Sustainability posts

26/10/12

BD: ‘Why is Sustainability boring?’

The Las Palmas Water Theatre by Grimshaw – a beautiful but functional water desalination system.

The Las Palmas Water Theatre by Grimshaw – a beautiful but functional water desalination system.

Recently I was talking to a (non-architectural) friend about the state of architecture and he said, ‘surely things will get better for architects now that sustainability is coming back into fashion?’ Whilst I nodded this off sagely at the time, the comment did take me by surprise. All practising architects are so aware of the issues associated with sustainability that we often assume the rest of the world is on the same page as us, when in fact much of the world may believe it has other more pressing concerns right now.

So at the risk of sounding heretical I would like to ask whether the general public are tiring of sustainability?

Michael Pawlyn of Exploration Architects, in his excellent talks on Biomimicry, often questions the use of the word sustainability to describe our future way of living. He points out that if someone asked you how your marriage/relationship was going, when you said it was ‘sustainable’ it would certainly seem like something was missing! Yet an emotional attachment to the future is part of an architect’s function, it is our job to show what could be achieved and how we can get there. We need a new way to describe an exciting beautiful future when we no longer live in opposition to the natural systems of the world.

Part of this is being clear about specific outcomes. Recently as a practice we have stopped talking to clients about ‘sustainability’ in general and have instead started to concentrate on practical results. For example everyone wants lower energy bills, and tools like the Passivhaus Planning Package mean that we can accurately predict what their energy consumption is going to be (more precisely than the current SAP methods). Similarly everyone is concerned about water shortages, many of our clients are coincidentally very keen gardeners/ vegetable patch owners who are fearful of hosepipe bans. By discussing sustainability less and concentrating on specific outcomes more it is possible to generate convincing arguments for the right course of action.

Shi Ling Bridge

The Shi Ling Bridge by Tonkin Liu – using structural principles of marine shells to provide an efficient structure.

But making these outcomes clear is only part of the story. If we think the issue is purely that of functionality we risk being trapped in a banally reductive world. Without a vision architects become no more than technicians, and it is our ability to shape functional requirements to create a piece of ‘magic’ where we can really flourish as a profession. The potentially huge variety of these visions could dwarf the pluralist revolution of the seventies in terms of variety, there is no one simple answer and we should welcome this as an opportunity.

So how to stop sustainability being boring? First, call it something else; I would be genuinely interested in any ideas people may have for alternative descriptions. Second, set simpler practical outcomes for measuring a building’s impact that promote a variety of individual approaches. Lowering our environmental impact should be a visionary endeavour, not an exercise in writing tighter codes.

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