Periodical: The Architectural Review
Green building technology is a rapidly advancing industry within architecture. Newly public information on climate change creates the need for new technologies and innovative design. In recent years, green technology has become the focus for architectural design. If a building included enough green and sustainable technologies it was deemed successful, or at least progressive. This, in conjunction with the desire to create iconic, unique buildings drives the architecture industry to use the most cutting-edge and bold technologies, materials, and methods to achieve success. Such desire has created a culture of non-sustainable design. Simply incorporating green building technology into a design does not automatically qualify the architectural design as sustainable.
The term ‘green’ has become a buzzword, leading to organizations such as LEED to pick up on the trend and provide criteria for a green building. Net-zero, Passive House, and many more, are groups that set goals for different levels of environmentally sustainable buildings. In some cases, such as LEED, the criteria for achieving excellence in environmental sustainability lacks the need for context and are sometimes trivial. Take for example, the current craze of ‘cargotecture,’ where people are reusing shipping containers to create miniature ‘sustainable’ housing. This small niche of architecture is considered sustainable because it recycles the main unit and often times incorporates other technologies. The energy required to cut and re-purpose the overly structured shipping containers offsets the benefit of recycling one. Similar trends can be seen in the amount of damage done to the environment from procuring the heavy metals needed to develop so many of the green technologies we take for granted (ex: photo voltaic panels). The industry needs to begin to use the organizations like LEED as starting points for the green building. “If…sustainability is a constraint rather than a goal, then it can be used as a criterion to evaluate measures that achieve otherwise defined desirable goals; a desirable measure that is not sustainable is not as good as an equally desirable measure that is” (Marcuse 107). Taking the setting of this argument into consideration, a compromise between fulfilling environmental goals, economic budgets, and social desires needs to be found. By clarifying the definition of sustainability one can get a little closer to being able to achieve it.
Sustainability is a very loose term thrown around. This paper will work to define sustainable architecture as a method that implements design considerations for flexible, long term buildings that have specific users in mind. It also includes having context relevant site elements, area-specific green technology, and locally driven material palettes. These are very stringent criteria, but can be met through a careful design process with adequate material and site research. This definition will start to help forward sustainable architecture, where LEED holds it back; “the LEED system only recognizes positive sustainable elements and does not penalize for inappropriate use of non-sustainable design” (Denzer 32). The previous example of superfluous photo voltaic solar panels or creating a double skin glass façade in the hottest climate on the planet both support the need for acknowledgement of poorly implemented green design decisions. Sometimes they are just as negative as using non-green technology. To be clear, this paper is not a criticism of systems like LEED, but it points out the industry’s tendency to blindly follow them without questioning their criterion or going beyond their goals.
For example, one could argue that the Pantheon, in Rome, is one of the most sustainable buildings ever created. A sustainable building needs to be long lasting and contextual. The Pantheon was created using locally made hydraulic concrete, has passive solar systems, was created with a specific user in mind, and survived millennia. The program of a temple to the gods means that it is supposed to be on a completely different scale to normal buildings, and it achieves this through a monumental spherical geometric form that inspires and overwhelms the human user. The open oculus is a source of light, as well as ventilation and access to the sky. Along with being a tourist attraction, it still maintains spiritual aspects that inspires awe to all of its visitors, something that was implemented throughout its design from day one.
Many buildings nowadays implement the newest of fads in green building. Slap a solar panel on, add geothermal heating, and create a thermal mass with great daylighting and you have yourself sustainable architecture. But that is not the case. Buildings with long term use planned with only temporary infrastructure are not sustainable, no matter what other systems are included in the design. And flexible, temporary architecture, built with materials that are difficult to break down or recycle, work against the goal of sustainability. What if the spaces do not suit the user? Each design has an intended audience or user, and if the spaces created by the architecture are not designed with their thought process in mind, the spaces will be unsuccessful and not contribute towards a sustainable building. What if the building is not correctly oriented to the sun – some spaces need northern daylighting of artwork; or if the climate is tropical and they need passive cooling not heating? These important questions are often overlooked just to get the ‘seal of sustainability’ that organizations, such as LEED, give to architecture that abides by the pop culture standards of green building technology.
The Stuckeman Family Building houses the architecture and landscape architecture studios for graduate and undergraduate students at Penn State University. The building has achieved LEED certification for various items, such as its automated climate control system, material selection, bike racks, recycled elevators, and many other factors. The building is considered sustainable by some due to these technological implementations. At first glance, the system might seem successful, but there are many glaring errors in its design. The daylighting of spaces is something that green building encourages, but the placement of windows in the upper western studios provides glaring sunlight at eye level in the winter, are a testament of the design failure when considering the environmental sustainability. The main recycled elevators surely won board members over, but they lack efficiency and are often not used. Automation of the climate control system is wonderful until there is a malfunction and students freeze in the winter or have to bare sauna-like conditions. The point here is that, sometimes a green technology or system should be evaluated contextually before being added to the design. Some may lay blame on the installation of the systems or the manufacturers of them, but the blame can be put partially on the design because the architecture so heavily relies on the systems to create a sustainable space.
Where the Stuckeman Family building succeeds is in its spaces. Interaction between years and disciplines is a large part of the studio culture. The visually and physically integrated spaces allow for inspiration, collaboration, and unique moments for students who are often stuck in studio for long durations. If the designers took “individual responsibility…[it] would help to move the discussion of sustainable design away from a primary focus on the ethical and environmental consequences of not meeting pre-defined ends [see LEED] to engage with the synergistic and productive development of design and moral knowledge” (Farmer 370). These aspects of design provide more sustainability for the building than green technology as the inherent synergistic culture of design schools will not change, while green technology most definitely will.
Credit should be given to the organizations that attempt to design these green buildings and to organizations such as LEED, because if they were not putting forth effort, this debate would not be happening. Both have given the field of architecture the necessary groundwork to push the envelope and really develop truly sustainable architecture. If the industry becomes complacent and does not further the standard of work and design, the field of architecture will become stagnant and the Earth will suffer for it.
One should understand that setting rules for architecture or any field of design is a bad idea. Design is an inherently unruly path that repeatedly breaks rules to set new trends and standards. “Debates about sustainable architecture are shaped by different social interests, based on different interpretations of the problem, and characterized by quite different pathways towards a range of sustainable futures” (“Reinterpreting Sustainable Architecture” 146). Constantly weighing the current benefits of using environmentally friendly technology and creating long term relevant spaces will be the test of truly sustainable architecture. The definition of sustainability should change as the state of the Earth changes, as long as the goal of providing a better planet for the future is kept. In the current state of affairs, more focus needs to be placed on having real, applicable standards for environmental sustainability in buildings while also incorporating sustainable spaces so that longevity and durability are elevated to the same importance as green technology. Once the standards change, then architecture will follow suit, and we will begin to see sustainable architecture.
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Featured Image Photo Credit: Natalie Marchant