The Path to Platinum

After 25 years spent practicing sustainable architecture, BNIM earns the highest rating under LEED—a tool the Kansas City firm’s own efforts helped to create.

The five-story office building is much changed from the time Steve McDowell and Ron Kennedy met to conceive it in 1982. Then, Kennedy was the recently appointed head of Mast Advertising and Publishing. McDowell was a 27-year-old architect from BNIM (then called PBNI), in Kansas City, Missouri, on his first major commission, the Mast company headquarters, to be built in the Overland Park suburb. Both wanted to make a significant impression by doing something different. At a time when few people had even heard of sustainable architecture, they ­decided to create a building that would minimize damage to the environment and maximize the health, happiness, and productivity of its workers.

On this day 24 years later, they find drywall sectioning static offices out of what had once been airy open space, the retractable sunroof sealed off, and additional parking spaces encroaching on the terraced plantings of the former farm they’d worked to preserve. Fingering their visitor passes, the men venture into an open third-floor space on the eastern end of the building, where sun enters through tinted recessed windows, filtering through the leaves of the many trees that the men had saved by perching their office building on the narrow footprint of the former farmhouse and barn. “This is familiar,” McDowell says, turning to Kennedy with a warm, fond smile. “This is what it used to look like.”

More than mere sentimental marker, the former Mast headquarters serves as a milestone for BNIM, one of the pioneers of green design. The package of concepts they employed for the first time there—the reliance on natural light, the narrow footprint and east-west orientation, the gray concrete used to reduce embedded energy, the attention to ventilation, conservation, and site protection—still constitutes the core elements of the firm’s greenest works. They also speak to its role in defining and refining the myriad elements that characterize sustainable design today.

“I prefer not to use words like first or longest or best when talking about design,” says Mark Shapiro—former head of the department of architecture at Kansas State University, who became a BNIM principal in 2004—downplaying the firm’s role as green groundbreaker. “The idea isn’t to be the first one across the finish line. It’s to stay in the race and to continue to get better as you go.”

Established in 1970 by four young architects from Kivett and Myers—an innovative Kansas City firm known locally as the Harvard Graduate School of Design of the heartland—BNIM made its first big mark with the restoration of Kansas City’s Folly Theater in the mid-1970s, and later with that of the St. Louis Post Office and Custom House. “I saw how much more important these urban structures could become,” says Bob Berkebile, one of BNIM’s founders. “And that it was more important to extend the life of extant structures, to add vitality to what’s already there.”

The conceptual leap from historic to environmental preservation is short. BNIM and Berkebile might have made it on their own, but tragedy forced their step. On July 17, 1981, in what was at the time the biggest building failure in American history, two skywalks at the Kansas City Hyatt Regency collapsed, killing 114 people and injuring more than 200. Berkebile, who had designed the hotel, spent a long night searching for survivors with the rescue team—and many long nights afterward searching his soul. “I asked myself whether I’d killed those people,” Berkebile recalls. “I asked what was the real impact of our designs on people. Do we promote their well-being? Do we contribute to the health of the neighborhood, and to the planet?”

Mired in lawsuits, Berkebile dedicated his modest free time to the existential questions the accident thrust on him. He sought out environmental stewardship, agriculture, and land-use innovators, including physicist Amory Lovins and his then wife, Hunter, an environmental attorney at the Rocky Mountain Institute, in Colorado, and Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, in Kansas. “We didn’t find all the answers,” he says. “But our research led to the formation of the AIA National Committee on the Environment, which later led to the United States Green Building Council.”

Pliny Fisk, who in 1975 cofounded the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, in Austin, Texas, and is a fellow in sustainable urbanism and health-systems design at Texas A&M, credits Berkebile and BNIM with driving much of the national sustainable agenda. “The firm has made a miraculous transformation from doing good buildings to doing excellent buildings that are highly relevant for the future,” says Fisk, who developed Austin’s green-building rating system, which served as a model for LEED, and has collaborated with BNIM on several projects. “They are responsible for a lot of the transformation we’ve seen in the way we approach design.”

In 1993, thanks in part to Berkebile’s efforts, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) was created. Five years later the new agency issued a pilot version of a ratings system for green buildings. LEED-NC 1.0 awarded points to structures based on five distinct assessments. Buildings could earn levels of certification ranging from bronze to platinum, depending on their scores. While the industry was working to define empirical standards for sustainability, BNIM was figuring things out for itself; it is an agenda that, in a sense, culminated this year with the firm’s first LEED Platinum award.

During the 1990s, though designing with increasing technical complexity, BNIM still followed an instinctual process. For the 1995 Deramus Education Pavilion at Kansas City Zoological Gardens the firm integrated the building with the surrounding landscape. The 80 percent recycled sloping ­copper roof mimics the area’s gentle, rolling hills; potentially toxic mineral runoff is consumed by colonies of microorganisms in the underlying landscape. The stones used were locally harvested, and the energy-efficient HVAC system, high-­performance glazing, and use of daylight helped win the firm a 1999 National AIA Earth Day Top Ten award.

The following year BNIM acted as sustainable-design consultant to Matsuzaki Wright Architects on the C. K. Choi Building for the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. Set on a site adjacent to an old-growth forest, the project incorporates sensor-operated lighting controls, composting toilets, water recycling, and gray-water treatment—and has no sewer connection. The drastic reduction in reliance on the grid won the firm another AIA Top Ten award in 2000. Like the Deramus project, the C. K. Choi Building was constructed primarily from local and recycled materials. “These projects were significant steps forward,” says McDowell, an Independence, Missouri, native who is now the firm’s design director. “We understood that using local materials saves energy that might be wasted on transportation. But we were still working on an intuitive level. We couldn’t calculate for optimal effects or quantify the benefits these effects produced. We just understood that people would enjoy being in a more wholesome environment.”

Education is another green-design element that BNIM promotes, and the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center, completed in 2002, is a living homily. Set on the Brush Creek watershed a few miles south of the city center, the building’s sustainable guts are exposed for all to see: geothermal pumps hoisting water from 84,200-foot wells; a “living machine” where wastewater is processed by plants and anaerobic bacteria; ­parking-lot bioswales to reduce runoff; recycled carpets, wood panels, and masonry; and ceramic artifacts salvaged from demolished Kansas City buildings. These systems are more efficient than any that BNIM used in the 1990s, a result of a quantum leap in process. Instead of designing a structure and then fitting it with systems, the firm invited technical experts from various fields to participate in the initial planning phase.

At the Discovery Center, function and environmental stewardship are design, as the oversize mural in the main lobby testifies. It depicts explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804 camping on a bluff at the intersection of the Missouri and Kaw Rivers—a site now occupied by Kansas City’s downtown airport. “You can almost feel their excitement as they contemplate the nearly infinite resources spread out before them,” says Laura Les-niewski, the BNIM principal who was project manager at the Discovery Center. “But now, 200 years later, we understand that our resources are finite and have to be treated wisely. This is the message of the mural and of the building.”

BNIM has been refining its sustainable-design practice since the Mast building—and winning awards for those efforts long before the first LEED guidelines were issued. Yet it is notable that it received its first LEED award only in 2004: a silver rating for the Whitaker Office Building, in Savannah, Georgia, where BNIM was sustainable-design consultant. The firm’s only platinum award thus far came this summer for the Lewis and Clark State Office Building, in Jefferson City. On a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, not far from the statue of Thomas Jefferson perched upon the eponymous state capitol (he is honored in Missouri for having commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition), the building houses the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Oriented east to west, the 120,000-square-foot concrete-and-wood office building has all the right sustainable moves: zero water runoff, low-toxicity materials, waterless urinals, visible conduit pipes and heating/cooling ducts, personal airflow controls, and underfloor ventilation. A computer-plotted concrete mask regulates daylight and solar gain on the building’s south facade, while scientifically calculated exterior metal shades and interior fabric strips regulate light flow on the north side.

Like the Discovery Center, the Lewis and Clark building also fulfills a teaching function. “It takes some of our people a few days to get used to working in natural rather than artificial lighting,” says Dan Walker, director of the General Services Program at DNR. “Yet after that, once they get used to it, they can’t imagine working anywhere else. I’ve been with this department and shared its mission for the past twenty-eight years. But this is the first time I or anyone here could actually see that mission, smell that mission, touch that mission.”

While the Lewis and Clark is BNIM’s only platinum building, it is far from the firm’s most aesthetically engaging project. It may not even be its most green, although it is certainly one of them. The paradox lies in the nature of LEED. “It is without a doubt the most important transforming tool in the industry, but it is also an awkward and inelegant design tool,” says Berkebile, observing that the rating system—among other ­imprecisions—does not allow for ­differences in climate, region, and geography. “The best designers, and we are among them, use LEED as a sort of working guide or are moving beyond LEED altogether.”

However, it is not so much LEED’s “one size fits all” dimensions that have stifled BNIM’s creative voice—it is Midwestern conservatism. The firm’s most ambitious designs are inevitably realized out of state. One of its finest is the School of Nursing and Student Community Center at the University of Texas at Houston. Designed with the architecture firm Lake/Flato of San Antonio and completed in 2004, the eight-story 194,000-square-foot building features several tiers around central atriums, two with airy and at times breathtaking interior spaces. Local cypress and recycled woods and beige fly-ash cement give it a distinctly Houston tone. Expected to attain LEED Gold, the building employs an ingenious and attractive textile solar grid along the east facade and on the sawtooth roof to compensate for the narrow structure’s north-south orientation.

“Certain things just won’t fly in Missouri,” says McDowell. “Not in terms of sustainability, but in terms of taste. This is why we have to travel.”

While BNIM’s creativity may not be fully ap-preciated within the state, its seamless integration of systems, functional design, and commitment to human and environmental health are. And it’s not just in a quest for LEED Gold or Platinum. “We’re the Department of Natural Resources,” says Walker, staring out from the Lewis and Clark building onto the Missouri bluffs below. “We have to look, feel, and be sustainable. With BNIM we found a designer who gets that. We didn’t have to sell them on anything. They understand what we’re about.”

Both BNIM and architecture have evolved since the concept of sustainability was launched more than a quarter of a century ago. The systems employed today represent a generational leap from those first attempted in the early 1980s. Firms now have in-house specialists such as landscape designers, environmental consultants, heating technicians, and computer modelers. Lead architects no longer drive the design process; buildings are conceived in a series of messy meetings where ideas, egos, and priorities clash. Still, the underlying principles—the essential spirit—of sustainable design are little changed from the firm’s efforts at the Mast headquarters. And the benchmark building, while no longer state of the art, is still an attractive, healthy, and environmentally responsible workplace.

“I just wanted a building where people would be happy and productive,” former CEO Ron Kennedy tells McDowell as the two say good-bye, with some nostalgia, before the structure they’d realized more than two decades ago. The bioswales BNIM designed in the driveway to help control water runoff are still visible and working. The driveway, which had been stabilized with an underlying layer of fly ash, is remarkably level. And many of the trees they’d saved have flourished. “And I wanted a building surrounded by trees—because a building without trees is just a building.”

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