-tech glass-and-steel tower punctuated by open-air gardens. But it was especially true of younger European architects who were just beginning to practice their craft at that time and saw sustainability as a basic moral responsibility.

Some of the early projects of this new, ecologically attuned generation had a wonderfully goofy, fairy-tale quality. There was Sarah Wigglesworth and Jeremy Till’s house, made of stacked sandbags and straw bales and topped with a meadow of wild strawberries. There was MVRDV’s Pig City, an imaginary project conceived as a grid of enormous concrete-slab towers, interspersed with stacks of lush gardens that looked as if they were suspended in midair. And there was the equally whimsical Minnaert Building, at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands, by the Dutch firm of Willem Jan Neutelings and Michiel Riedijk, completed in 1997. Its cartoonish spray-on concrete facade is propped up on big metal letters that spell out the building’s name. Inside the cavernous main hall, tiny alcoves resembling monastic cells are embedded in the thick walls, each with its own space heater. Neutelings was inspired, he said, by the coal braziers that were once used to heat homes. Giant funnels cut out of the roof collect rainwater in a vast pond; in the summer, water is drawn from the pond into pipes in the ceiling, cooling the building.

“We experimented a lot with darkness,” Neutelings said on his first trip back to the building since it opened in 1997. “We were interested in the contrast between light and dark rather than the idea of total transparency. And we played with the idea that you can have different climates in one building, which is a much healthier working environment.”

This project was followed by another, a government tax office in Apeldoorn buried one story underground and covered by a vast reflecting pool. The surrounding subsoil — a dense mixture of sand and clay — stores heat in winter and cools the building in summer. The pool regulates the tax office’s internal temperature by absorbing excess warmth; usefully enough, it also serves as a security barrier.

“They considered surrounding the complex with very high walls and barbed wire,” Neutelings said with a mixture of humor and disgust. “They were obsessed with security. So the reflecting pools act as a gigantic moat.”

Few architects, Neutelings said, would design a building like the one in Apeldoorn today, not because sustainability has become a creative dead end but because a building no longer has to look “green” to be environmentally sensitive. “In the mid-90s clients were still very suspicious about strategies like this,” Neutelings’s partner, Michiel Riedijk, said. “Now the argument is set — there is no longer any need to prove that sustainability is important. We are technologically more advanced. So we are way more relaxed about how we express it.”

The most stirring examples of this new attitude are often found in Europe’s industrial wastelands. Standing at the edge of Rotterdam’s abandoned piers, many of which will soon become sites for high-end housing, Neutelings proudly ticked off the city’s credentials as a capital of environmental waste: most of England’s industrial air pollution, he tells me, is carried here by the north winds. Historically, Germany’s industrial waste flowed down the Rhine to be deposited in Rotterdam’s harbor. “We are the main collecting point for all of Europe’s pollution, its garbage dump,” he said with a smile.

Like many of his contemporaries, Neutelings doesn’t see this landscape as ugly. Nor does he see the creation of bold industrial forms and a sustainable environment as necessarily in conflict. Neutelings and Riedijk’s recently completed Shipping and Transport College, which rises at the edge of an aging industrial pier, looks perfectly at home. The building’s cantilevered top evokes a gigantic periscope; its corrugated metal skin brings to mind the stacked shipping containers still scattered around the port. The thick heavy walls retain heat and cold, while inside, the escalators are set to move slowly to conserve energy, their low hum mimicking the sound of nearby ships.

UNStudio’s Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart also rises in the shadow of industry. Overlooking the company’s administrative offices and test track, its spiraling aluminum-clad exterior is seemingly built for speed. Inside, intertwining ramps that echo the elevated freeway outside lead from one floor to the next. The museum is a testament to how much green architecture has changed: its towering central atrium is both an architectural tour de force and a part of a sophisticated ventilation system. Rather than recycle used air, as buildings that depend on old air-conditioning systems do, the museum’s thick concrete walls store hot and cool air, which is then drawn into the atrium. Were the museum to catch fire, the atrium’s ventilation system would create a sort of mini-tornado to suck out the smoke.

In a pastoral setting, the gorgeous cast-glass facade of Neutelings and Riedijk’s Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision masks an efficient ecological machine. Built to house the Dutch television and radio archives, the center’s galleries and offices are insulated from extreme weather by a facade of double glass panels. The archives themselves are buried in underground vaults — the surrounding earth is used to cool the warren of storage rooms. The building is split into two climatic zones, not just to save energy but to reinforce the experience of two different environments: the dark world of the underground vaults, which the architects dubbed the inferno, and the twinkling, light-filled world above.

Neutelings was quick to note that a building’s efficiency should be measured not just by its mechanical systems but also by how much energy it uses over its lifetime. More energy is expended in a building’s construction than at any other stage, so a structure that lasts 100 years will use far less energy than one that lasts 5, no matter how efficient.

“From this point of view the Pyramids are the most sustainable buildings in history,” he said.

For now, the United States has no federal regulations that would guarantee a minimal level of sustainability in new construction — or spur an ecologically attuned approach to new architecture. The LEED guidelines, which were drawn up by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit group founded in 1993, are a voluntary program that is now more than a decade old. Even when they are adhered to — they’ve been adopted by a number of government agencies, most notably the General Services Administration, which oversees the construction of federal buildings — they still have little effect on the majority of commercial or residential construction. In most cases, the decision to make an efficient building still rests with the client.

What’s more, the guidelines often lead to a constricted idea of what sustainability means. “In Europe the guidelines tend to have to do with broader organizational ideas,” Thom Mayne, the founder of the Los Angeles-based architectural firm Morphosis, told me. “Energy consumption, the organization of the workplace, urbanism — they’re all seen as interlinked. Here, the whole focus is on how to get these points. You just check them off: bike racks, high-efficiency air-conditioning units — it’s very narrow.”

Stefan Behnisch, an architect who has long been considered a leader in sustainable research and has worked in both Europe and the United States, agrees. “The problem is that these ideas become clichés,” he says. “They don’t allow for anything interesting and new. They rule out real invention.”

There are, nonetheless, some significant, innovative projects in the United Sates. Norman Foster’s new Hearst Tower in Manhattan has many of the sustainable features he began exploring in the Commerzbank in Frankfurt, like natural ventilation and high-performance glass that deflects heat. And the San Francisco Federal Building, completed this year by Morphosis, looks as if it could have been assembled in Germany: the building’s narrow width gives everyone access to natural light and ventilation, operable windows let in fresh air, elaborate shading devices filter sunlight. “In San Francisco,” Mayne told me, “we didn’t even bother to go after the LEED ranking because it doesn’t necessarily lead to the most efficient building.”

But architects who choose to be inventive often find that the slightest deviation from the norm is fiercely resisted. Mayne relates how some federal workers at his San Francisco building mocked the idea of office-building windows that could be opened and closed, arguing that birds would nest on their desks while they were away over the weekend. Bloggers, meanwhile, claimed that some government bureaucrats had to wear sunglasses indoors because of the amount of natural light. Mayne countered that the shades have yet to be installed. To be sure, it is not just Americans who resist seeing a building as an integral part of the environment. Sauerbruch and his partner, Louisa Hutton, told me that workers at the environment agency in Dessau — long in the habit of toiling in sealed, air-conditioned buildings — often forget to close their windows when they leave the office. Apparently, many of them still find the effort a nuisance.

Will America ever catch up with Europe’s impressive green record? Mark Wigley, the dean of Columbia’s graduate school of architecture, has noticed a sea change in how students here approach sustainability. Increasingly, he said, they see it as a central aspect of their work. “Today’s students are an entirely different species,” Wigley said. “They’re used to absorbing inputs from about 15 different directions at once. And they’re all interested in a radical ecological point of view.”

At the same time, Wigley admits that architects cannot accomplish anything without willing clients. “My prediction is that if we have a change in America, it won’t be driven by politicians or architects but by the developers,” he said. “We’re at the moment where developers can gain a significant advantage if you reduce energy. For the first time you have clients who are willing to pay for this. So I think the one group we associate most with greed and inefficiency, it will lead the way in the future.”