The Science of Sustainability

Facebook and Frank Gehry: Will the New Building Be A Marriage of Sustainability?

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facebook's new building

Facebook's New Building - Frank Gehry/Gehry Partners

Facebook hired Frank Gehry to design its new building. Why?

Given its plummeting stock price, the company was probably pleased to find an architect who prides himself on staying within budget. But if the 'book wanted a green building (and who'd dare to build in the Bay Area without "a big emphasis on being eco-friendly"?), Gehry is a less than obvious choice.

According to Wikipedia, "Much of Gehry's work falls within the style of Deconstructivism, which is often referred to as post-structuralist in nature for its ability to go beyond current modalities of structural definition." (Stop laughing, this is serious!) "In architecture, its application tends to depart from modernism in its inherent criticism of culturally inherited givens such as societal goals and functional necessity."

Experience Music Project

The Experience Music Project in Seattle, designed by Frank Gehry. Source: EMP|SFM Archive

It's hard to imagine a style that rejects societal goals and functional necessity meshing with any kind of environmentalism. On the other hand, "green building" covers a panoply of potential architectural attributes, so maybe there's room for overlap.

Gehry has a history of appreciating everyday building materials, like plywood and metal, which could be relatively sustainable if recycled and/or sourced locally. (Eco-pop quiz: would it be "green" to import recycled material from China?)

But the real rabbit hole of green building is energy use. Do you install uber-efficient air conditioners or none at all? Is it more important to make the building as efficient as possible or go for broke on generating clean energy? Is it better to source your energy from solar, wind, or tidal? (Okay, I don't know of any tidal-run building. But it would be cool.)

And then there's the question of water usage, especially in California. Low-flow toilets are obviously a good idea–except when they're not. Xeriscaping seems like a no-brainer–but do you plant natives or hardy imports? Is it worth adding some water-guzzlers if they're great at carbon capture? And what about a vegetable garden that requires more water, but provides food in return?

Cal Academy

All the options and hidden costs can be bewildering. So it's tempting to turn to a rating system that integrates measures of sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality into a single shiny metallic scale. Eco-friendly buildings can get a LEED rating from Certified to Silver to Gold to Platinum based on how many points they rack up in all these areas.

However, Gehry has expressed some reasonable doubts about the value of LEED certification. And Facebook hasn't said anything about aiming for Platinum.

If Gehry's going green, he'll probably do it in his own way. He doesn't seem to like any kind of label, even deconstructivism. In 1998, he was featured in one of Apple's "Think Different" ads. Now that Facebook has brought him back to Silicon Valley, this may be an opportunity to make something new at the intersection of technology, architecture, and environmentalism. I for one am curious to see what comes of it.

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Category: Blog, Engineering, Environment

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Danna Staaf

About the Author ()

Danna is a marine biologist, a science writer, a novelist, an artist, and an educator. She helped found the outreach program Squids4Kids, illustrated The Game of Science, and has blogged at Squid A Day since 2009. She holds a BA in Creative Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a PhD in Baby Squid from Stanford. She lives in San Jose with her husband, daughter, and cats.