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Thoughts on Sustainability

Lately I’ve been wondering – when and how did we forget about sustainability?

You see, these days I don’t think that sustainability is a recent phenomena when it comes to the design and construction of our built environment. While “sustainability” means many things to different people (or nothing to some), I feel there’s evidence to suggest that it’s been an important value in the history of our profession, even though we didn’t use the term “sustainability” to describe it.

In his Ten Books of Architecture, believed to be written around 15BC, Vitruvius states “If our designs for private houses are to be correct, we must at the outset take note of the countries and climates in which they are built.” And his famous tenets for “good” architecture – economy, firmness and delight – can also be interpreted through a sustainable lens; buildings should make prudent use of resources, be designed to stand the test of time, and create environments that prioritise occupant comfort and well-being.

A number of ancient and pre-modern cities incorporated urban design and planning strategies that utilised topography, street orientation, natural water bodies, clustering of buildings, integration with landscape and the arrangement of outdoor spaces to either protect from harsh winter conditions, or provide cooling relief during summer. Examples of this can be found throughout the world, including Stuttgart, Tunis, Charleston and Muhiabad in Iran.

From a non-western perspective, the chinese design philosophy of feng shui – while today practiced mainly as spiritual mumbo jumbo – was originally intended as a series of design principles derived in response to climatic and environmental conditions. “Feng shui” literally means “wind water”.

I would argue it was the birth of architectural modernism that first divorced us from the notion that buildings should have a relationship to site, context and environment. Modernism was a celebration of our industrial capacity and mechanical prowess, of our ability to overcome prevailing conditions, rather than have to work with them.

Of course, intent and execution aren’t always synchronous. While a renowned example of The International Style, the Villa Savoye leaked badly each winter (in June 1930 Madame Savoye wrote to Le Corbusier saying “It is still raining in our garage”) and was largely uninhabitable due to excessive damp and cold. Madame Savoye wrote again in 1937 stating in no uncertain terms:

“After innumerable demands you have finally accepted that this house which you built in 1929 is uninhabitable … Please render it inhabitable immediately. I sincerely hope that I will not have to take recourse to legal action”.

Perhaps the only reason why legal action didn’t follow was because the Nazis invaded France.

The Farnsworth House, another celebrated example of modernism, was commissioned by Dr Edith Farnsworth in 1945. However, later she sued the architect over claims of malpractice – the house was expensive to heat, had poor ventilation, the steel was rusting, and at night when illuminated became a beacon that attracted swarms of moths and mosquitos. Dr Farnsworth lost the court case, and it is a sad indictment of our profession that architectural historians frequently dismiss her concerns as being due to a “lover’s spat”. In an 1953 editorial in House Beautiful, Farnesworth emphatically stated “We know that less is not more. It is simply less”.

Even architects we often associate with a more naturalistic style of architecture are not all they may seem; in Thermal Delight in Architecture, author Lisa Heschong argues Frank Lloyd Wright’s open plan prairie style houses may not have been possible to inhabit comfortably without central heating.

While modernism was the industrial vindication over nature and the environment, post modernism on the other hand represented the sidelining and dismissal of it. Much to the chagrin of my more intellectual architectural colleagues, for me post-modernism can be essentially summarised as “anything goes” – there was no linear path for the evolution of architecture, no single “International Style”. If what you think is important is different to what I think is important, that’s okay, as long as I can do what I want, you can do what you want.

This has continued to influence contemporary attitudes towards sustainability: If I think designing buildings that respond to the climate and use resources wisely is important, that becomes my personal prerogative, not my professional responsibility. If you don’t think that’s important, that’s perfectly acceptable. Consequently, this has given rise to a culture of narcissism in our profession (not that we needed any more help with this), where a building doesn’t even have to fulfil the basic functions of a building, but can apparently be “art” just for the sake of it. We even use the word “folly” as if it this is a good thing.

Perhaps one of the most (in)famous examples of this can be found in the work known as House VI, designed by Peter Eisenman and commissioned by Suzanne and Dick Frank. Interestingly, “house” is a term that can be applied only loosely, as it can be argued that it doesn’t even satisfy the most basic requirements of a dwelling. Since its completion in 1975, House VI has been plagued by numerous leaks and building rot – not even fifty years old it has already been almost entirely rebuilt. House VI was an attempt to encapsulate the purity of an architectural idea irrespective of its earthly shackles, but in the words of Michael Pollan “Architecture might be done with nature, but the experience of House VI, now on its third roof, suggests that nature will never be done with architecture.”

Or in the words of Robert Venturi: “If you’re lucky, you live long enough to see the bad results of your good ideas.”

The legacy of sustainability as an optional extra continues today; I was once involved in an expression of interest for a $20 million mixed use development in West Leederville, where the client has already obtained a bill of quantities for the project. A single line item towards the end of the breakdown read simply – “ESD features add 20%”. The implication is clear – business as usual, than add some token solar panels, a wind turbine and some double glazing, and somehow this will miraculously make a shit building into a sustainable one.

Increased stringency and regulation isn’t the answer either. When you think about it, before the inclusion of energy efficiency provisions in the National Construction Code in 2002, it was entirely the moral/ethical discretion of the architect or builder to allow for the inclusion of insulation in a building. And don’t get me started on windows – both the poor quality of “standard” residential frames, and also how most architects don’t understand how to calculate thermal performance values, yet will be gobsmacked when they find out how expensive it is to have floor to ceiling glazing that faces west. Building codes can only ever be about ensuring minimum expectations and meeting the lowest common denominator – in the words of architect Bill Reed, they are at best “ one step above breaking the law”.

I don’t mean for this article to be disparaging of our profession. I am still an architect – I’d still be inclined to choose the dysfunctional “shaped like a spider” juicer over a more functional, but less sexy alternative. Architecture and design is important, but not in the way how most of us think it is – when it becomes the pursuit of “pure” aesthetics at whatever cost (or the client’s budget), shrouded in architectural theory in a feeble attempt to demonstrate “rigour”, when building codes, planning guidelines and designing for sustainability are seen as inconvenient annoyances or afterthoughts – well, I can’t help but feel it means we’ve kind of missed the point. Creativity in architecture should be derived from the synthesis of the numerous, often conflicting priorities that a project presents, and a testament to our ability to navigate them to achieve a holistically successful outcome. We don’t need to make up reasons to be creative.

At a strategic level, I believe our profession has a reasonably good grasp of the issues relating to the sustainable agenda – I don’t believe anyone sets out with the deliberate intention to design or build a “bad” building. Though at the coalface, sometimes it just gets all too hard, and it’s easy to default to a “minimum compliance/tick the box/issue the certificate ASAP” approach, even though deep down we know this is far from sustainable. Kermit the Frog said it best – it’s not easy being green.

In a recent Refuel seminar on social sustainability, Dr Angelique Edmonds concluded her presentation with some poignant questions: “Are we just guns for hire? Do we simply work for the highest bidder?” If we are, that’s fine, but then it’s unlikely that sustainability can ever again be an integral part of what we do; it will forever remain an optional extra, the requirements of which shall be determined by an engineer’s report or checklist.

However, as a profession, I’d like to think we can do much better than that. Sustainability may mean different things to different people, but Robert Gilman’s definition resonates strongly with me: “Sustainability is equity over time … that you do unto future generations as you would have them do unto you”. Now that would be a powerful legacy to gift to the future, as opposed to leaky roofs and law suits.

This post was originally published as an opinion piece in The Architect Spring 2014 Issue 2.



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