The Systems That Power the Year's Most Sustainable Buildings

Only a decade ago, sustainable building techniques were fairly rare, a fringe culture on the periphery of mainstream architecture. But with Stephen Colbert interviewing radically green architects like Mitchell Joachim and Passive House buildings popping up in New York City, that's all changing very quickly.

For concrete evidence of the shift, look no further than this year's Top Ten Green Buildings, an annual list chosen by the American Institute of Architects. A few years ago, this list was full of single-family homes commissioned by clients with a special interest in sustainability. Lately, it's full of schools, government buildings, and commercial developments.

And while it's tough to sum up complex buildings in just a sentence or two, there are a few fascinating details from this year's crop that stand out. From snails that filter water to nails harvested from a WWII-era warehouse, here what's helping the future go green.


The Systems That Power the Year's Most Sustainable Buildings

The Systems That Power the Year's Most Sustainable Buildings

San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Headquarters by KMD Architects with Stevens & Associates

This civic building houses almost 1,000 employees, which means there are dozens of bathrooms sprinkled throughout. Every drop of water used to flush the toilets and urinals comes from the building's Living Machine, a system that cleans water using bacteria, algae, protozoa, plankton, snails.

On the north facade, a wind tower accelerates the speed of air passing through wind turbines, which help the building generate seven percent of its own energy. Right now, the tower is home to an installation called "Firefly" by the artist Ned Kahn, who covered the structure in thousands of tiny pieces of polycarbonate. The hinged slats flutter in the wind, triggering a wave of embedded LEDs—at night, the facade glitters.


The Systems That Power the Year's Most Sustainable Buildings

The Systems That Power the Year's Most Sustainable Buildings

Federal Center South Building by ZGF Architects

This Recovery Act-funded building—which houses the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—had a lot going against it: it's located on a Superfund Site, it's right next to a cement plant, and it's hard to get to the site without a car. Besides developing a set of unique ventilation and shading systems, the designers "harvested" nearly 300,000 feet of timber and decking from a nearby WWII-era warehouse. And yes: they even re-used the building's 70-year-old nails, brackets, and bolts.


The Systems That Power the Year's Most Sustainable Buildings

The Systems That Power the Year's Most Sustainable Buildings

Clock Shadow Building by Continuum Architects + Planners

This commercial building in Milwaukee was built using nearly 30% salvaged materials—most of the facade is made from reclaimed wood, rusty metal panels, and Milwaukee's ubiquitous "cream city" bricks, salvaged from local razed buildings. On the ground floor, there's an artisanal cheese and ice cream shop, because WISCONSIN.


The Systems That Power the Year's Most Sustainable Buildings

Marin Country Day School Learning Resource Center by EHDD

Inside this super-efficient K-12 school, each classroom has its own energy meter, where students can see how much electricity they're using. Online, they can visualize how their usage changes over time, and compare themselves to other rooms—it's a teaching building, in the most literal sense of the term.


The Systems That Power the Year's Most Sustainable Buildings

The Systems That Power the Year's Most Sustainable Buildings

New Norris House by the College of Architecture & Design at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Norris, Tennessee was a model project of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which built the community in the 1930s to as a model of how electricity and plumbing could improve living standards in the rural South. 75 years later, architecture students and professors at University of Tennessee built this Norris House redux, which serves—just like its ancestor—to show what new systems can do for small, low-budget homes.

The 1,000-square-foot house is super-insulated and airtight, reducing energy costs by 50%. A cistern collects rainwater and greywater, channeling it towards the garden out back. All in all, it uses zero fossil fuels, relying on wind, sun, and water, instead.


The Systems That Power the Year's Most Sustainable Buildings

The Systems That Power the Year's Most Sustainable Buildings

Pearl Brewery/Full Goods Warehouse by Lake Flato Architects

This gigantic mixed-use development occupies San Antonio's long-abandoned Pearl Brewery, which once produced the most popular beer in Texas. It relies heavily on what the architects call "energy surfing," or finding passive ways to cut down on usage, like a series of breezeways carefully oriented to the prevailing winds and a series of light monitors that do the same for light. There are also plenty of active systems, including the largest roof-mounted photovoltaic spread in Texas and plenty of big ass fans (really, Big Ass Fans).


The Systems That Power the Year's Most Sustainable Buildings

The Systems That Power the Year's Most Sustainable Buildings

Yin Yang House by Brooks + Scarpa

This Venice, California home and office generates all of its energy on-site, thanks to plenty of passive features like cross-ventilating windows that cut down on usage. A twelve kilowatt photovoltaic roof array covers the rest of its energy needs—in fact, there's no mechanical A/C system at all. The owners have never (and likely will never) receive an energy bill.