Lessons From Phoenix Part 1 - Research

Phoenix Central Library

Each November the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) holds its national conference and expo, known as Greenbuild, in a different city. The USGBC is the source for LEED certifications, a method for quantifying sustainability in buildings that has arguably transformed the building industry over the last 12 years. This past year in Phoenix, 27,000 fanatics and their suitors convened to share ideas, fears, successes and failures, working towards a greener, more sustainable built environment.

This infamously sprawling desert city has one of the best and most influential Green buildings in the country, the Burtan Barr Central Library, designed by Will Bruder in the 1990’s and copied ever since. It also has a new light rail system running through its rejuvenating downtown, with the requisite stadia (plural!), convention center and class A office buildings. But downtown also has some new buildings for ASU, coaxed down the rail line from their main campus in Tempe to add some after hours vitality. The rail stations make a noble effort to render their piece of the urban furnace inhabitable with shade structures and landscape, and there are greater efforts in the works. In the dice roll of conference events, I stumbled across a panel discussion by an organization I believe may be a key factor in the future of this particular city.

The Phoenix Urban Research Lab (PURL) is an extension of the ASU Architecture School with a crucial function in the city. The speakers I saw were each involved in a research partnerships, providing the data that makes change persuasive. There was research on heat island mitigation which will soon appear in a new form based building code for the city. Another study on the best building types for sites adjacent to dessert open space at the city’s edge also aspires for a place in the development code. The in depth research of another participant on peak oil and alternative energy sources has applications that are obvious.

One presenter showed archival photos of Phoenix prior to the proliferation of air conditioning. Sentimental palm trees lined the streets, while folks strolled in the shade of low and mid-rise buildings that allowed the desert to behave like a desert, flushing the daytime heat from the city into the vast night sky. The PURL academics are learning from history while modeling the future in simulation software. Every city deserves this kind of attention, but in the desert it may be especially urgent. Phoenix has laid claim in recent years to being the fastest growing city in the U.S. As they bake in 120 degree summers while energy costs rise, alternatives are going to seem increasingly like imperatives. Those streets depicted in the old photos are starting to look pretty good.

The Phoenix Urban Research Lab - http://design.asu.edu/purl/index.shtml

U.S. Green Building Council - http://www.usgbc.org/