Sustainability inspired by history | William and Mary

by Julia DeKorte ’23 for University Marketing


April 22, 2022

The following article originally appeared as an online exclusive for the William & Mary Alumni Magazine – Ed.

What do the historic buildings of Colonial Williamsburg and some of today’s most technologically advanced buildings have in common? They are both exceptionally environmentally friendly. It was an important lesson for Brian Court ’96, who built on his training at William & Mary to become one of the leading architects of sustainable design.

Although William & Mary does not offer an architecture program, as a student Court was able to work with W&M faculty and staff in the Art and Art History departments to create independent studies. These self-designed courses allowed her to build a portfolio that later contributed to her acceptance into numerous graduate programs.

He credits his foundational success to architect and senior art lecturer Ed Pease, who taught design and drafting classes and later helped him design independent studies, and the late professor Jim Kornwolf. Court worked with him on his three-volume history of American architecture, “Architecture and Urban Planning in North America,” researching and sketching floor plans of colonial buildings on the East Coast. Court then moved on to the University of Washington, where he earned his master’s degree in architecture. He loved the West Coast so much he decided to make his home there and is now associated with the Miller Hull Partnership.

So how did sustainability come into play? Well, rising carbon emissions are hard to ignore, Court says, citing information from the nonprofit Architecture 2030 showing that buildings are responsible for 40% of global carbon emissions, most of these emissions from construction operations. Transporting materials from around the world to a construction site is also a significant contributor. That’s where Court’s experience at Colonial Williamsburg comes in.

“The whole time I was at William & Mary, I was also working for Colonial Williamsburg,” says Court. “I got to work in the brickyard making clay bricks, then I got to work in the carpenter’s shed, so I learned how to make shingles and saw logs into beams.”

Through his time at Colonial Williamsburg and his research with Professor Kornwolf on early American architecture, Court gained insight from a colonial perspective on sustainability: “If you look at the buildings in Colonial Williamsburg and Colonial America, they were very durable. A lot of times they would dig a basement for a building and that basement excavation would provide the clay for the bricks to build the walls and then you would find trees nearby, and everything would be built out of what you could find on the spot.

In addition to sourcing local materials, Court draws more inspiration from colonial architects in the form of their energy use, or lack thereof. American colonial buildings had no electricity, so to allow for natural light and ventilation, the buildings were very narrow with high ceilings. “In many ways,” says Court, “architects and engineers are trying to forget a lot of what they learned in the 20th century and go back to this colonial idea of ​​a building that just needs less. . Buildings must carry their own weight. It’s rethinking architecture, and I think part of my success is due to starting with colonial buildings that didn’t have electricity.

Court has carried this desire to make buildings more energy and carbon efficient through all its projects. His favorite project is Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design, a building on the Georgia Tech campus. He explains that it is the first structure in the Southeast to obtain the Living Building Challenge certification, meaning it is completely energy and water efficient, and uses no toxic materials in its construction. According to Court, it “functions as if it were a tree or a flower growing on land”. He only uses the water that falls on his roof. It is fully sustainable and establishes a framework for future sustainable building designs.

He is also very proud of his work on the Bullitt Center in Seattle, “a six-story building in the cloudiest city in the lower 48 states that is completely solar-powered.” It is designed to last 250 years and is energy and water positive, which means it produces more energy from its solar panels and collects more rainwater than it has. need to operate.

Currently, Court is working with the US State Department on the design of new embassies in places like Central America, Mexico and Africa, many of them in countries that don’t have power grids. Prior to the Court’s intervention, the US government planned to have fuel delivered on trucks to power the facilities, but instead the Court outlined its plans for sustainable design and uses clean solar energy to power the facilities. embassies, thereby reducing their carbon footprint and establishing budding countries with a sustainable value structure.

Court’s “strongest and most emphatic” advice to anyone at William & Mary? “Spend as much time as possible studying abroad, in Europe or elsewhere.” His own study abroad experience in Florence, Italy greatly influenced his career path in architecture, as the art and architecture in Florence is what really piqued his interest in drawing.

“I hope my path can help someone else,” Court says in closing. If enough students and architects follow Court’s example, he may be able to realize his vision for America: “We should be able to bring all the buildings in this country to a point where they don’t not contribute to climate change. With solar panels and smart building design, all buildings can be net zero and draw zero carbon from the grid. »