Monday, February 1, 2010

Why Architects Hate Sustainable Development

What sustainability means for architects, and what we can do about it. Also included is a look at the changing meaning of “footprint” -- from to plan drawing to carbon counting.

Okay, you’re right. Architects don’t really hate sustainable development; no one hates sustainable development.

I mean, if we take the Brundtland Report’s definition of sustainability -- “a process or act that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”– then sustainability is basically a premise that is impossible to oppose. You can’t hate it. Hating sustainability would be like rejoicing in mass destruction…or hoping for environmental apocalypse…or wanting to kill kittens.

This said, the premise of sustainable development poses some really tricky issues for architects, i.e. people who are in the business of designing new buildings…people whose job it is to make things that use lots of natural resources and consume lots of energy…people who build new office towers for wealthy corporations, replacing open space [“nature”] with overly-air-conditioned cubicles. See the problem?

Let me illustrate the dilemma a little further by explaining a change that has taken place with regards to the architectural conception of “footprint.” Pre-sustainability, a building’s “footprint” was simply where [and how] it interacted with the ground – the surface or space occupied by a structure. Today, the understanding of an architectural “footprint” has expanded to incorporate the much more abstract notion of the building’s impact and demand on the environment at large – the embodied energy it consumes and the carbon it emits. This change was initiated in part by ecologist William Reese’s book Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Impact on Earth, and has been expanded by the recent media emphasis on carbon counting and offsetting. Whereas the first type of footprint can be represented by a drawing of the building [a “plan”], the second requires a vast array of scientific modeling and measurements, life-cycle analyses, data tables and excel spreadsheets.

The premise of sustainable development carries with it a moral imperative to “minimize footprint.” Taken to its logical extreme, this injunction is incompatible with the very act of building – not building always has a smaller footprint than building. Architects, from the outset, find themselves in a compromised position. Unable to achieve the ultimate goal [“minimize footprint,” “leave no trace,” etc.] they must constantly weigh various options, trying to anticipate which undesirable option will make their work the least bad.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. The outlook doesn't have to be so bleak. Architects can simply do their best to minimize the environmental impact of their buildings. The result may not be perfect, but with new technologies and different strategies, it can be more sustainable than what we’ve got right now. Of course, you are right, and let me assure you, there are lots of architects who are working in this way. There are even more architects who are making lots of money pretending to do so, but that is another issue altogether.

Let me just leave you with one thought. In my mind, it’s not enough to blindly accept the premise of sustainable development -- to assuage our guilt by offseting carbon in an effort to minimize our collective footprint. We shouldn’t be afraid to be critical of the premises of sustainable development and our critique shouldn’t be interpreted as a dismissal of the problems at hand. We should embrace today’s tone of looming crisis as an opportunity to reevaluate our priorities and to think really carefully about what it is, exactly, that we’re interested in sustaining.

As an architect, I guess what I’m searching for is a way to carve out a position for myself that’s somewhere in between loving kittens and hating sustainability.

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