Building the Future by Julia Teti

Peter Maffei, a sophomore at Syracuse University, opens his laptop to show a visitor his portfolio of designs and drawings.

The online portfolio opens to his plans for the Downtown Syracuse Art Center, showcasing detailed work and cross sections of his design. Within the thorough design, Maffei shows intricate drawings for an underground amphitheater and even includes a greenhouse as a main structure for his design. On the opposite page displays a combination of artistry and a deep understanding of the environment.

An undergraduate enrolled in the architecture program at Syracuse University, Maffei believes that the planet’s changing climate is of the utmost importance, and he is interested in how structures can be designed to address climate change.

“Professors are always asking us how does a building perform,” Maffei said. “Is the material suitable to the climate? Where does the sun shine on the building? Everything has to be very intrinsic.”

A cross section of Maffei's design, Downtown Syracuse Art Center

Combining their interest in design with a desire to combat climate change, more architecture students are incorporating sustainable building into their designs. In response, architecture schools, like Syracuse University’s program, are teaching their students about sustainable design and how to make use of sustainable materials in order to build a better future.

Maffei, for example, takes classes with Daekwon Park, an assistant professor in the architecture school whose research investigates the intersection between design, material technology, and environmental science. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, residential and commercial buildings account for roughly 40 percent of total energy consumption in the United States. Danya Li, a third year architecture student who is currently on a study abroad program in London, said that how much energy a building wastes should always be on an architect’s mind.

“Because of global warming, I’m constantly thinking about the contextual relationship of my projects,” Li said. “It’s more important than ever to understand the relationship of a building to its existing site and the amount of energy that can be reduced.”

She added, “As an architect you have a huge responsibility to the environment.”

Cuts from Maffei's above design, showing greater detail of his work using materials underground

Li said she believes sensitivity to the impact a structure will have on energy use and the environment has become widespread in recent years.

“All architecture firms have been adapting to today’s needs,” she said. “It’s rare to find a firm that doesn’t care at all (energy wise).”

According to a General Services Administration 2009 report , the first 12 federal buildings designed with energy saving in mind showed a reduction in energy use of 26 percent. Occupant satisfaction with the buildings was up 27 percent, the report found. The highest 1/3 of buildings studied that saved the most energy, all of which use an integrated design approach that include creating designs that incorporated sustainable building and energy saving tactics, the results were even better. Energy consumption was reduced by 45 percent, water use dropped by 39 percent and maintenance costs went down 53 percent.

But some critics question whether the emphasis on sustainable building is economically viable in the long run. Tom Teti, a certified architect for more than 30 years and the owner and co-founder of IMAGE Associate Architects, is one of them. (Teti is also my father).

“People think that sustainable building is going to keep going and grow even further than it already has,” Teti said. But, he continued, “The problem is that it costs money. Not just to build but to sustain that sustainable energy.”

Teti said that there are also many settings where sustainable design is not feasible. “I’ve worked in creating designs for hospitals for years. I’m not sure I see sustainability transitioning there,” he said.

Another debate is over the value of LEED – or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – certification.

Teti, for example, is skeptical of the program.

“I don’t see the point of it,” he said. “I took the test once and failed. Honestly it’s just a way for you to get more points as an architect and to say you’re LEED certified under your name on a design.”

Maffei's work with Willow Biomass, a sustainable building material

But Maffei and Li believe that LEED is important and relevant for today’s architects.

“LEED certification is not only a great way to recognize a building and its environmental impact, but also a way to publicize sustainability,” Li said. “It's ‘cool’ to have these awards and certifications but also very important. It also brings a competitive quality into the industry, helping everyone design more efficiently.”

One place that is helping to educate architects about environmentally conscious design is the Syracuse Center of Excellence, which specializes in environmental and energy systems. The center is affiliated with Syracuse University and works with over 200 firms to improve the energy efficiency, environmental quality and resilience of their designs. Students who work with the center also learn of the advantages of LEED certification.

“It’s really great for your resume,” said Maffei. “Architecture firms are looking for things that will set you apart from other candidates. It also prepares you." Li and Maffei are confident that when they graduate they will find jobs in firms who are looking for students like them, who are environmentally conscious and have the skills to design buildings that reduce energy usage and help fight global warming. For students like Li and Maffei, building the future means making changes in society that allow both infrastructure and sustainability can thrive.

To see designs that are in progress or have already been built, go to ArchDaily.

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Julia Teti
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