July 1, 2007
The Sidwell Friends School is one of a string of educational buildings designed by Kieran Timberlake that merge instruction, sustainability, and behavior modification.
Take a drive with any owner of a Toyota Prius hybrid and the conversation will invariably stray to the display screen on the dashboard—the novel flashing diagram of orange and green arrows that at any given moment indicate whether the car is running on electricity or gas. And so it was one recent morning, as architect Stephen Kieran cruised behind the wheel of his black 2004 Prius, spreading the gospel of a true believer. “Right now, when I take my foot off the gas slightly,” he said as the speedometer hit 63 and he eased off the pedal, “it will kick back into electrical mode.” Sure enough, the screen’s arrows reversed direction, confirming that he was now conserving fuel. “You see, it has a real effect on your behavioral patterns,” Kieran continued, glancing back at the display, “a kind of behavioral modification that you can also build into architecture.”
Kieran and his firm partner, James Timberlake, are not recent converts to the environmental cause. Their 50-plus-member Philadelphia-based office, Kieran Timberlake Associates, has over the years been a steadfastly conscientious, if relatively quiet, pioneer of eco-friendly design. Their latest milestone is a middle school on the campus of the Sidwell Friends School, in Washington, D.C. And it is just one of a string of educational buildings designed by the pair that merge pedagogy, sustainability, and behavioral modification—sometimes by turning accepted wisdom on its head, as Kieran puts it.
Like the last piece of a puzzle, the new Sidwell building, which opened last fall, brackets a corner of the patchwork of motley structures and sloping lawns that form the school’s 15-acre main campus. Roughly U-shaped in plan and crisscrossed with trellislike sunscreens, it could be seen as a three-story, 39,000-square-foot enviro-machine. Indeed, the structure’s eco-credentials are numerous, varied, and pervasive, from its skin—a facade punctuated by vertical sunshading slats of red cedar, all recycled from decommissioned wine casks—to the bones: solar chimneys that, warmed at their peaks by sunlight, create convection currents for passive cooling.
Naturally, the rest of the sustainability laundry list was also checked off—operable windows, a green roof, photovoltaic cells, and interior finishes of recycled carpet tiles and renewable bamboo, agro-fiber (a cellulosic composite), and natural linoleum. But the building also does what most new green construction does not: it reuses what was already there, namely a bland circa-1950 brick building that has been assimilated within Kieran Timberlake’s structure and recast as its multistory cornerstone. “We don’t believe you can be environmental unless you engage in the renovation of the existing world,” Kieran says.
Yet so comprehensive is the building’s environmental mission that all of the above still leaves out its crowning centerpiece. Having convinced parents and trustees to forgo a traditional clipped-lawn courtyard—and that students would not, in fact, be carousing in sewage—Kieran and Timberlake constructed a terraced wetland and retaining pond at the building’s entrance, a cascading threshold that collects rain and naturally filters wastewater and cycles it back for use in plumbing, mechanical systems, and eventually irrigation. “Anyone who comes here and wants to avoid thinking about the water cycles of the world won’t be able to,” Kieran says.
The architects estimate that the school uses 60 percent less energy than a conventionally designed building of comparable size, which along with its other attributes has earned it the first-ever LEED Platinum rating for a K-12 school. But while they hardly shun the designation, Kieran and Timberlake don’t dwell on it either. “Sustainability has been part of our practice all along, though for years we rejected marketing that,” Timberlake says. “Our view was always that it’s something architects ought to be doing. And the results should stand for themselves.”
At first glance Kieran and Timberlake might seem like opposites. The former comes across as the more casual of the two, and the latter’s intensity meshes with his leaner, sharper features. They met in the 1970s as graduate architecture students at the University of Pennsylvania, where both still teach, and briefly went separate ways before reconvening in the office of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.
It was circa 1980, the height of Post-Modernism, and an epicenter of that ostentatious movement seems an unlikely incubator for two future green crusaders. But more than the fringes, Kieran and Timberlake trace their roots to within the architecture establishment, whether by rejecting its excesses or affirming its embrace of inescapable physicality. “It’s not uncommon for people to react against their mentors,” Kieran says by way of explaining their divergence from Venturi and Scott Brown. “But Louis Kahn was an influence,” he continues, “the way he would start designing by drawing from the material world.”
When they set up shop in 1984, Kieran and Timberlake’s own infatuation with craft and materials would set them on a course toward using the former to mitigate the ramifications of the latter. By the late 1980s, when the environmental strides made in the oil-shocked 1970s had all but faded from memory, the pair were hatching buildings like the Shipley School, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Completed in 1993, it minimized the use of drywall and paint, instead being purposefully constructed of self-finishing materials like sealant-free precast concrete, wood, and slate, as well as sustainably harvested millwork and cork floors.
These days, enabled by an in-house research arm, the firm is exponentially more sophisticated. “We don’t mimic,” Kieran says. “We have our own research team to look at first principles and develop from there.” Their work is far-reaching, ranging from homes and a forthcoming theater in Philadelphia to Smart Wrap, an experimental 2003 pavilion commissioned by New York’s Cooper-Hewitt museum that was sheathed in a sort of all-purpose flexible skin printed with conducting ink and organic LEDs and solar cells. Yet most of their projects have been in the educational realm, which has also provided their greatest opportunities.
A good recent example might be their Atwater Commons complex, at Middlebury College, in Vermont. Unveiled in 2004, it has two roughly parallel residence halls that follow the site’s existing ridgelines, encouraging natural airflow further optimized by the configuration of the buildings’ through-floor suites. Deferring to the campus’s historical architecture, chimneys also furnish ventilation (rather than smoke). Meanwhile, the facades are dressed in locally quarried limestone and granite discarded from nearby gravestone makers, and rocks blasted on-site for construction were repurposed as gabion walls that frame a glazed elliptical dining hall with a green roof.
The totality forms a kind of hybrid—an assemblage of buildings that looks reassuringly contextual yet curiously newfangled, conveying weighty solidity while impressing a lighter footprint on the land. It is a handsome enough result, though that wasn’t necessarily the goal. “We’re not interested in greenness for what it looks like, but how it performs,” Timberlake says. At the same time, Kieran adds, “The big impediment is to generate a new exciting aesthetic for green architecture that asks what the world can look like and how can we get it to be perceived as beautiful.”
The answer for the partners is not what they call “green bling,” the slapped-on superficial gestures that they believe compromise the claims of many sustainable buildings. Kieran and Timberlake’s projects may have their share of bells and whistles, but the entire calliope gets fine-tuned in the process.
Their 2004 book, Refabricating Architecture (McGraw-Hill), is a thorough, if somewhat trudging, indictment of what the authors see as architecture’s retreat into style, which resulted in its relinquishing its potency in affecting the built world. Instead, Kieran and Timberlake espouse an overarching approach, informed by the aerospace, automotive, and shipbuilding industries, that repositions the architect as a master builder who reexercises control over the entire building process. In their central scenario, often painted with utopian flourish, buildings would revolve around a kit of integrated parts made in a factory and then assembled and elaborated on-site—a version of mass customization, they argue, that would improve quality while more easily tying in environmental technologies and lowering costs, construction time, and waste.
In the end, Kiernan says, the scheme promises to lower the “total embedded energy” that a building represents—down to the vehicle emissions of the workers who construct it. To test the theory, the firm’s own projects might approximate a controlled experiment. Atwater Commons, for ex-
ample, was built entirely on-site in Middlebury, requiring about 60 workers who over 16 months drove an estimated two million miles to and from work. Meanwhile, a residence hall the firm designed at Yale was fabricated in New Jersey, allowing it to be more quickly assembled over spring break by around 15 workmen who—albeit with shorter average commutes—racked up about 30,000 miles. The architects argue that the resulting emissions reduction is more than enough, by a long shot, to offset any energy expenditures added by off-site fabrication, especially when other efficiencies are accounted for. (The facade of the Sidwell school was constructed in much the same manner.) In other words, the LEED system’s emphasis on procuring local materials, regardless of where they’re put together, may not always be the best way to go.
This systemic—or “holistic,” as the architects put it—approach may find its most dramatic and co-hesive expression with the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy (ISEEE), a kind of multidisciplinary enviro think tank being designed by Kieran Timberlake for the University of Calgary. Still in the designing phase, the architects are hoping to make an advantage of its massive 650,000 square feet.
Like a benign parasite, the LEED Platinum–aspiring building will eat up existing parking lots, replacing them with a landscaped rooftop linked by ramps to the rest of the campus while connecting—in fact commandeering—three postwar towers currently housing science and engineering departments. Timberlake likens the project—which, if all goes well, will include facades, offices, and even whole laboratories prefabricated off-site—to an alluvial flow that will literally and figuratively synergize those departments within the institute. It will also reactivate their underutilized spaces; one of the new building’s entrances, for example, will pass through an existing lobby. And in surgically stitching together the extant structures, the architects hope their building will become “a lung,” Timberlake says, that they can eventually use to improve the latter’s energy efficiency as well.
Indeed the ISEEE is just the germ of what Kieran and Timberlake hope will be an eco-transformation of a whole campus that is, somewhat ironically, benefiting from a local economy booming from the extraction of Alberta’s petroleum-rich sands. “It’s interesting that wealth from oil sands is funding a different view to the future,” says Richard Maimon, a senior associate at the firm.
No doubt Kieran and Timberlake’s success lies in the extent to which they’ve had like-minded clients. For its part, Middlebury College recently resolved to become carbon neutral by 2016. As a Quaker Institution, the Sidwell Friends School promotes that denomination’s deeply engrained service ethic. (The school includes among its alumni Chelsea Clinton—not to mention Al Gore III and his father’s An Inconvenient Truth collaborator Davis Guggenheim.) “Education is always at the forefront, and it thinks in the long term,” Timberlake says.
Still, that doesn’t mean that all of Sidwell’s constituents were immediately on board. For one thing, the new building’s environmental enhancements represented about a 15 percent premium on its cost of construction, which in the end totaled about $21 million. But along with its long-term energy savings, “when it became clear that the building was going to change the way we teach science, that got everyone’s attention,” says Mike Saxenian, Sidwell’s assistant head and chief financial officer.
It’s a symptom both of its pedagogical usefulness and the infancy of the sustainability movement that the Sidwell building has placed so much emphasis on teaching. It has reshaped the curriculum, Saxenian says, while “changing the whole culture here,” from a fresh wave of organic food in the cafeteria to a student club named ECO that has pressed administrators to go carbon neutral. Outside, a water-filtration tank attached to the wetlands doubles as an information kiosk that explains the ecological processes at work, joining other explanatory wall texts inside. Meanwhile, mechanical controls, placed in prominent locations, are highlighted rather than hidden, just as monitors throughout the building give students real-time updates of the building’s environmental systems—much like the dashboard display that prompted Kieran, in his Prius, to let off the gas. “It’s about knowing the feedback, that there is a cause and effect to everything you do,” Kieran says.