Architectural Sustainability

[Image: The Castle House tower by Hamiltons architects; via Inhabitat].

Unless a “green” building actively remediates its local environment – for instance, scrubbing toxins from the air or absorbing carbon dioxide – that building is not “good” for the environment. It’s simply not as bad as it could have been.
Buildings aren’t (yet) like huge Brita filters that you can install in a city somewhere and thus deliver pure water, cleaner air, better topsoil, or increased biodiversity to the local population.
I hope buildings will do all of that someday – and some architects are already proposing such structures – but, for the most part, today’s “green” buildings are simply not as bad as they could have been.
A high-rise that off-sets some of its power use through the installation of rooftop wind turbines is great: it looks cool, magazine readers go crazy for it, and the building’s future tenants save loads of money on electricity bills. But once you factor in these savings, something like the new Castle House eco-skyscraper still ends up being a net drain on the system.
It’s not good for the environment; it’s just not as bad as it could have been.

[Image: The Castle House tower by Hamiltons architects; via Inhabitat].

My larger point, however, is that you can write about a tower that uses less structural steel, and that tower might be better for the environment than, say, a steel-intensive luxury high-rise with three rooftop wind turbines, but your article probably won’t get 890 Diggs – and so you write about flashy gizmos with huge downsteam maintenance bills, instead.
To use an inappropriately over-simplified example, imagine two identical 60-story high-rises. The architect of Tower A convenes his engineering team one day and they proceed to rearrange some of the building’s internal structural steel; they’re thus able to cut out some cantilevers, for instance, and to eliminate excess building material, more generally. This reduces the structure’s embodied construction energy, by which I mean transport costs, steel manufacture, etc. A few days later, maybe the architect of Tower A even cuts out 10% of the track-lighting, or he makes the office lobbies a tiny bit smaller and, thus, easier to climate-control.
The architect of Tower B makes no such changes – but he does add a wind turbine to the roof.
Architect A has arguably had a much greater impact on his building’s environmental bottom line – but we don’t hear about Architect A.
We hear about Architect B, because wind turbines look great, they are easy to explain, and they don’t require much journalistic research.
Architect B – who has mastered the art of ornamentalizing sustainability – comes off as a hero; Architect A, despite his accomplishments, is overlooked.
Again, my point is simply that relatively unspectacular design decisions can be made in the process of constructing a building that will help lessen that building’s environmental impact – but often these decisions aren’t flashy. They don’t photograph well, and they don’t require cool new pieces of Digg-friendly technology.
And so your building, however not bad it is for the environment, doesn’t receive any free publicity on green building blogs. I’m not pointing fingers, either: this diagnosis is at least as true for BLDGBLOG.
A relatively lame example here is Tudor residential architecture: as I mentioned back in November, Tudor-style houses are remarkably energy efficient. “Wind turbines, solar panels and other hi-tech green devices might get the media attention,” I quote in that earlier post, “but the smartest way to save energy may be to live in a Tudor house and insulate the attic and repair the windows.”

[Image: Little Moreton Hall, “an early model of energy efficiency,” according to the Guardian Weekly].

In any case, I just think it’s worth pointing out that you can compare a new building to the environmental impact of no building at all – in which case you have quite a high bar to clear before your new building is truly “green” – or you can compare that new building to how bad it might otherwise have been.
If you’re only doing the latter, then almost literally any minor design decision – including ornamental wind turbines or a few arbitrary solar panels – will make that building “green.” In the process, “green building” slowly loses any rigor or integrity it might previously have had.
Wind turbines, solar panels, rainwater catchment systems, etc., are totally awesome – I unironically endorse their architectural use – but they don’t make a building good for the environment. Or at least they don’t yet.
They just make that building less bad for the environment than it would have been without them.
Which is still great – but we shouldn’t mistake restraint for generosity.
In other words, we shouldn’t pretend that a steel-intensive high-rise with a few wind turbines on top is somehow good for us; it’s just not as bad as it could have been.
I would hope that at least long-term readers know that this blog is “pro-sustainability” – I’ll even sheepishly point out my own interview with Ed Mazria – but I think it’s extremely important to realize that you may be building less bad high-rises, but you are still building high-rises. I remain radically unconvinced that a “green” skyscraper is better than no skyscraper at all – and yet green skyscraper enthusiasts are out high-fiving each other as if their own positive energy is enough to counteract carbon emissions from the global steel industry.
This is actually one of the reasons why I like Ed Mazria and his Architecture 2030 organization so much.
In a recent press release, Architecture 2030 pointed out that “the CO2 emissions from only one medium-sized (500 MW) coal-fired power plant” are enough to negate the effects of planting 300,000 trees in only ten days, among other amazing statistics – including the fact that the entire Architecture 2030 effort, as applied to building renovations, would be negated by the “CO2 emissions from just one 750 MW coal-fired power plant each year” from now till 2030.
If we want to be “green,” Mazria’s press release implies, then a far more effective route toward that goal is to change the coal industry – not to become a luxury high-rise developer in Miami’s South Beach (or, worse, in Dubai).

[Image: The Lighthouse, in Dubai; via Treehugger].

Being not as bad as you could have been is not a viable future goal for sustainable architecture.
Build something that genuinely improves the environment – build something that has a measurably negative carbon footprint, for instance, from the manufacture of its steel to the billing of its electricity – and then I’ll be as excited as you are about how “green” the project really is.
Until then, people who are only guilty of screwing the environment over partially win huge accolades: thank you, we say, for only mugging two people last night – I thought you were going to mug three
Which is positive reinforcement, sure – but it’s not necessarily good for the state of architectural sustainability.

(I apprehensively want to make clear that this post may have been motivated by a post at Inhabitat, but it is in no way meant as an attack on that site; I’ve linked to, hosted an event with, and even written several posts for Inhabitat. I also want to make clear that I am 100% behind so-called green building practices; I just don’t think a “green” building should be mistaken for an environmental improvement; otherwise it’s like mistaking fat-free pound cake for health food: deluded by the packaging, you eat tons of the stuff and you end up like Dom DeLuise).

42 thoughts on “Architectural Sustainability”

  1. “Green” marketing is big business. Here in Vancouver many of the new condo developments have started to sell their properties with taglines like:

    “effortless sustainability with sacrificing luxury”.

    as if buying a half-a-million dollar condo was an act of environmentalism. I suspect “green” is the new “modern”.

  2. ooops, that should read (without) sacrificing. my bad. thats what happens when you drink espresso all day on an empty stomach. But it was “organic” espresso so the environmental effects will be negligible.

  3. It seems like most of the publications that get into discussions of “green” building (such as Dwell) are design-themed. As in aesthetic design. So it kind of makes sense that the visible “green” techniques that effect the shape and presence of the building would be highlighted over more subtle reductions in material quantities.

  4. Sustainability is a non-issue when the population is small enough to have negligible impact on the environment and ecosystems. Cut the current population by three-quarters and keep it at that level and a lot of these issues would resolve themselves. So instead of fretting over this technology or that way of building, don’t produce offspring, and support initiatives that encourage lower populations. We could then go back to making Tudor houses from local materials.

    My thinking on sustainability is swinging away from energy efficiency and toward biological sustainability and quality of life. I see no promise in a future that is increasingly about individuals competing between themesleves for a lousy share of the world’s resources; and there’s only one way to make this planet a better place to live for everyone (plants, animals included).

    Borrowing from your own terminology, the environmental impact of another human might is not going to be good for the environment. So perhaps it’s time we started planning ways for humans to become good for the environment. Until that happens, architectural sustainability is just another distraction.

  5. E-tat, this quote is from the book Cradle to Cradle:

    “all the ants on the planet, taken together, have a biomass greater than that of humans. Ants have been incredibly industrious for millions of years. Yet their productiveness nourishes plants, animals, and soil.”

    The authors spark a conversation of no limits ; which is refreshing in the midst of the restrictive talk all of us environmentally friendly people have at some time been guilty of. Instead the issue is a problem of design, like Geoff says, we’re not doing anything positive until we rethink things to the point “energy efficient” is on a very different playing field.

    I picture a city, or a building, interacting with the ecosystems to the degree that an artificial heart engages its natural host body. The things we build should tap into the environment, with both inputs and positive outputs.

    -BLDGBLOG daily subscriber


  6. When I see Castle House with its turbines, all I can do is worry about who spec’ed the bolts that hold the turbines on. Because ten years down the road, there’s going to be a big storm, and one of those blades is going to fly off and destroy something beautiful that Christopher Wren designed.

  7. Obviously the media plays a huge part in our praise of green building. For better or worse (although, I’d generally say better) green thinking and design is the newest craze. While Architect A may have created a better solution, if Architect B’s solution is obvious enough to make it into the mainstream news, exciting a few people who would otherwise not be exposed to green building… then isn’t that a good thing?

  8. Sure, it’s good that green building practices, such as wind turbines, are now getting tons of coverage – but I have several qualifications to add to this statement.

    1) Adding a wind turbine to an otherwise environmentally intrusive building is not, in fact, a viable green building practice. There are other, easier, much more viable ways to “green” a building (solar orientation, building materials, etc.). So putting more wind turbines into the media actually has the effect of making people not fully understand that there are much easier, and far less flashy, ways to save energy and carbon; people end up thinking that some big ticket item like a wind turbine will come along and make everything okay. Having a wind turbine on your house thus inadvertantly becomes like having a larger credit line on your Visa card: you can now do exactly what you were doing before, but you can do it even more intensely. In fact, now that you have a wind turbine, why not install a better pool heater…? Or a towel-warming rack in the bathroom? After all, the power’s free. You can just add a wind turbine – and you don’t have to ask any questions.

    2) If the U.S. military had solar-powered Abrams tanks, or hydrogen fuel-cell-powered long-range bombers, or wind-powered bases in the Middle East, would the sustainable design community be encouraging them to build more and more of the things? Probably not. But when a multimillionaire developer puts up a skyscraper in the center of London, or Paris, or New York, full of space devoted to, say, investment banking, with a few arbitrary wind turbines on top, the sustainable design community actually gives that person free publicity and encourages him or her to build more. There seems to be a moral issue here.

    In other words, we would do well to reconsider exactly who and what it is that we’re encouraging here – otherwise any sense of social ethics goes flying out the window. Halliburton has a new solar-powered office in Los Angeles? Well, is this good or bad?

    The use of green technology is not an end in itself – thus my military example. Or imagine a solar-powered maximum security prison. Why should I be excited by a new solar-powered corporate complex for, say, hedge-fund managers or for subprime lenders? There’s no reason to mindlessly encourage developers simply because they use wind turbines.

    In any case, fundamentally for me this is just a rhetorical problem. I understand that metropolitan density is actually better for the environment than simply building more sprawl; I understand that having a wind turbine on your building to offset some of that building’s power use (as long as you don’t simply add more luxuries to your building, because their power supply is “free”) is a good thing.

    My problem is if you then pat yourself on the back because you’re “saving the world.” No, you’re not: you’re just making it easier for large-scale developers to do exactly what they would have been doing in the 1980s – which is making huge profits on urban real estate. And that’s fine – I have nothing against making profits, and hope to make quite a lot of them in my own lifetime – but if this is what you consider activism, then you are an activist for the administrative expansion of capitalism. You are a business consultant. Again: that’s fine – but admit that you are trying to help corporations sell more products, and then I won’t have a problem with you anymore.

    Unfortunately, being pro-sustainable design has come to mean: how can I help GE sell more home goods? Again, it’s like fat-free pound cake. Fat-free pound cake might – might – be better for you than non-fat-free pound cake, but that doesn’t mean you should eat more of it.

    The same is true for sustainability. It shouldn’t be used as an excuse for consumptive excess.

  9. Beautifully stated, “green” is a design aesthetic that comes packaged with it’s own color pallet and moral high-ground. Garret Keizer’s take on the politics of global warming in Harper’s last month (June 2007, Climate, Class and Claptrap) hits on a lot similar points, perhaps with a little more venom. highly recommended.

  10. I remember a while back when Whole Foods turned into a giant nationwide chain that tipped the market towards organics.

    One critic said that the organic food movement wasn’t about putting organically-grown high-fructose corn syrup into soda pop. And I think that criticism is short-sighted, because the problem set has to two main elements: The way we do the things we do, and *why* we do the things we do. It’s clearly better for everyone if all corn is organically grown AND people only drink healthy drinks (thus excluding soda). But if the demand for organically-grown corn comes from sweeteners, then the organic movement has clearly won the day. Even though it’s not totally perfect.

    I think the ‘green’ building movement is reaching a similar tipping-point, where everyone wants to be ‘green,’ but really has no idea what kind of philosophical position that entails. That’s a good thing. That it plays out in ways that everyone already understands is only natural.

    The real ‘green’ struggle has always been with communicating a vision, really. So it’s visionaries yammering about sustainability, while businesspeople stare in disbelief.

    I recommend ‘Natural Capitalism’ by Paul Hawkins and the Lovinses as a starting point.

    Putting a turbine on top of the skyscraper *is* progress, though of course it’s a kind of Potempkin progress, there for show. It’s not a show of cynicism, it’s a show that we’re flailing around with these issues, and need more guidance.

    So start guiding. 🙂

  11. Ironic, large office buildings these days are built with “green” behind them – better insulation, turbines on the roof, well aspected windows etc, yet the inhabitants of the offices fail at perhaps the simplest task that could be done to ease the strain on the environment – turning off the damn lights!

    I live in a city of nearly four million, and driving through the city at night often makes me furious when I see fifty storey buildings with every internal light on – at midnight on a saturday night.

    Imagine how much less coal we would burn if cities like New York, London, Sao Paulo, Tokyo, Beijing, and all the other mega cities would make it mandatory for office lights to be switched off at the end of the day’s work. In addition, companies would save thousands of dollars on electricity bills.

    I can’t understand why this isn’t being done.

  12. IMO I prefer to have one 50-storey green skyscraper than having a large suburb. It makes things easier to have public transportation and it saves space for public parks or agriculture.

  13. I prefer to have one 50-storey green skyscraper than having a large suburb

    Great – so do I. Which is why you didn’t read a single line anywhere in this post advocating that we build more suburbia.

    Demanding that sustainable design be more rigorous and less shallow – and less in thrall to the needs of corporate development – is very obviously not the same thing as advocating for more wasteful suburbs.

    This isn’t a case of “you’re with us or against us.”

  14. I think the wind turbine on a skyscrapper is a good step forward because it combines efficiencies. Wind is best at altitude, and the building can be shaped to funnel the wind, as might be the case in the images. Having the turbine(s) on the building avoids having them somewhere else less desireable (view-planes, towers, etc), and might even be safer for birds (due to surrounding structure, but study needed). One thing that must be considered is whether the location is suitable for “harvesting” wind. The extra cost (economical and environmental) of building and maintainaing the turbine must be recouped through clean energy production within the machinery’s lifetime, otherwise it is just a PR stunt.

    However, what no one mentions is that the intermittance of wind-power has implications for the potential uses of the energy: you can’t use it directly, it’s impractical to store, and you need equivalent backup. So unless the wind energy is used to heat the building somehow (the only energy sink in the building that can absorb the intermittent output usefully), it’ll just be tied to the grid with little benefit to the tenants.

    Both of these issues (location and intermittancy), however, make it difficult to say that windmills on buildings are a general solution to lowering the footprint of urban housing. I think that’s what’s behind the uneasiness. You can’t run the grid with wind power alone, and not all buildings will have wind-profitable roofs, especially in a city of tall buildings. For example, what insurance does the owner have that the construction of another building nearby doesn’t take away the wind (because of operating ranges, a small reduction of wind can significantly lower the output of a turbine). New laws will have to be made to protect a property’s right to wind, like the existing “right to light” in the UK.

    As others have mentioned, there are numerous other ways to build more sustainably. And since a building is a place that generally consumes energy, it makes sense to focus on usage reduction. Energy generation from renewables (solar, wind, wave, geo-thermal) is usually optimal in places that do not coincide with human habitation.

    A big question for anybody who thinks they want to live in the windmill building is “who owns the power?” If the developer keeps the money from reselling the power, tenants will not see any energy savings. If the condominium owns the power, tenants will likely see a yearly dividend or energy rebate, or just lower fees for heating/cooling, not really any incentive to use more energy (except maybe turning up the thermostat). And who assumes the maintenance and the liability of the machines on the roof?

    On the topic of sustainable buildings (and building as art and participants in the social landscape), I can’t believe no one has brought up Hundertwasser’s ideas yet. While he has some touristy Gaudi-esque buildings around Austria, one of his main architectural tenets (so to speak) is the idea that trees should inhabit buildings too (and not just on the sod roof). I can’t find the image online, but many books about him have a drawing of how the plants in the building live off the liquid and solid waste of the humans in a sort of symbiotic relationship. In a nutshell, the plants and aquaculture within the building purify the air and waste water, making it fit for humans to consume again.

    PS: anyone taking bets on how long until the windmill building is featured in a Hollywood movie. They’re probably already reviewing the script.

  15. Geoff, i agree with you… just few things.
    Sometimes I believe that “green” architecture is becoming a brand: your example (arch. A and arch. B) seems to demonstrate it.
    I’m not sure about the definition of “green” architecture: according to the arup engineers, a green building is just a building painted in green. I agree with them: building something is always an act of violence.
    Wind turbins, solar pannels…: maybe we want to arrive at a self-sufficient building. It is one of the biggest mystification I’ve ever heard.
    A building can be sustainable, but not just from an energetic point of view: i mean social, economical sustainability.

  16. It’s nice to see someone questioning the “green” label as it is currently being used. I feel much the same way; lately, people gloss over the environmental impact that building inherently has by incorporating all these new-fangled technologies. And people herald these new projects as the future of architecture, when the effects may yield nothing more than an temporal aesthetic that people will think passe a few years from now.

    My take here:

  17. Great Post.

    There is no doubt that you are already aware of this, but it might be worth pointing out that despite the media’s close attention to some arguably questionable ‘green’ building practices, the USGBC LEED program has points for all manor of ‘behind the scenes’ environmental practices. For instance, points are given for providing bike racks and changing rooms to encourage cycling to work. Not providing parking is another way of getting points as well as proximity to public transport. Other ‘difficult to photograph’ aspects include prevention of dust pollution during construction and use of recycled construction materials.

    So while tacking solar panels or a wind turbine on an otherwise ‘normal’ building that most employees/residents drive to and that features imported italian marble in the lobby and offers bottled water to every employee clearly does not make a ‘green’ building, at least there is a system in place that takes these other things into account (though of course, it is far from perfect).

    Sorry to hijack this into a personal rant, but it also reminds me of how many of us seem to have forgotten the first 2 R’s of reduce, reuse and recycle and have, in many cases convinced ourselves that our current rates of consumption are OK, as long as I recycle and buy the occasional ‘green’ product, no point in actually using less, it will get recycled. Not bothering to think that you can’t possibly recycle the energy it took to get your bottle of water (for an obvious example) from manufacture to the store, the energy that went into refrigerating that bottle at the store, the energy from the light bulb at the store that shone on it 24 hours a day so you could see which brand of water it was, and then after you drink it a big truck comes and picks it up and drives it to get recycled, turning (eventually, and not without considerable energy loss) into another bottle of water that someone buys thinking it’s ok that I didn’t bother to bring my own bottle, I’ll just recycle it when I’m finished. And that’s not to mention the pollution that the bottling plant itself creates and whether 50 employees of the bottling plant all drive a half hour to get to the plant etc. etc.

    Anyway, my whole point is that the question isn’t, Is it better to recycle or to just throw plastic and glass etc. into a landfill? (of course it is) but that maybe it would be better if we didn’t buy so much stuff. That the real question should be, Is this glass, can, plastic bottle etc. worth all the energy, pollution, retail space etc. behind it. Sometimes the ‘greenest’ bottle is no bottle at all.

  18. yup, pretty much.

    although i do keep thinking that maybe all of these demonstratively, dramatically “green” projects are an exercise in consciousness-raising… architecture is just too costly in resources to deal only in symbols, nowadays.

  19. The proposition of a sustainable skyscraper is a very appealing, popular idea. Already urban dwellers have a lower impact on the environment than people living outside of cities. Someone who lives in a high-rise building might not even own a car. They might walk to work or use mass transit. The total square footage of a high-rise apartment building is much less than a large McMansion from some suburb. Their heating and cooling costs are less. They don’t have cart loads of garbage being trucked off every week. They don’t have garages over flowing with clutter. They don’t have expansive lawns to dump chemicals on and mow every week. However they do have: endless downtown activities, shared amenities within the building, and hours of extra time saved every day. Living in a high rise is already a very environmentally friendly way to live. If by placing a windmill atop the building they can highlight and expand this aspect then why not! I doubt the developers and banks would fund the cost of the turbines if it wasn’t a wise investment. Even 10% of a skyscraper’s energy costs is quite a bit of savings every year. I suspect the turbines would be paid off within 5 years. Can the someone suggest a move environmentally friendly place to live?

  20. I agree with everything being said here, that the flashy technology and the bells and whistles aren’t any better than leaving the land unbuilt. But I have a couple thoughts:
    (1) in many of these urban environments (i.e., New York, London, Paris, etc.), is it an option to build nothing? I mean, the population of the world isn’t decreasing and people need jobs to bring money home to families. Buildings like these are where people work and live, unless the work conditions are flexible enough to allow working at home.
    (2) is there no value in incremental change? Popularization of green technologies might make energy/carbon-reducing technology more available for other, less media-frenzied projects. But you’re right … I’ve written about the Top 5 Super Green Modern Homes and that got some digg action, but this LEED Platinum building in Montana didn’t get any love. So I’m thinking that maybe the critique is on social media users: they want biggest, worst, super, most, top, best, and ugliest ___, fill in the blank. After all, the ones with pictures are the ones that make front page, right?

    In the end, I think you’re making an important point in this article: what are we praising when we put that ‘green building’ in the limelight.

  21. Love love love the post. I saw the post on inhabitat a few weeks back, and then I saw this in today’s Planetzin. I’ve been doing research for my master’s thesis, which involves green technology and historic preservation. So many books that are the standard discuss the importance of green buiding as new construction. What a waste! Yes, Preston, there is a viable option to building something new, even in urban areas like New York– use the built environment. The second best building for the environment (after nothing, of course) is reusing the built environment. New York didn’t get urban because it’s empty. Why demolish when you can rehab?

    Yes, this won’t work in all cases, definitely. But if you’re going to put in a high rise to house people, why not just rehab brownstones that are already existing and already high density and already part of the infrastructure and system instead? They’re already pretty energy efficient (party walls, being built prior to central A/C, etc). The embodied energy in them can still be put to use. A little insulation and some retrofitting, like the Tudor above, and you’ve got yourself a green house with character.

    Great post, and I’m tacking this blog to my list of ones to read.

  22. Excellent article! I have been saying the same thing for some time now about some of the highrise proposals in my home city of Kelowna, Canada where “green” roofs and solar panels are put on top of the most hideous structures and then the developer sells the idea to our city council as being the model of sustainability. Of course, our city council being none too bright but staunchly pro-development to the last member buys into the sham while patting themselves on the back as being environmentally conscious. I would write more but I think I’m about to puke.

  23. For a developer or landlord, the use of ‘green’ technologies is often a difficult pill to swallow.

    If, at the end of the day the cost is too high and the pay back is too long then the feature is out of the scheme.

    There may be a token gesture such as the wind turbines, or it may be as much as the owner wanted, or even a minimum requirement from planning that the building has a percentage of renewable energy use.

    I agree though, there has always been the issue of green marketing, which I hope is now in decline.

  24. “Sustainability” has always been around in architecture. In the past we have always recycled building materials. “Spolia”, or the architecture of spoils was a widespread common practice in the reuse of building components. For two reasons, buildings were taken apart: ideological/political purposes and the common sense economics of Reusing + Recycling perfectly good materials. In fact, building demolition is a recent phenomenon in the big picture, partly due to our age of relative prosperity. Of course, when we see “green”, it’s a new form of trendy consumerism.

    I like Architect A a whole lot more.

    Thoughtful post, Geoff.

    (Watch Garbage Warrior) and (sorry for backtracking so long ago into your blog)

  25. Hey Olly – No problem at all for coming back through the archives; it’s good to see that people are still coming through and keeping the conversation alive. As it happens, a slightly edited version of this post is being published in a forthcoming issue of Plan, so if that’s anywhere near your neck of the woods, keep an eye out for it.

    And thanks for the comment!

  26. Sustainability…
    Please can we return to what this word means.
    Primarily it means leaving the world as good or as a better place than we found it. Ensuring the world in all it’s diversity for our children.

    Ok, if we can return to this core concept…
    Then when oh when will we start seeing net-positive construction or at the very least net-neutral

    Buildings that reduce the amount of environmental damage that a hypothetical worse built building might possibly have had, are simply a myth of sustainability supported by an industry and society reluctant to face up to needed change.

    Show me buildings that purify more air, energy, and water than they consume, buildings that are tied to resource replacement and suplimentation programs, building that mine more material out of the urban waste landscape than they put in to it, buildings that increase biodiversity, produce excess sustainable energy, produce reusable and renewable resources, don’t use new long chain polymer products, but in fact bind up the ones we already have in our environment… then we can start having a conversation about “Architectural Sustainability”

    Until that day, I’m sorry to say, the ludicrous phrase “architectural sustainability” remains what it is… an oxymoron

  27. My above comment was spurred by more than 20 years in the field of Environmental Construction.

    In this time, I have sat and watched as we introduced mandatory energy rating for houses in my city, then a minimum 4 star standard, now a minimum 5 star energy standard, mandatory insulation laws are now in place, minimum energy standards now exist for all appliances etc etc

    … and yet still… we consume more energy per person in the housing sector than we ever did.
    In reality we are building more energy efficient, but larger and larger castles.

    The size of the average house keeps going up, the percentage of the house that is climate controlled keeps rising, the number of occupants in each house keeps going down. the number of appliances per resident keeps rising. More and more families own two houses, more and more children live between two homes. The amount of appliances running either permanently in the background or on standby mode keeps rising…. The net energy consumption per individual just keeps going up and up

    …and we keep talking about how much we have achieved and how we are nearly at the tipping point

    If we do want to leave something other than an underwater sunburned husk to our children’s children, we , the professionals in this industry, need to raise the bar…just a tad, oh say 200% from where it rests now, comfortably in the hands of egotistical architects and greedy developers responding to the whims of the selfish middle class of the rich elite countries.

    Thats the truth that we need to be hearing and yet don’t seem brave enough to say, more or less act on

    Dave Hodgkin
    Environmental Housing and Emergency Shelter Consultant

  28. Dave, it sounds like we’re in agreement. The major point of this post was to point out that the idea of “architectural sustainability” has been used simply to reward superficial changes to otherwise identical buildings (solar panels on a steel-intensive, climate-controlled skyscraper); and that these “sustainable” buildings are not, in the end, “improving” the environment, in any way.

    A new building might have fancy wind turbines up top – but those wind turbines were added simply to power a jacuzzi that otherwise wouldn’t have been installed because the energy bills would have been too high… Or solar panels get thrown on simply to help offset the cost of running someone’s new home entertainment system.

    In other words, “sustainability” has been used to excuse even more excess – excess patterns of consumption, excess energy usage. You can now buy even more toys for your kids – because those toys were made from recycled plastic.

    Of course, things don’t have to be this way; but that’s how things are going.

    We’re doing everything even more intensely now – because now it all comes with green energy credits.

    In any case, I just wanted to make sure it was clear that this post isn’t arguing the opposite of what you’re saying.

  29. Geoff,
    Your right, I am certainly not arguing against what you say, without doubt the sustainability of environmentally friendly projects like the Olympic Village have to be questioned, 40 Billion dollars spent to aggrandize a country on structures that simply will never be fully utilized again, leap to mind as a classic example of the things that are done in the name of green architecture.

    My point though was that your arguement is but a chip off the iceberg of the discussion we need to have, but are just to scared to engage in. I wish only to take your argument further to the level i believe it needs to be held at. The arguement for Net-Positive construction.

  30. If we imagine the entire landscape as a grid lattice lying in three dimensional space, where ecosystems stand out as vertical protrusions on a scale of sustainability and eco-system service input and cities appear as deep geographical holes of ecological resource drainage

    In such a grid landscape, at the bottom of the pit that is the ecological impact of any CBD, lies even deeper pits known affectionately as skyscrapers, but perhaps better described as pits of architectural/ecological despair.

    The current arguement that you so clearly identify, is wasted on discussions of how deep each of these ecological pits is, compared to how deep it could have otherwise been.

    The discourse needs to change to discussions of how we turn around the ecological blackholes that are our cities, how we build buildings that rise up from the bottom of the pit and start providing eco-system services instead of draining them from the urban environment.

    Perhaps have a look at the work of Dr Janis Birkland and the like

    Dave Hodgkin

  31. In case it did no come across in my above comments Geoff, great article, well written and to the point


  32. I would really love to know the author of this article- I’m using it for an English essay…please let me know- Thanks!

  33. Wow alot of good ideas, in the article and in other comments- I liked the point made regarding people and birth control, as long as overpopulation exists, things like roof top wind turbines are kind of silly, even if they make sense. Here is a counter point though- One can only pursue sustainability within the context of their own life and daily activities. Some folks are environmental activists who have a passion for reforming the coal industry, others are architects…some architects are concerned with the subtle aspects of architectural integrity, others are mainly concerned with aesthetics, as long as everyone is pursuing their ends using sustainable means, and as long as awareness continues to grow on all aspects of ecology including the controversial but much needed call for population reduction (hopefully by voluntary and peaceful means) Then we are on the right track.

  34. Could make contraception entirely free. That would encourage people some people to stop having babies every 9 months.

    For example if a government wants to reduce population, and can afford it, they could sponsor condoms for poor people, who wouldn't be likely to afford them.

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