Bill Odell

World Green Building Council Congress, Singapore – 30 September 2010 – US architect William E Odell, senior vice president of HOK, Science and Technology group based in the US and adviser on energy to the US President Barack Obama, has a company of seasoned performers when it comes to designing green buildings. He simply puts one of his “A teams” on the job and can virtually guarantee a LEED Platinum or Gold list with the US sustainable building rating system, he told The Fifth Estate after his presentation at the World Green Building Council Congress in Singapore.

O’Dell told the nearly 500 delegates that in some respects the world had made little progress on it’s need to reduce greenhouse gasses. Countries that are signatories to the Kyoto agreement did reduce their carbon footprint, he noted wryly in an interview, but really it was only when they were in “deep recession” and this at the expense of a “huge proportion of the population losing their jobs.”

Dealing with new buildings was relatively much easier, and you could almost guarantee the outcomes.

“It’s pretty straight forward,” he says. “It’s not rocket science but you have to be systematic and bring the whole team together.”

Unfortunately, he says, the typical approach is for “architects to design the building and when they’re finished, they throw it over the fence to the engineers to solve the problems.”

Often it’s possible to save energy and money with very simple things, such as using a coating on glass that in buildings with vast atriums would retain views but cut out 70-80 per cent of radiant energy that then needs to be cooled.

You can tell he gets a little impatient with the same-old same-old queries and dilemmas when it comes to green building: all too often people want to know about the cost of green buildings and the return on investment, “but no-one asks what the return on investment is of using that wood instead of another,” he says pointing to an attractive timber panelling on the walls of our interview venue.

However, there is movement.

Delegates at the WGBC Congress Singapore 2010

“Pretty much everyone’s experience is that extra cost is going away and is going away rapidly…so the premium that people see isn’t really a premium for green but a premium for how to do buildings differently.

“If I have one of my A team – and we’ve got plenty of A teams – we can easily get the gold [LEED rating system] and frequently platinum with no extra money. Because people know what they’re doing from the very beginning and everybody is working together – engineers…and architects making the basic architectural and engineering moves correctly from the beginning.”

Without this initial confluence designers often find they are somewhat “down the line and they have to correct things, and that costs money. That’s true for almost anything.”

An area that people find one of the hardest to manage in green building, says Mr Odell, is in building materials.

“I started talking a lot about that with other firms and people found that the hardest thing to do and it was chewing up a lot of time and chewing up a lot of the fee and they found it was very expensive to have healthy materials.”

However, in Odell’s experience his firm typically carries out upfront research. “We could pick 20 woods that have the right chemistry and the right sort of materials – low embodied energy, some higher end and some very low end, so it becomes a very easy quick decision. And there are lots of components of a building that are like that.

“Energy obviously remains the toughest one and if you don’t get that right, the rest doesn’t matter. And that’s tough only because it’s a complicated issue  and every building is different.”

It’s about dealing with a lot of variables up front, Odell says.

Progress

Also on the side of progress there are now many signs that make Odell “increasingly optimistic.” Most of the innovations come from the private sector, he says. While government can influence change through actions such as supporting research, it was the private sector that “can do anything it wants; it is much more free to innovate.”

“The private sector in some way has moved beyond government and it’s encouraging because across the spectrum, while we have not made as much progress as we should have done at this point, the progress is accelerating very rapidly and I can’t think last time we got a request for a proposal from a client who didn’t ask for everything around the environmental issues. And often they state minimum requirements and minimum Gold LEED or Silver.

“That’s very encouraging. Even [from] companies that might be resistant…large chemical companies and petroleum companies.”

For instance, Odell says that in his role as energy advisor to the US President  (“Obama has plenty of energy advisers,” he adds modestly) he has had contact with one of the major petroleum giants – number one two or three in the world; he would not specify – which is highly progressive.

“It’s an extremely progressive company. It could have filled out the entire agenda for this conference with their environmental risk management, climate action. They understand the issue, they understand there is no question about climate change. They’re not resisting; they’re not denying. What they are doing is tyring to figure out and plot a path that will move them beyond petroleum and into energy in another way, and into resources.

“Meanwhile they’ve got all this petroleum and they want to use it in the most environmental way to buy us time.

“They are very sensitive what there are doing.”

Another example Odell points to is at KAUST, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, on which his firm worked, and which he says has made massive inroads in both its building and its intellectual achievements.

Designed for mainly graduates and PhDs, the university has single-minded focus.

“The whole purpose of the university is to modernise the economy and basically, to get out of oil. The research direction is to research alternative energy, bio-remediation, water desalination – and they have gotten the best of the best around the world.

“They raided the national university of Singapore for their president and got two or three of their best researchers from here. Basically they got the genetics team out of Cambridge. They have vision and they are absolutely dedicated to it. And they have the money.”

When it comes to buildings though, Odell can bring a listener down to earth with a thud.

“In the late 70s,” he says, “when there was an oil crisis, there was a lot of money put into research all over Europe and the United States and Canada came up with the R2000 program; and they were looking for low energy houses.”

The results included a number of failures, including houses that were “way overheated”.

“They finally realised that there were only two variables that mattered – one was insulation and the other was the air tightness and after that it almost didn’t matter.

“If you get an R value in the walls – in Canada, anyway – of 45 and the roof about 60 and make it an airtight building you can get rid of mechanical systems.” Even in Canada’s cold weather.

“The computers and the people generate enough heat,” Odell says.

“Yes you spend more money on insulation but you save money on energy. And it hasn’t got wide play…and you think whey aren’t we buildings houses like this?”

Austria and Germany have now revived the Passivhaus, which is basically the same things, Odell says.

“The difference is that it has been promoted heavily.”