The new Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University is now the first platinum LEED certified building in Israel, a credit given to the most exemplary green projects worldwide. It stands in a select group of only 17 buildings internationally that have passed the 90 credits mark. Alongside this impressive credential, it enjoys a highly visible location seen by thousands of people driving the Ayalon highway each day.

The Porter School as seen from the Ayalon Highway. Photo: Shai Epstein

The result of an open international competition, the building has drawn attention for its enviable stage and lofty goals. The project aims to push the region towards greener technology both through its design and the research it facilitates. It is a difficult task that involves providing convincing evidence that investment in green construction and technology is both prudent and shrewd. Could its approach to lead by example pay off?

The building boasts a long list of innovations: a thermo solar air-conditioning system; computer controlled natural ventilation; use of greywater; and a green roof to name a few. As some of the technology is a first in Israel, the site has become a closely monitored testing ground. The designers are committed to tracking the effectiveness of their efforts and choices. They believe that strengthening an argument that particular products are worth investing in will empower the construction industry to commit to green technology.

An equally green building could have been built in a hidden corner of Tel Aviv University’s campus with a no-frills aesthetic and a cheaper price tag. Yet the Porter building’s design is extroverted, and its most visible facade mimics in shape a highway billboard positioned to be seen. The building has something to say, and if its green credentials won’t grab attention by their own merit – it must do so through design.

The ‘billboard’ facade and protruding ‘egg’. Photo: Shai Epstein

“They’ve started calling it the ‘egg building'” says Nir Chen of NC Architects, one of three practices involved in the project (along with Axelrod Grobman and Geotectura). He looks up at the bulbous capsule jutting into the tall central space of the building. The egg shaped meeting room also protrudes from the building’s ‘billboard’ facade and is by far the most recognisable feature of the building. Perhaps to emphasise its role in grabbing attention, it will also serve as a screen for the building’s energy savings and regional air pollution to be projected publicly.

The main mass of the building is enveloped on its more visible sides by a dramatic faceted surface. Chen explains that the form of this element is derived from its performance in tunneling air through the central space. Although given that the space is now an enclosed atrium, this aspect seems almost irrelevant. The dramatic shape remained however, presumably for its aesthetic value or the interesting internal space it generates.

Capsule meeting room. Photo: Shai Epstein

It is because of the building’s banner of sustainability and by popular association — austerity; that elements such as the ‘egg’ or the dramatic faceted walls seem frivolous. One could reasonably ask: how can holding meetings in a suspended egg be good for the environment?

Such questions assess the building in direct relation to its carbon footprint. Though they fail to take into account that functionality accounts also for the people who inhabit it and what experience it offers them. The future influence of the Porter School is likely measured marginally by how its building performs and almost entirely by how its staff and students influence our future.

Herein lies the difference between what could be described as a lavish building-machine and the possibility of an architecture that inspires study and research. If the same elements that seem incongruous with austerity embody a value of inspiration then they too could be serving the functionality and vision of the school. Until or if at all architects begin to quantify the psychological and experiential benefits of their designs, more easily obtained technical data will inevitably be the go-to point of reference.

The worth therefore of meeting in a suspended capsule is clearly not that it is particularly ‘green’, but rather that it offers a novel experience. Its inherent message might be that in order to create new environments one should experience them also. This could be said not only of the capsule but also of the technology that will be developed and tested within the building. Since much of the department’s testing will occur in the billboard facade’s visually exposed labs, almost every visitor will be witness to the process of innovation first-hand.

The new home of the Porter School hints that those involved in its foundation are aware of the difficult goals they have set themselves. They and the designers seem to have logically concluded that in this case architecture must prove a point, and be employed as a marketing agent for making an important issue relevant and attractive.

Photo: Shai Epstein