In the Quest for Net Zero, Lessons From A High Performance…Wigwam?

This article first appeared in Forbes.

 What’s a wigwam you ask?

An architectural historian might refer to it as a Native American dwelling, but by today’s standards the wigwam is a super high performance building.

 As the construction industry continues to be a major contributor to climate change, it’s become imperative to dial back our modern architecture to function more like the wigwam and less like the gluttonous consumers of energy and water our buildings have become.

 What makes the wigwam so great? The answer is net zero everything. These off-the-grid structures were designed to be water and energy independent. The same goes for any other traditional building type: igloo, teepee, log cabin, etc. No emissions are generated by shipping materials to the site, or during the construction process. There are no factory-made building products that contain toxic substances that are now banned by the Red List. These buildings employ passive strategies to heat and cool and are naturally ventilated. In today’s world of green building certifications, the wigwam would be beyond LEED® Platinum and Living Building Challenge™ certified.

“But” you say, “Where will I charge my iPhone? How will I hose off my car?” No one expects our modern buildings to come without the luxuries of water and energy. The question of the day then becomes: how can we provide all the comforts of modern life that have become necessities rather than luxuries—thermostats, toilets, outlets and irrigation—while getting to net zero?

It’s possible and happening, and not just by radically awesome outsiders like Earthship Biotecture, Cal-Earth, and Arcosanti whose off-the-grid structures look like hippie fairy tale houses. The recently completed Bullitt Center in Seattle is a six-story 50,000 square-foot commercial office building that is net zero water and energy, meaning that on an annual basis it collects more solar energy and rainwater than it consumes. The building uses technology including solar shades on the windows, composting toilets (that don’t emit an odor), a water cistern, greywater reuse systems, and a large umbrella of photovoltaic solar panels on the roof.

In Los Angeles, where my green building consulting start-up Verdical Group is located, water is not as plentiful as it is in the Bullitt Center’s Cascadia Region. A group of LA leaders engaged in the quest for net zero, led by Gensler’s Mika Yagi Kim, have come together to form the Living Building Challenge Collaborative – Los Angeles. Among other issues, the Collaborative is tackling how to get to net zero water in our notably dry climate. Tied to the parent organization, The International Living Future Institute, the Living Building Challenge is the most “challenging” green building certification available, mandating both net zero energy and net zero water. It’s bringing us back to the performance our predecessors achieved with the wigwam, while still making it possible for us to plug in our electric vehicles and drip irrigate our vegetable gardens.

Herein lies the opportunity for Verdical Group and other social entrepreneurs in the green building space. Now that we are realizing the vision of creating a built environment that is ecologically restorative, there is a lot of work to be done to bring this mainstream and retrofit our outdated building stock. Creating a “new normal” takes time, but the rate of change in the building industry has been happening at a hyper accelerated rate. While the newer and more aggressive Living Building Challenge has only certified a handful of buildings to date, the LEED green building rating system was first launched just 13 years ago in 2000 and now has 10.4 billion square-feet of building space participating internationally.

As we continue to curb consumption, increase efficiency, and innovate building technology, our call to action is to bridge the gap between the demands of modern living and our desire to build projects with a lighter impact on the Earth. In taking a long view forward, first take a long view backward. We’ve already been to net zero with the wigwam. Let’s do it again—this time with plenty of plug outlets.


This post was written by Drew Shula, Founder and Principal of Verdical Group, a green building consulting firm in Los Angeles.