Sustainability can be associated with wildly expensive technological advances. Which not coincidentally can immediately turn off clients.
So how do we define it? What does it mean, from a resource-conservation standpoint, as well as from a business one? For one viewpoint, we turn to Mark English, AIA. He has promoted sustainability efforts on several different levels for years. That means that not only does he incorporate sustainable strategies in his designs, he also helps other firms implement them in their work. He has been involved in programs including the California Solar Initiative, Green-point Rating, and he is also a Director on San Francisco’s AIA Board. He also edits two online publications including “Green Compliance Plus” where articles explore such topics as Passive Houses and the debate on Green Certification, and which also assists other professionals in meeting energy-efficient goals. Another publication, “The Architect’s Take,” presents news from an architectural standpoint. In fact one of those articles provided the basis for some of this author’s work.
But what is most interesting about Mr. English’s approach to sustainable strategies is they are practical, which appeals to those who think that sustainability is merely a fad. Instead, Mr. English observes that implementing green strategies is not about faddish technological advances. It is about saving money. No, we aren’t discussing those persuasions which start with, “Well, yes it does cost a lot but in ten years, you’ll more than recoup your initial outlay.” Instead, Mr. English offers some pragmatic tips, observations, and goals.
For example, when asked what his goal is in promoting sustainability, here is what he says, “Sustainability is about common sense. It isn’t a movement, a reaction, or a philosophy. It’s simply about doing no harm, making thoughtful choices, and being concerned with the impact of your actions over time. It is essentially a conservative approach to life and building. Obviously, to care about this requires not thinking about yourself all the time. My main goal in promoting sustainability is maintaining common sense. Every intervention is expensive in every sense of the word; time, impact, resources, risk. A successful building is one that lasts because it is relevant and delightful.”
That said, it’s true that, “Sustainability, as it’s commonly expressed, IS a fad. It’s the Prius effect, the conspicuous expression of non-consumption. Typically, there is a generational divide amongst architects, with the younger, or the renegades of any age, preaching a utopian vision meant to distinguish themselves.
The education is in the basic conservatism of real sustainability. It’s about not wasting. Dollars and cents are understandable by everyone. ‘Show me the numbers.’ A case in point is the sexiness factor of certain elements of the Green movement. PV panels for instance are a great thing, but using them to offset wasteful energy use is foolish…Make practical green fixes before going solar.”
Interestingly, some of this results from certain entrenched sensibilities within the architecture profession: “The preoccupation with fashion and style is as pervasive a problem in architecture as it has always been. Even ‘Sustainability’ is now a style. No one asks why a Platinum LEED 8000 sf house should ever be considered sustainable, let alone built.
The most sustainable home is the home not built- the second most sustainable is the home that lasts hundreds of years, and because of it’s good design, is adaptable through the ages. Not everyone in the public realm is asleep. Architects are their own worst enemies, and the preoccupation with fashion that infuses our design juries, and the magazines that spread the word, show us to be lightweights. I’d like to see Architects valued as key components in society. I’d like to see the architectural profession focus on:
As for contextualizing sustainability within the larger goals of architecture, Mr. English observes that, “Obviously, architecture has as a basic central goal the solving of problems, utility. In practice, most people and societies tend to think in terms of short-term goals. Promoting economic development now may include creating a soon-to-be obsolete building or collection of buildings. This may create “jobs”, but be ultimately wasteful or counterproductive. We are building with real things- concrete, steel, glass, not ideas. Promoting sustainability gives our profession meaning at the most basic level.”
Here are some additional ways of thinking about sustainability. First, don’t build a new building—an approach Mr. English also promotes. Adaptive re-use, like Altoon + Porter’s Southwestern Law Library offers architects opportunities to be creative while reducing the impact architecture has on the environment—see the 2030 Challenge. Second, implement passive strategies for new structures that are not costly but render a lot of benefit, not the least of which is saving money. Third, implement more technologically advanced strategies—e.g. micro-turbines and photovoltaic thin-films. Which leads to the fourth suggestion: design buildings that return energy back to the environment and the grid. Buildings, existing and new, are the problem, but they also present opportunities for solutions.