Peter Busby
William Anthony Peter Busby

What constitutes green design? For Peter Busby, sustainable design is an ever-evolving entity with one constant: Green design is an inherent part of good design. This perspective can be traced back to the University of Toronto where Busby received a Bachelors of Arts degree in political philosophy in 1974. “I studied morals and ethics and came away from my first degree with a strong opinion about doing the right thing and finding a career path that would allow me to do something inherently good,” he explains. “I turned to architecture as a vehicle to do good and to build the right things for people.”

As Busby studied architecture at the University of British Columbia and ventured into practice, doing good via architecture grew to incorporate sustainability. “I studied under Ray Cole, who brought a lot of sustainable design trends over from the United Kingdom,” he recalls. “Then I went to work in Europe … At [Norman] Foster’s office, I was able to work on projects in Europe and Asia that were pretty green. This was 30-odd years ago.”

The green-design-is-good-design perspective has served Busby well. His firmfounded in Vancouver in 1984 as Peter Busby Architects and renamed Busby Perkins+Will in 2004has raked in accolades including two AIA Committee on the Environment Top 10 Awards (one in 2004 for the City of White Rock Operations Building in White Rock, British Columbia, and one in 2009 for Dockside Green in Vancouver, British Columbia); an AIA What Makes It Green? Award (for Dockside Green); and recognition as the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s 2005 firm of the year and as one of Canada’s top 50 green employers for 2009 and 2010.

Busby’s dedication to sustainability continues to drive him. As a managing director at Perkins+Will, he serves as high-level adviser for the firm’s Sustainable Design Initiative, overseeing internal operations and strategic plans to elevate the firm’s green design practice. On a personal level, he earmarks 20 percent of his time for environmental advocacy. He is a past chairperson for the Sustainable Buildings Canada Committee, a co-founder of the Canada Green Building Council, the first architect to sit on the board of BC Hydro, and a participant in several local task forces and the USGBC.

Now in the mix of honors: the 2010 Evergreen Award in the Perspective category, bestowed in recognition of Busby’s continued dedication to fostering innovation in environmental performance and architecture. eco-structure recently spoke with Busby about current challenges in sustainable design.

How would you define your philosophy on what it means to design green?

The only consistent aspect of our approach to designing a sustainable building is that it is always changing. There is no ultimate textbook on sustainable design. There is no list of what you must do and what you must not do. It’s a constantly evolving position. Each year, we learn more. For example, we’re now working with the Living Building Challenge and learning about material composition in buildings. We’re not chemists. It’s a whole new chapter in sustainable design. In this vein, you can go back over the past 25 years and find things we learned each year. We’re constantly striving to learn more, do better work, and move toward realizing what the word “sustainability” really means.

In terms of the environmental impact of buildings, what do you consider to be the most pressing challenges facing architects, designers, and other allied professionals today?

I think in the early days of sustainable design—say, when the LEED tools were just coming out—people found it pretty easy to obtain a level of sustainable or green design. The hard part is coming now, when we really have to improve the energy performance of our buildings. We have to build better envelopes and encourage our clients to make better investments in the hard physical aspects of their buildings.

The price of energy is going to rise and the real estate industry is competitive, so having a building consume less energy makes it more marketable. Landlords are starting to press architects and engineers for true building performance, but I think there is still a lot to be learned, particularly by the mainstream public, about better envelopes and better performance.

If you look at building standards in parts of Europe, they get the envelope right first, and then work on other elements. In North America and Asia, we tend not to do that. We essentially build cheap buildings and we’ve got to stop. We have to invest in the envelope, and that’s going to be a big challenge over the next three to four years.

Architects and engineers are just now beginning to understand what is a reasonable level of energy consumption in a given building type per square foot or square meter per year, and we’re just starting to get comfortable with those numbers. In Europe, there have been laws in place by building type regarding the maximum amount of energy that should be consumed per square meter per year per building. We’re slow off the mark here.

In Europe, there are laws requiring building owners to post the energy consumption of a building before they lease or sell it. We need those kinds of things in North America in order to force people to address the issue of energy consumption.

When it comes to sustainable design, are there any common misconceptions that you see? For example, there often seems to be confusion regarding the costs associated with going green.

I’m always asked how much it will cost. I haven’t been to a meeting with people considering doing a green building where someone doesn’t want to know how much it costs. The truth is that when designed properly, there should be little to no cost for most building types with reasonably aggressive solutions. When you get into sophisticated solutions like net-zero energy, carbon-free buildings, or living buildings, then there is a cost, but usually those types of buildings are trying to do other things that make them more expensive in their very nature.

I always remind people, however, that even if there is a 7 percent premium for a high-performing green building, that’s [the same percentage] we pay our real estate agents to sell a building. It’s lasting value that pays back over 40 to 50 years and is incredibly good value for the money. But because a lot of buildings are developed on spec and we hand off the operational costs to tenants or purchasers, our system has no inherent mechanism for reconciliation. The builder often doesn’t carry the long-term costs of his operational decisions. We need a method that allows this to happen.

Another challenge is greenwashing. There’s hardly a building advertiser, architect, builder, or engineer whose buildings are not green today, but if you look at the final product, it looks the same as buildings that were built 10 years ago. So, either we’re snowing each other, or nothing’s changing, and I think that’s troubling. When we get to measuring buildings, where you label a building and understand how it performs, then the truth will come out as to what is a good building and what is not. It’s time for the industry to have measurements and be accountable for what it does—it’s past time.

Do you regularly check back in on projects to see how they are performing?

We have done some post-occupancy reviews over the past five years, but to tell you the truth, it’s hard to do. No one pays you to do it, so you have to be rigorous and go back. We’re in the process of trying to inventory all of our buildings across Perkins+Will to benchmark them.

What do you think will be the biggest factors to influence sustainable design and construction in the next five years?

Once again, the biggest challenge will be understanding actual energy performance. At the moment, the LEED process requires energy modeling, but it’s often done at the end of a project and done as a result of the USGBC requiring it for certification submissions. We should be doing energy models at the beginning of the process and they should influence how we design our buildings. They should be done in real time so that as we make design decisions, we can see the energy impact.

The second challenge will be in the material realm: understanding the carbon content of our materials, their environmental impact, and what they’re made of. We’ve got to take it much farther beyond LEED and VOC-type standards for interior finishes and remove all poisons and carcinogens from the materials surrounding us. We spend most of our time in buildings. They should be healthy.