BUENOS AIRES The word sustainable is in vogue these days and used for so many things, from economic plans to cooking recipes. Not surprisingly it has also landed in the world of architecture and urban planning.

Within a few years, we have gone from science fiction to eco-imagination. The most radical idealists are already imagining green villages, vertical farms in the middle of big cities and plant-covered towers. Everyone wants to build with recycled materials, reduce their building's carbon footprint and recover the lost balance between nature and man. The politically correct frenzy provides fertile ground for marketers and opportunists who have duly emerged, promising paradise with no pain at all.

Our gringo neighbors up north have come up with a word for this sustainable talk: "greenwashing." It is a new word (playing off "whitewashing") that describes everything businesses and corporations do to present themselves as environmentally friendly (without actually being so). Why? Because "greening" sells.

While it's difficult not to fall into the trap, we might briefly review some of the main lies — or misconceptions, if you like — around so-called sustainable building.

Nothing greener than plants

Efforts to turn buildings into environmental pumps or engines are filling rooftops with grass and walls with plants, whether they be banks, shopping malls or museums. For the landscape gardener Wade Graham, author of Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World, the green cities we dream of today are too closely tied to the idea of controlling nature. The alternative, he writes, must be to delve into the real causes of our environmental and urban degradation.

Chicago City Hall Green Roof — Photo: Tony TheTiger

Green construction for everyone

Apple's signature building in Silicon Valley is an example of the green dream. Designed by the architects Norman Foster and Partners (designers of the new Buenos Aires city hall), the premises leave 80% of the 175-acre lot free, all at the cost of $5 billion, which means that such buildings are only for the wealthiest firms. Graham, who is also a historian and lecturer at Pepperdine University, observes that in spite of the best intentions of Apple and Foster, the project will just help further expand San Francisco's suburban sprawl. It will, he writes, be another big building beside a highway, requiring heaps of parking space for its drive-in employees (even if mostly underground to reduce the environmental impact).

International certification assures sustainability

LEED is one of the world's best-known environmental certificates, awarding points to buildings for their environmental qualities and use of responsible material and construction systems. A building with 40 points wins a LEED certification, while 50 earn it LEED Silver and 60, LEED Gold. LEED Platinum is for buildings racking up 80 points or more. What the categories actually do is ensure more firms are willing to pay more for the space their premises use, though many of the points are actually easily acquired without contributing real sustainability. Their norms reward particular types of air conditioning, for example, but not windows that can open. There are also points for bicycle racks or electric-car parking spaces.

A certified building is more energy-efficient

Christopher W. Cheatham, partner in Cheatham Consulting L.L.C., says green certificates have become a problem worldwide. They are not working as foreseen, he says, citing examples of buildings that had 40% energy savings rates according to certificates, but which in practice saved 20% or less.

Sustainable building will save the Earth

Graham says that driving hybrid cars or making green buildings is not enough to save the planet, notwithstanding all the pollution cars and buildings do indeed cause. The solutions lie far beyond. The real problem, Graham argues, is in an economic system based on destroying nature and transferring the costs of our destruction onto future generations and the poor.