Feature Article - March 2008
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Easy Being Green

By Dawn Klingensmith

n her belief that "we are obligated to leave the country looking as good if not better than when we found it," Lady Bird Johnson was ahead of her time—and so, too, was the architecture firm that set out 15 years ago to design a wildflower center in the former first lady's honor. Reflecting Johnson's commitment to conservation, designs for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, included a number of eco-friendly features, including a complex rainwater harvesting system to meet the center's irrigation needs. The concept of "green design" was so new, however, that the marketplace lacked the appropriate materials.

"There were no vendors for this type of project," said architect Bob Shemwell, a principal at Overland Partners in San Antonio, Texas. "We had to design the components—the valves, the passive filters—ourselves."

Around the same time, the Madison Children's Museum in Madison, Wis., encountered similar problems in its quest for eco-friendly materials to build a play space for kids 5 and under. The limited availability of certain materials compelled the museum to make substitutions so as not to stall the project.

"We didn't realize that to get formaldehyde-free plywood, we needed to place our order six to eight months in advance," said Brenda Baker, director of exhibits, who investigated alternatives and found a special coating for conventional plywood that blocks the release of formaldehyde.

The green movement has since exploded, and the availability of green materials and technologies has increased alongside public awareness. (Formaldehyde-free plywood is now stocked at most home improvement stores.) In fact, green design has become so popular—and hence so potentially profitable—that manufacturers have begun labeling products as "green" or "sustainable" that, when scrutinized, don't live up to their billing.

"The challenge now isn't how and where to find green products, but how to determine whether they are what they claim to be," Baker said.