TreeHugger: How does Ecosa address what you see as lacking in today's conventional design education?
Multi-disciplinary education is also difficult in a traditional setting. The administrative structure of the university tends to divide rather than integrate. The psychology department rarely, if ever, interacts with the architecture department. Even engineering departments have a difficult time collaborating with, never mind integrating with, architecture or planning or graphic design. All the new ideas and synergy created by cross-cultural activity is rarely possible. Departmental budgets, turf battles and tradition are a few of the hurdles. Our semesters often contain wide-ranging skills. Semesters have had engineers, architects, landscape architects, marine biologists and computer programmers working together. In terms of sustainability, I am amazed at how many of our students have no concept of passive solar design parameters. Many of the sustainable ad-ons to courses are electives and lead to the plug in attitude "I'll just add photovoltaic panels here" with little understanding of integration or stacking functions. What design schools are excellent at is teaching design from an aesthetic, technological, historical and intellectual perspective and, while I believe that these are vital and important functions we must broaden the scope of architectural education. It is more than a decorative art. It is fundamental to our survival.
TH: Part of the reason you founded Ecosa was so you wouldn't have to bend to the mainstream university system. Can Ecosa bring sustainability to the mainstream without going mainstream?
The other concept for making these ideas mainstream? Through leverage. In founding Ecosa I knew that we would have a limited number of students so the concept is to create design "viruses" in our students. We bring them to Ecosa to "infect" them with a real sense of the power they have to impliment change, we give them skills to be smarter about energy strategies, how to design high performance bio climatic designs. Then we send them out into their schools or workplaces to become emissaries of change. In that way one student can affect many other people amplifying the impact of our program. Many of the new sustainable initiatives in universities have been pushed by students.
TH: You designed Ecosa for students and professionals studying or practicing built design. How do you sell the environment as a cause to designers, rather than the other way around?
TB: Ultimately the solution is not to rely on just designers or just environmentalists but to have many disciplines work together in interactive ways each informing the others knowledge. I believe very strongly that we have specialized ourselves into a corner where we no long see the big picture and so we solve problems in isolation from each other. A dangerous approach with unintended consequences.
Many people enter the design professions as a way of making a difference; improving the world. They are often disillusioned by what they find. However, there is a growing understanding among young designers, that the future holds some alarming challenges. Just one issue; the impacts of climate change will stress food supplies, raise sea levels, displace coastal communities, cause mass migrations and threaten our ability to maintain social order. It is clear that the magnitude of the challenges we will face are unprecedented. What is important about design is that it is, above all, a problem solving skill.
From a purely self-interested professional position sustainability is being driven by market forces. Government and businesses are demanding energy efficiency and high performance from their buildings. Therefore it is becoming more desirable skill among architectural firms. As the environment deteriorates and regulation becomes more necessary, those with a sustainable background who can innovate will be in demand. So, rather than having to sell designers on becoming environmentally concerned I believe our future needs will demand that they are.
TH: If all your students could take one thing away from Ecosa, what would it be?
Tony Brown is the founder and director of the Ecosa Institute.