Despite occasionally joking that attending a university in a small town in southern Ohio was often akin to living in a foreign country, I have long regretted the fact that I did not study abroad during college. Little did I know that for a few days this past April, it would seem as though I might get the chance to set up shop overseas for an extended period of time—thanks to, of all things, an Icelandic volcano.  

The weekend before Eyjafjallajokull’s ash cloud shut down the skies over Western Europe, I flew to Germany to participate in a weeklong transatlantic green architecture program. Meeting up in Frankfurt with 19 other environmental journalists from around the United States and Canada, I set out on an exploration of sustainable initiatives across the country organized by the Ecologic Institute (, a nonprofit think tank headquartered in Berlin that focuses on environmental research and policy analysis, and hosted by the Transatlantic Climate Bridge Initiative, which focuses on cooperation between Germany, the U.S., and Canada on climate and energy policies.

The week’s itinerary included tours of the Technical University Darmstadt’s winning entry from the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2007 Solar Decathlon and the programs being pursued since the competition ended, a visit to the first German school built to the Passive House Standard, a site visit of the soon-to-open, LEED Platinum Deutsche Bank green towers retrofit, and discussions with a number of government and financial officials regarding sustainable legislation and financing. We saw an array of technology and design concepts in both commercial and residential applications, some of which are gaining ground in the U.S., such as biomass fuel systems and diverse solar arrays, and others that have yet to truly take root, such as mandated energy performance certificates and schools, office buildings, and apartment buildings designed to the Passive House standard.

While the insights I gleaned from the week are too lengthy to detail in this note, what struck me most was a repeated focus on education. It provided a laugh during a visit to Berlin-based solar module and solar system manufacturer Solon, whose company motto is “Don’t leave the planet to the stupid,” but the motto isn’t so much sarcastic as it is a lesson that a little education can go a long way.

During the week abroad, our group chatted extensively on a range of education-related topics, exploring what environmental issues were most pressing in the hometowns of my traveling companions, what building owners and corporations are learning about sustainable design and energy savings, what homeowners and office occupants are learning about their individual behavior and its impact on a structure’s environmental footprint. Most dominant in the weeks’ discussions, however, was the question of what Germany could learn from the United States regarding sustainability and in return, what the U.S. could best learn from Germany.

This question arose on our second day in Frankfurt, where we toured the Federal Ministry of Transfport, Building and Urban Development (BMVBS) Plus Energy House, a enlarged duplicate of the modular solar-powered house than won the 2007 Solar Decathlon. Our tour guide at the time, Professor Manfred Hegger of Hegger Hegger Schleiff Planer + Architekten, offered an interesting perspective. What Germany can learn from the U.S., Hegger said, is how to market green products and practices more effectively. And that is certainly something Germany is actively working on. Consider the Plus Energy House itself: Since the beginning of the year, the BMVBS has been exhibiting the house around the country, constructing it for three months stints in Dusseldorf, Hanover, Frankfurt, and other major cities and oepning it up for public tours. And each year, more than 100 million euros is allocated by the government for the promotion of alternative transportation, specifically cycling.

In return, Hegger said, the U.S. could learn to rethink the lifespan of its structures and re-evaluate its thoughts on quality versus mass. Consider this: 75 percent of the building stock in Germany was built before 1978 and in design and planning, it is common to plan for a structural lifespan of 60-100 years. In the U.S., Hegger noted—and many of my traveling companions agreed—it is more common to plan for a lifespan of 10, maybe 15 years at best.

What if both ideas were merged so that we were planning not only for longer lifespans of our structures, but also for developments and projects that were marketed to promote the value of sustainability, and not only to the design community, but also to developers, city planners, and the general public? We may be moving in that direction. As highlighted in this month’s newsletter, last week, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), in conjunction with the Council for the New Urbanism, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, officially launched LEED Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND), which focuses not just on the green attributes of individual buildings, but also takes into consideration the overall neighborhood in which they are sited to focus on communities as sustainable systems.

Want to learn more? Be sure to check in at in the coming weeks for an online-exclusive "Perspective" column with USGBC leadership regarding the development and official launch of LEED-ND, and keep an eye out in early June for our May/June print issue, in wihch the "Deep Green" column will take a more in-depth look at the global rise of Eco-districts.