"Design isn’t separate from sustainability—it’s the key to it"

Bullitt center
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ Seattle's Bullitt Center, a sustainable design

It’s hard, trying to write for a design oriented website “dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream”. when sustainability has been sold as being all about energy and nobody cares when oil is so cheap. Life would be easier if there was a whole lot of sustainable design to talk about, and if there was much leadership from the architects and designers, but there really isn’t. Because as Lance Hosey writes in Common Edge, reprinted in ArchDaily, When it comes to sustainable design, architects still don’t get it.

LanceLloyd Alter zooms in way too close on Lance Hosey becoming a LEED Fellow in Washington/CC BY 2.0

Lance, an architect and author of The Shape of Green, looks at the woeful performance of the profession, the lack of commitment to meeting the goals of the 2030 challenge that was such a big deal a few years ago, but that less than 1 percent of the profession is actually reporting their progress on.

He notes that almost none of the big names in the profession have any interest in sustainability. And it’s not just the old guys like Gehry with old quotes, but more recent comments:

CalatravaLloyd Alter/ Is it art, or is it sustainable?/CC BY 2.0

If some architects don’t believe sustainability is essential, what do they believe? “I deeply consider architecture as an art—the most abstract of all of them,” AIA Gold Medalist Santiago Calatrava told a reporter last year... The architect-as-artist is one of the most enduring myths of the profession, and it justifies the most damaging and wasteful extravagances. Can we seriously hope that starry-eyed architects will tackle real-world problems when they’re so busy dreaming of “art”?

And this is the designer of a four billion dollar subway station that opens in New York this week, late and almost twice over budget to much criticism about too much art and too little transit.

Lance concludes that “ Design isn’t separate from sustainability—it’s the key to it.” But you would have a hard time convincing most designers of this.

Lance also mentions education as being a problem. He worries about continuing education, finding that most architects are clueless about the cost of building green; I worry about the schools, many of which are like the one I teach in, where sustainable design is an optional course taken by a third of the third year students, when it should be compulsory for everyone and baked into the program from year one.

I worry about the whole green movement, which sold everything from efficient light bulbs to hybrid cars as a way of saving money, when we now face years of cheap oil. That’s why organizations like the USGBC, that runs LEED, is hugging the WELL standard and its focus on wellness and health. It’s why TreeHugger covers a lot more these days than just “driving sustainability mainstream” because it’s too niche to survive in this environment. It’s why I have been focusing on comfort, because comfortable buildings happen to use a lot less energy and it is something I think people can relate to.

When Leonardo DiCaprio accepted his oscar with a speech calling climate change “the most urgent threat facing our entire species” he was pretty much ridiculed, even by some environmentalists. He may well have got a few facts wrong but he’s not about the bigger picture.

survey© PRR climate change survey

But as we know from surveys, even among the people who accept that it is a threat, less than 5 percent of Americans consider it the biggest problem we face and less than a quarter of Americans think it will even affect them personally.

Lance wonders “When many of architecture’s leaders fail to take today’s most urgent challenges more seriously, how can we expect the profession’s rank and file to do so?” But if the clients, the politicians, the public, the bankers, and the users of their buildings don’t care, who can blame them?

Tags: Architects | Green Building

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