Sustainability Heads South of the Border

September 11, 2007

by Ronda Kaysen

When KMD Architects was recently tapped to design a new ecofriendly headquarters for the Cinepolis cinema chain in Morelia, Mexico, the San Francisco–based firm joined a growing number of architects making their green mark south of the border.

Digital Water Pavilion
Image: Courtesy KMD Architects
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Mexican buildings have traditionally incorporated sustainable principles, including using local materials such as naturally insulating adobe, and using courtyards with fountains to cool indoor spaces. Recently, sophisticated green technologies—photovoltaic cells and on-site waste treatment—began working their way into development.

Throughout Latin America, only two buildings, one of them in Mexico, are LEED certified. But the list could grow. Six Mexican projects have registered with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for LEED certification. And in 2005, Mexico founded its own green building council (MexicoGBC), the first in Latin America. “Mexico’s building and construction industry is just waking up and realizing that we are big players,” says Cesar Ulises Previno, MexicoGBC president. “We have a lot of potential to make a difference.”

Some companies decide to build green because they want to set a precedent, says KMD principal Carlos Fernandez del Valle. This was the case with Cinepolis’s 162,000-square-foot headquarters. Occupying just 10 percent of a hillside site, four low-rise buildings will feature rooftop gardens, daylighting through low-emissivity glass, and ventilation from windows that open onto interior courtyards. KMD estimates that operating costs will be 30 percent lower than comparable-size buildings in Mexico. Another project among the fresh green crop is a $12 million, 119,000-square-foot office building in Guadalajara designed by TEN Arquitectos. The 14-story tower features a woven steel-mesh skin that protects it from the elements and reduces the strain on heating and air-conditioning. Behind this screen, operable windows in the glazed curtain wall allow for natural ventilation.

As energy costs rise alongside concerns about climate change, Mexican businesses are realizing that sustainable development is worth the investment. But the government has yet to define standards for determining efficiency, Previno says, let alone offer incentives to developers who go green. “There are buildings here incorporating solar power, recycling water, but how can we define what falls into ‘green’ and what doesn’t if we don’t have a formal checklist?”

MexicoGBC is currently creating a LEED program tailored to the country’s needs. There are also signs that the government is showing interest in sustainable development. It tapped Alberto Kalach to design the new Biblioteca Vasconcelos public library in the capital city. Kalach’s aesthetic features plain concrete and wood, which reduce the use of paint. “When you don’t spend energy making an extravagant facade, you consume less energy building it,” he says.

With ample daylighting and an on-site water-treatment plant, the 500,000-square-foot library campus embodies both traditional Mexican approaches to green architecture and more sophisticated technologies. “There’s a lot of intrinsic knowledge in the design features of Mexican architecture and construction,” Previno observes. “We need to rescue those good values.”

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