The Science of Sustainability

Architecture for the Birds

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Its mesh-screens make San Francisco's Federal Building one of the most bird-friendly building in the city. (image by JDX, courtest of Flickr Creative Commons)

Whenever Mike Lynes drives over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco and sees the sparkling blue citadel that is Rincon Tower, he doesn’t think about the modern architecture or the sleek design. He thinks about one thing: dead birds.

“The façade of this building, basically on all sides, is almost entirely glass,” he says.

Lynes is the Conservation Director and General Counsel for the Golden Gate Audubon Society. He says if you are a bird – say, a western flycatcher, migrating north from Mexico – what you see in all that blue glass is a great wide expanse of sky. “So, the bird thinks it’s flying into open air. And in that situation, the bird never has a chance.”

Scroll down the page to see examples of bird-friendly architecture in the US.

Death by Window, Turbine, or Cat

The death toll from bird collisions is even higher than you might think.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Program, as many as one billion birds die each year in collisions with man-made structures. Office buildings, particularly plate-glass covered office buildings, make up a bulk of that number.

For comparison, according to the American Bird Conservancy, 440,000 birds a year die when they fly into the blades of a wind turbine, while a billion more are killed by cats. Habitat loss, pesticides, and other threats bring the toll up near five billion bird deaths a year.

Recently, lawmakers have started to do something about this problem. A federal bill, the Bird-Safe Buildings Act of 2011, is under consideration in the House of Representatives. Chicago has established bird-friendly development rules. Now San Francisco may follow suit with its own ordinance.

Through bird eyes, buildings like these look like wide-open sky.

San Francisco is already home to a model of bird-safe architecture, the new Federal Building, on Seventh and Mission streets. Whether he meant to or not, architect Thom Mayne did birds a big favor when he designed a large mesh screen over the building’s windows. Mike Lynes says it may be the most bird-protective building in the city. “It basically looks like a big solid object in the landscape that a bird needs to avoid,” he says.

The proposed ordinance would not require that all new buildings look like the Federal Building.

To begin with, the rules would apply only to buildings in critical bird areas, like near Golden Gate Park, or along the San Francisco Bay. Glass on the lower 60 feet of these buildings would have to be either covered, slanted, or otherwise altered to be less reflective.

A "Notorious" City to Build in

This will add cost, says Craig Hartman, a partner at the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, a firm that designs high-rises and has an office in San Francisco. But what worries him more is the possibility of yet another obstacle in a city he says is already notorious for development-hostile regulation.

“The real issue,” says Hartman, “is adding yet another hurdle to the process of development in a city like San Francisco that already has enormous number of barriers and hurdles in the first place.”

The Missing BIrds

But others, like Alicia King with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Migratory Bird Program, say it’s important to consider what cities have lost: literally billions of birds that once shared our skies, and now don’t.

She if we could flash back 150 years or so, the streets wouldn’t just look different. They’d sound different too.

“It would sound beautiful, because we’d be able to hear birds in the morning, like cerulean warblers, and wood thrushes. I’d have more hummingbirds at my hummingbird feeder, and I’d be thrilled!”

San Francisco’s planning department approved the bird-safe rules on July 14th. The city’s Board of Supervisors, is expected to take a final vote later this summer.

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About the Author ()

Amy Standen is a radio reporter for KQED Science. Her email is astanden@kqed.org and you can follow her on Twitter at @amystanden.
  • George Chrisman

    I am a director for Sequoia Audubon Society in San Mateo County and the Vice President of Walters & Wolf Glass in Fremont, one of the largest curtain wall contractors in the US. This is not a complex issue. First of all, the Federal Building might be one of the most bird friendly buildings in San Francisco but it is also one of the ugliest. This building looks like a giant cyclone fence and to this day looks like it has a temporary barricade that should be taken down any day now. But it's permanent. Not only that, it cost over $6 million to obstruct the views and the facade of the building. There are options to silk screen ceramic frit on the glass that will reduce glare, UV, visible light transmission, and heat gain without a fraction of the cost of the stainless steel mesh pasted on the front of the federal building. There are also UV coatings that can be applied to architectural glass that birds can see that aren't visible to the human eye. Ceramic coatings and applied films will keep birds from impacting glass buildings and will only cost a fraction of the expense of secondary grilles or screening. We're talking about $2.00 per square foot compared to $200.00.
    Glass is not the problem. It's just the wrong glass in the wrong place. Unless we face reality, private developers will not incur $12 million dollars in cost to prevent a few birds from flying into their buildings at night. More study needs to occur to understand the impact of nighttime migration on fixed structures and lighting of highrise structures that may attract birds. How do birds avoid the ugly stainless steel scrim of the Federal Building during nighttime migration? Is that any better that an all glass highrise?
    Craig Hartman is correct. Major cities like San Francisco are already extremely expensive for development and construction for the buildings the City demands. Unless there is collaboration between development and conservation, the birds will continue to suffer. There is no way any private developer will incur the cost that the Feds incurred for a building that nobody would ever lease. A few minor modifications may make a major impact to bird mortality without incurring the tremendous costs of ugly barrier structures that might not even work at night.

  • KQED Listener

    The SF Federal Building may be bird-friendly, but it sure is ugly! It also doesn't look like it lets in much natural light either, for the people who work inside.

    Do you have any other bird-friendly building examples that don't look like prisons from the outside, and which are still nice for the people who live/work inside of them?

  • Jane

    Thank you for highlighting an issue that very few people think about. Stories like this will enhance public action before we destroy what birds are left.

  • JJ

    I concur that the Federal Building is a blight on San Francisco's landscape; it makes me sad every time I pass it. I'm glad to hear from Mr. Chrisman that there are other, viable alternatives that will help save birds, architecture, and money.

  • Ryan Stroupe

    This bird issue is just one more argument for buildings to not be entirely clad in glass. All-glass buildings have much higher cooling and heating costs compared to similar buildings with smaller, punched windows. Curtain wall systems cost more than conventional windows. And does anyone remember the glass panels falling from the John Hancock building in Boston? Look it up. The abundant glass buildings in urban areas (especially San Francisco) will become safety hazards during a major seismic event. And finally, an argument that is premised on a subjective view of what is “ugly” loses all credibility in my opinion. We can have comfortable, high-performance, cost-effective, safe and visually-pleasing buildings without cladding the exteriors with only glass panels.

  • http://QUESTEducationattheSchoolofRock Chanmony Prak

    This should not be an issue of the cost or the aesthetic of the building but it should be about saving millions of birds. We must do our best to help these birds.