The Argyle, a five-story building in Grand Forks on the corner of Fourth Street and DeMers Avenue, is going to be very, very pretty. It’s been under construction since late spring 2020, and after a year of construction, it’s looking very much like early renderings – all glass and right angles and just the right amount of curves.

It’ll include three top floors of residential space – plus a bottom floor for retail and a second floor housing JLG Architects’ new offices. The Grand Forks-based firm designed the project, and to hear them tell it, it’s going to be more than just a new workplace.

The Argyle is a cutting-edge work of the modern, sustainable architecture movement, with all the bells and whistles that entails. The building is designed to maximize the use of daylight, minimizing the need for electric lighting; it’ll sport a solar array on the roof, and it will include efficiencies in heating and cooling and water use.

At JLG, it’s not only the way the new office will work – it’s the way of the future, too. The building’s sustainable qualities are the kind cropping up throughout the architecture world, driven by a decade-long turn into greener building.

“We're seeing clients driving that in many cases,” said Brian Carlson, lead designer at JLG. “There's a desire for sustainability. We're seeing it within the broader architectural community – the American Institute of Architects has instituted a framework for design excellence, which includes many of these sustainable principles as part of this design strategy.”

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The move towards a greener, more sustainable kind of architecture goes back decades, and it’s intertwined with the same political movements that are putting electric cars on the road and planting windmills across the central U.S. But one benchmark that architects constantly refer to is “LEED” certification – that’s “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” – which was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The Argyle, a JLG project, nears completion in downtown Grand Forks.
The Argyle, a JLG project, nears completion in downtown Grand Forks. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Shawn Crowley is an architect with EAPC, an architecture and engineering firm with offices throughout the upper Midwest. Crowley points out that LEED certification saw an early spike in demand from clients who wanted the designation for their buildings. And over the years, that sustained demand has brought more material producers into the market, driving down the costs.

“It started with lead a long time ago and then that was a big trend, with all the owners wanting to have that sort of certification, that pushed the suppliers … because they wanted that to be able to be used in this building,” Crowley said. “So now, those types of products are now more readily available and they’re not necessarily considered specialty products anymore. They’re almost standard.”

The result is moving sustainable architecture from a more expensive proposition to something that makes more and more economic sense, as buildings more easily recoup the expensive costs over the years.

Crowley points to EAPC’s project in Brookings, S.D., where the firm has worked on South Dakota State University’s precision agriculture center. The nearly $40 million facility has high-efficiency HVAC, a solar array on the roof and is being built with a number of recycled and low-pollutant materials. It’s expected to begin hosting classes this fall.

Andrew Eitreim, vice president and principal architect at Architecture Incorporated, described a health sciences project at the University of South Dakota campus. There’s ample daylight to help reduce the need for electric lighting, low-contaminant building materials, and a cooling system that’s built to cool water overnight – off-hours for the local energy grid – then use it to keep the temperature regulated during the day.

It’s an exciting project. But Eitreim points out that green features of all kinds are becoming more commonplace as technology improves and as the market shifts – on interior finishes, exterior finishes, insulation systems and more.

“Twelve or 14 years ago, there was the idea that, well, you’re doing LEED-certified, there has to be an additional (cost),” Eitreim said. “And if you today were doing a LEED-certified or LEED-silver project, I would argue that the cost difference is minimal.”

The change is exciting for architects, who are watching ideas about design move into the mainstream. Patrick Thibaudeau, JLG’s principal sustainability officer, explains that more and more often, JLG in particular is trying to make sustainability more than just an add-on, but part of the building and design process from the start.

“I call it the ‘syrup syndrome’ that we're ending,” he said, “where often design and construction is looked at as, well, we're going to do our design like cooking a stack of pancakes, and when it's all done and baked and served on the platter will call the specialist in and pour the sustainability syrup on top of it.”

Without pushing the metaphor too far, the industry is headed from that stack of “pancakes” toward something more like a cake – in which all the small details and advantages of a fully sustainable building are added into the project from the beginning.

Watching that change can be exciting. Andrew Budke, also of JLG, said a lot of sustainability ideas are the ones he remembers from design school – but have taken their time to show up at the office.

“Entering the professional world, it seems like there's a lot of opportunities or reasons why those best practices don't happen – justifications made, it's too hard or the market won't support it,” Budke said. “I guess what's so exciting about this project is that it's finally happening. All these big, heady ideas – it's like we're finally putting our money where our mouth is.”