Boecker’s professional epiphany came in 1995 when he was working on the Pennsylvania
Department of Environmental Protection’s South Central Regional Office Building,
later to become the state’s first green building. During the project’s schematic
design phase, a concerned citizen attended a planning meeting and asked the state
to make it a more environmentally responsible building.
“I realized that my life had just changed,” Boecker recalled after a phone call
from that concerned citizen the next day. “Integrating green design is so much more
meaningful than simply pursuing aesthetics; more importantly, it provides a means
by which I can measure the impact these buildings have on people, their health,
and ultimately the health of the planet.”
balancing art with science
“I then made a significant personal discovery: many of the components that help
make buildings green offer exciting aesthetic opportunities, as well,” Boecker said.
For example, solar shading devices that protect buildings from high altitude summer
sunlight penetration offer wonderful sculptural opportunities. Boecker used such
design elements in the Clearview Elementary School, a nationally heralded example
of sustainable design.
Boecker designed a two-story “sunscreen” wall in front of the school’s south-facing
single-loaded corridor. Not only is the wall a unique design feature, it also blocks
the sun’s direct rays from penetrating the corridor’s windows in the summer, reducing
the load on the cooling system. In the winter, when the sun is at a lower altitude,
the window-shaped holes in this wall allow the sun to stream through, providing
much needed warmth and light.
Architecture is a wonderful balance of art and science, Boecker believes.
He already had a strong grounding in the art of his craft; however, Boecker realized
he needed to devote himself to learning its science. A never-ending pile of books
about the environment and building performance helped to raise his knowledge level
about the science of his profession and the impacts his decisions were having on
“I began to understand that many of my past design decisions had not made a positive
contribution to the environment; rather, many of them were hurting it. As I learned
more about these impacts, I felt a terrible guilt,” Boecker said.
bending a straight line into a circle
Boecker often points out that sustainable design “is not genetic engineering”, it’s
actually quite simple, and in many instances comes down to common sense. However,
it does involve change, which can be difficult for a conservative industry that
has been operating in a certain way for decades.
He actually thinks of himself as a change manager, helping to bring others, from
developers, engineers, and government officials to fellow architects, into a new
way of thinking and working together.
Sustainable design requires moving away from a linear process where each individual
member of the design team, including the architect and engineers, works on separate
components of the project.
Boecker believes that such an approach results in “tremendous redundancies.” There
isn’t enough communication about how systems can work together or about the potential
synergies that can result from the interactions between systems, he said.
The new paradigm literally comes down to the various “experts” sitting down at the
same table before design actually begins to integrate their areas of expertise,
learn from each other and develop creative ways to address the structure’s unique
challenges. It’s a more circular process.
“Everyone’s goal should be to find synergies that allow for the downsizing or elimination
of systems components in order to decrease energy, water and non-renewable resource
consumption during construction and over the life of the building, while at the
same time neutralizing or even reducing first costs,” Boecker said.
A simple example is choosing a paint color for interior walls, which can reduce
the size and cost of the cooling system as well as energy consumption and associated
environmental impacts over the lifetime of the building.
Boecker believes that durability and sustainable design are closely linked. The
architecture of the Romans, which often relied on cementitious materials “is unbelievably
enduring, and we’re still learning from some of these techniques today,” Boecker
A significant advantage to concrete is that it usually doesn’t need to be replaced
over the life of a building and when the building reaches the end of its useful
life, the concrete can be recycled back into new concrete or into other materials
with minimal environmental impact, Boecker said.
“Architects are trained to take complex issues and resolve them in simple ways,”
Boecker said. “That is much of what sustainable design is all about.”
Looking to the Future
Sustainable design is moving into a mainstream pursuit, Boecker said. However, much
work still needs to be done across the profession of architecture and more broadly
“A great deal of our thinking comes down to how can we prevent a little less damage
when we construct a building. But that’s not enough,” he said.
“We need to make a fundamental mindset shift and believe that the decisions we make
can be regenerative and restorative,” Boecker said. “We, as architects, can contribute
to the health of a place.”