The Gizmo Green Conundrum

artist's rendering of Greenway Self-Park in Chicago

   Chicago’s new Greenway Self-Park illustrates the problems created by the Gizmo Green approach better than anything I’ve seen recently. Gizmo Green, of course, is the proposition that we can be green just by using better equipment and better materials. It lies at the heart of most discussions on sustainability today.

   Gizmo Green fits perfectly into the industrially-fueled Consuming Economy we’ve built over the past 85 years or so, and which I contrasted in this post with the Conserving Economy that true sustainability should be built upon. Gizmo Green is a perfect fit for the Consuming Economy because it’s something that someone else designs, another “someone else” manufactures, and that we buy and consume. So all of the sustainable aspects are things that someone else provides, removing responsibility from us and putting it on someone else... our only responsibility is to be consumers, which is exactly how the Consuming Economy thrives. But consumption lies at the heart of the problem. The removal of our responsibility combined with the necessity of consumption creates the Gizmo Green Conundrum: How can we say we’re sustainable if that sustainability is based on us consuming more stuff and not needing to live differently ourselves?

corner of Greenway Self-Park building showing wind turbine

   Let’s get back to Greenway, which is a parking garage in Chicago’s River North. Here’s what its website says that it provides:

   * energy-generating wind turbines

   * local and sustainable building materials

   * a green roof and rainwater cisterns for irrigation

   * high-efficiency glass

   * recycling programs

   * energy-efficient lighting

   * programs to encourage the use of energy efficient vehicles

   * electric car charging stations

   * air quality initiatives

   * tips for Greener Living in the lobbies

   * Zipcar and I-Go car sharing vehicles

   How is it possible not to applaud all this? Well... err... the one point on “high-efficiency glass” seems pointless since it’s an open-air structure, so why do you need efficient glass? But other than that, how can we not applaud Greenway? Using Gizmo Green standards, applause is the only rational thing to do.

   But somehow, something doesn’t feel right. A “sustainable parking deck.” Oh, really? But if Gizmo Green is our only lens, then the answer it produces is “Yes, a sustainable parking deck... and it’s a real champ, too.” So give it the LEED rating. But let’s look at it through the Original Green lens and see what it looks like now:

Nourishable Places


   It may be a bit of a stretch at first to ask a parking garage to help nourish the people who live in the neighborhood, but hey, the site says the building has a green roof, so why not use that green roof to raise something edible? I know, I know, vegetables are heavier than the inedible stuff normally planted on a green roof, but this is a parking deck, so chances are good they have enough structure to handle the difference.

Accessible Places

Downtown Dallas parking lot - seas of parking make walking highly unlikely

   Here’s where the serious problems begin. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any good images of the way this parking deck meets the street. Because I haven’t been to Chicago since it was completed, I don’t have any of my own, either. But from what you can tell on the images that are out there, it seems like it’s a parking deck all the way to the ground. That’s a problem on several counts. One is the fact that the closer a blank wall comes to extending a full city block, the closer it gets to killing walkability. Pedestrians are easily bored, and nothing is more boring than a blank wall, except for maybe a parking lot. In this case, we have a blank glass wall with a parking lot behind... so it’s a boredom double whammy.

   Here’s the even bigger problem: that which you encourage is that which you’re likely to get more of, whereas that which you discourage is that which you’re likely to get less of. Building parking decks, therefore, encourages driving. Is it better to have parking decks than to have acres and acres of surface parking lots? Of course. Nothing except rampant crime saps the energy of a city like losing block after block to surface parking lots. But is it even better to encourage people to take transit into a city as intense as Chicago? Without a doubt. Because that intensity suffers for every foot of street frontage given over to parking decks.

Serviceable Places

retail liner building on first level of parking deck, but hideous concrete deck is visible above

   Greenway almost completely misses the boat here. Liner shops on the first level would not only enliven the street and solve the boring wall problem above, but would also provide some of the daily services of life to people living nearby. Liner buildings need not be very deep. 18’ is plenty; some liner shops are 12’ deep or less. Ideally, the liner would extend the full height of the building, with loft apartments above, but at the very least, the ground floor should certainly be lined with shops.

Securable Places

Dallas parking deck

   Few things make a place more securable than putting “eyes on the street,” in the words of Jane Jacobs. Greenway’s contribution here is essentially zero, whereas had the deck been lined with shops and loft apartments, many people would be watching the street, contributing to the security of the neighborhood. Liner buildings should be standard on parking decks built anywhere in an urban setting today. They just make sense.

Lovable Buildings

blank face of a parking deck fronting a dreadful street in Stevenage New Town, England

   OK, I’ll admit it... I’ve been a gizmo fan all my life. And the thought of watching those big wind turbines turning on the corner of the building sounds like fun. But like all gizmos, once the new wears off, the thrill is gone... which is another reason why gizmos, while they are a part of life, should not BE our life.

   But is this building lovable? That’s a different question. Humans resonate with forms that reflect them, almost from the moment of birth. But this building is faceless, with a blank glass wall. It’s not brutally ugly, but would anyone consider Greenway to be lovable?

Durable Buildings

glass curtain wall skyscraper in downtown Dallas

   If a building can be loved, then it needs to be durable enough to endure long into the future. I haven’t visited the building yet... I’m a speaker at the Traditional Building Exhibition & Conference there in October, so I’ll check it out then. But in general, sheathing a building in glass doesn’t give one a lot of confidence that it’ll still be there several centuries from now. How many other exterior wall materials break so easily?

Flexible Buildings

Seattle parking deck entry on steep slope

   This is a tough one. If a building is lovable and durable, then it needs to be flexible enough to be used for many things over time because a building that lasts several centuries will likely be used for its programmed use for only a small percentage of its life. But what about a parking deck? What else can you use a parking deck for? Maybe a set for a creepy movie? That’s the most enduring cultural image of a parking deck: a place to get shot, or blown up, or other really bad stuff. Think about this: what to do with them after cars? Are parking decks destined for the wrecking ball once gas gets too expensive to drive? What else would you use them for? I don’t have an answer here, but it certainly makes me think that parking decks don’t pass the Flexible Building test.

Frugal Buildings

Chicago office tower composed of thin wings

Large buildings were once built

with thin wings so they could
daylight & cross-ventilate easily

   Greenway’s website, Facebook page, and Twitter stream all make a big deal about the building’s energy efficiency. And that’s good. But it’s not like the building is heated or cooled, right? So the energy use issues should be lighting and ventilation.

   By day, these should be fairly easy to achieve naturally. Even with a liner building, there are ways to naturally ventilate and daylight the building. Look at any of the old buildings in Chicago (or anywhere, for that matter,) and you’ll see that they’re composed of thin wings so that all parts of the building are near an outside wall. How would you do that with a parking deck? Especially one with liner buildings on the streets? The most obvious solution is an O-shaped building with single bay (double-loaded, of course) of parking surrounding a light court in the middle. Go from floor to floor with a circular ramp, and all the floors can be flat so the building can be easily repurposed for other uses in the future.

   That’s just what comes immediately to mind. I’m confident in the creativity of my architect colleagues. I’m certain they will produce many and better solutions... so long as they’re seeing it through the Original Green lens rather than they Gizmo Green lens they’re currently looking through.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010 - 12:40 PM

Michael Rouchell

It's interesting that the parking garage would have a glass facade.  An enclosed garage requires exhaust fans to exhaust out carbon monoxide fumes.  Doesn't that add to the energy consumption?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010 - 08:10 PM

Cindy Frewen Wuellner

Steve, fantastic post. Excellent example of how to apply your Original Green principles. Gizmo Green, indeed. well said, Cindy @urbanverse

Wednesday, August 18, 2010 - 11:11 AM

Steve Mouzon

   Michael, it's a glass wall made of offset panels, so that it breathes but sorta blocks the view of the cars.

   Thanks, Cindy! I'm thinking of trying this approach with other notable buildings... amazing the difference between the lenses!

Thursday, August 19, 2010 - 08:46 PM

Ken Firestone

If there is enough distance between the decks or floors, the structure could be fitted out as a real building when the cars abandon it. However, there is rarely enough room between decks to do this.

Sunday, August 22, 2010 - 03:05 PM

Steve Mouzon

Exactly, Ken... that's the other half of the floor plate formula that I didn't mention: make the plates flat, AND make the floor-to-floor tall enough to use for other things later.


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