Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide (Book Review)

Sustainable DesignPrinceton Architectural Press/Promo image

For the last five years I have been asking my sustainable design students at Ryerson University School of Interior design a simple question on their final exam: What is sustainable design? I continue to hope that someone will explain it to me, but after marking 300 exams I still don't know.

A really good start at answering the question has been made by New York architect and designer David Bergman, in his new book Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide from Princeton Architectural Press.

It's a slim, user-friendly summary of the subject that says mostly the right things in the right order. It is not complete or definitive, because the field is in flux; David writes in the introduction:

In light of an evolving discipline, this book is intended as a guide, a base that organizes and explains the concepts and goals of sustainable design, and creates a jumping off point from which those concepts can be further developed and physically emerge. In the ongoing maturation of ecodesign and its merger with the larger enterprise of design, this is a beginning, not an end.

One feature of the book that I really like is the prioritizing. For instance, siting, location and size are the first issues discussed. Passive techniques such as shading, thermal mass and natural ventilation come before active technologies like photovoltaics and wind turbines. Equal time is given to health and indoor air quality. Each chapter is full of useful information presented concisely.

In the last chapter, the Future of Sustainable Design, David suggests it will disappear.

The next stage, the ultimate realization of transparent green, will be a new version of design as usual; a design philosophy broadly adopted, perhaps even unspoken, that ecodesign is no longer optional, but is as integral a part of design responsibility as safety and as integral to design goals as aesthetics....Green design should be considered just good design. I believe we're on the verge of that ideal coming to fruition.

I wish this were true; unfortunately there are still so many different opinions of what green design actually is.

nanyang university green roof photo

For instance, David writes positively about Nanyang University's school of Art, Design and Media that it "goes far beyond tweaks to develop new concepts and technologies"; I call it greenwrapping, a building dropped into the "green lungs of the university", open space designed by the great Kenzo Tange, "that would allow it to build on the central green space without taking away from it." In other words, if you want to build where you shouldn't, cover it with grass.

Greenway Self ParkJohn Picken/CC BY 2.0

Then there is the Greenway Self-park by HOK. It is shown as an example of "more visually interesting attempts to synthesize local wind generation and building design." Architectural critic Blair Kamin wrote " It's a classic case of "greenwashing," tacking a few energy-saving features onto a building whose function is inherently unsustainable."

David may not have chosen the images that illustrate the book, but they do demonstrate the point that two people can have very different ideas about what sustainable design actually is. Nonetheless, David Bergman has written a thorough and very useful summary of the field at this moment, and has made my life as a teacher of sustainable design a whole lot easier by putting it all together in one place.

Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide from Princeton Architectural Press.

Tags: Book Reviews | Books | Green Building


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