No more being seduced by objects of desire, it is time for serious sustainability.
I have been writing for TreeHugger for over a dozen years now, and perhaps I am getting jaded and blasé. So I am going to lay down some ground rules and resolutions for 2018 that will guide what I choose to write about, and what lens I shall look at them through. I hope to separate what is fad and fashion from what is really sustainable and green, what really matters if we are going to build a better, low carbon world.
No more buildings with trees unless they show us the math
Stefano Boeri started it but everyone is doing it now. Even in Dubai the buildings will be full of big trees that are supposedly sucking up CO2 and delivering oxygen and moisture to the building inhabitants. I tried to do the math on this and found that your average growing tree will suck up 13 pounds of CO2 per year. Making a pound of cement generates a pound of CO2, and concrete is about 10 percent cement, so 10 pounds of concrete generates a pound of CO2, not including the CO2 generated digging up and transporting all the sand and aggregate that makes up the other 90 percent of concrete. A cubic foot of concrete weighs 150 pounds. So if it takes just an extra cubic foot of concrete to support the weight of that tree, it will take 11.5 years for the tree to pay off the carbon debt of the concrete that is supporting it. But I suspect that it is a whole lot more, that just the planter itself has a couple of cubic feet of concrete in it, let alone the structure under it.
Of course, there are many other benefits to putting trees and plants on buildings; it's biophilic and makes us happier, it provides habitat for other creatures, it cleans the air of pollutants. But don't let's pretend that it is about sustainability and carbon unless you show us the math. This year I resolve to ask that question every time.
Got a new wood tower? It had better be certified wood
Building with wood is the big architectural trend of the decade, as the logic of building with a renewable resource that sequesters carbon becomes ever more obvious. Most of the new wood technologies use softwood lumber that grows quickly, and the growing use of wood could revitalize the economies of states and provinces where forestry was a huge job creator.
But if it is not done sustainably, it could lead to deforestation, destruction of natural habitats, pollution of rivers and trampling of important parts of indigenous culture. If much of the tree is left to rot, it could neutralize many of the benefits. We have to know not only what the building is made of, but where the wood came from and if it was sustainably harvested. That's why there are certification systems like FSC, SFI and CSA that set standards and ensure that they are followed. Some manufacturers of products like Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) use certified wood; Structurlam has announced that it is now part of the SFI chain of custody standard. Others don't mention where their wood comes from.
Building with wood is a huge environmental step forward, but it could be a disaster for the forests if we are not careful. This year I resolve not to write about a wood building unless I know where the wood came from.
Got a tiny home? Tell us where it's parked
I have written previously about how I failed as a tiny home entrepreneur; that is why I am now a writer. The basic problem was that tiny homes were not legally homes, but were a form of RV or recreational vehicle. It was all a kludge, a way to get around the rules for creating living spaces that got around zoning bylaws and building codes.
Now the rules have been changing; zoning bylaws are being clarified, but tiny houses still are not legal in many places. Building codes are being adapted, but many tiny homes are still firetraps with lofts that do not have proper means of exit or even a window big enough to jump out of in an emergency. In both design and siting, they skirt around the law, which is why they are not yet a real solution to housing for significant numbers of people.
That's why we show a lot more small apartments; that is a problem to be solved for a much larger potential audience. This year I resolve to not write about Tiny Houses unless I know where they are parked, and how they deal with poop.
How much does your vehicle weigh, Mr. Musk?
Bucky Fuller famously asked future architecture superstar "How much does your building weigh, Mr. Foster?" It was a surprising question because people don't usually worry too much about how much a building weighs. But Bucky understood how much energy went into making materials, and how important it was to make buildings lighter, to use less.
Now, as we enter the era of electric vehicles, it's time to get serious about this question again. Every pound of car pushed down the road needs power to push it; the more weight, the more batteries, the more power needed to charge those batteries. A Tesla model X fully loaded tips over 6,000 pounds and I worry that the Tesla pickup will be just as big and heavy. This is not the path to sustainable transportation.
The year before I entered architecture school I bicycled from Toronto to Vancouver, and learned from the experience. I wrote about this on MNN: "I have never forgotten that everything weighs something and every ounce matters; in architecture, I always tended toward things that are light and portable and minimal. "
That's why I prefer an ELF to a Tesla, and why I think the development and spread of e-bikes might well be a bigger deal than electric cars. This year I resolve to write more about them.
Enough of Bjarke Ingels
When I was in Denmark for the INDEX: Design to Improve Life awards in 2015 we visited Bjarke Ingels' brilliant new Maritime Museum, which was a design tour de force but I thought was construction nightmare, writing in TreeHugger that it was a disaster area. When I visited two years later, the entire building was scaffolded and it appeared that the ramp was being replaced.
When I visited Bjarke's Via West 57 I wondered how they were going to keep the water out; the entire design is predicated on balconies on top of living spaces. You cannot just have a scupper to drain out because of the slopes, so there has to be a complex internal drainage system. You have to install insulation, membranes, drains, water stops. It is endless; every single balcony has to be built like a shower pan, but with insulation too. This is not easy.
When I looked at the design of Telus Sky, his new building in Calgary, a very cold city, I complained that "the architects have gone out of their way to increase the surface area of the building, including the toughest condition any architect and builder has to deal with: terraces on top of occupied space, for every unit yet. It's ingenious and gorgeous, but it is a thermal nightmare."
Even his magnificently wild waste to energy plant in Copenhagen looks like a moisture management design from hell, with water pouring from one giant stainless steel "brick" to another. One of the definitions of sustainable design is that it is built to last. Yet I have never seen a Bjarke Ingels building that did not seem to me to be a maintenance nightmare. But as I wrote previously,
Bjarke doesn’t worry about such things. He reinvents the wheel on almost every job; that’s one reason the big ramp on his Marine Museum in Denmark appears to be held together with duct tape. He is building a new world, a new architecture and it is inspiring, gorgeous and fun, just like he is. But I am not sure that it will wear well, that it is sustainable in the true meaning of the word. I remain concerned that every time you reinvent the wheel, it tends to fall off sooner than you expected.
This year I resolve not to get all gaga over the latest Bjarke! building, no matter how innovative it looks. I will come back in a decade and see how it held up.
This year I resolve not to be seduced by objects of desire, be it the latest Tesla or boldest Bjarke!. It is time for real sustainability.