You Say “Green” but I Don’t Think You Know What it Means

Posted on March 6, 2012

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What is Sustainability?

The last decade or so has seen the emergence of “green design” or sustainable design to the forefront of everyday architecture. The common usage of these terms is to describe a method of construction and usage of materials that tries to be “environmentally friendly”. This is a good thing. Regardless of your beliefs on global warming, I think we can all agree that it’s better to be friendly to the environment than destructive towards it.

Websters Dictionary defines sustain as

1: give support or relief to

4: to support the weight of

This means that if a building is sustainable it is simply able to support itself as an entity. It is able to negate its own negative effects.

That is not good enough.

Buildings should do more than simply “support their own weight”. They should give back to their surroundings and improve both our physical and social environments as users.

It’s often thought that for something to be “green” or sustainable, sacrifices have to be made either by cost or quality of life. Bjarke Ingels describes hedonistic sustainability as sustainability that increases the quality of life. It is possible to design our buildings to be sustainable and both increase the quality of life and decrease the cost of living.

Sustainable Design for Cheaters

You may have already read my criticism of LEED. If not take a moment to do so here. While LEED and other green rating systems have helped bring about the “green revolution”, they have also fallen short and lost sight of the true goals of “green building”. My biggest gripe is the focus on “green technologies” over passive systems (systems that are not mechanically driven, such as window overhangs that let in just the right amount of light at the right times of the year).

Wind and solar power are great. We should be using alternative sources of energy instead of coal, oil, and gas, but they are completely impractical for 95% of the work that architects do. The payback of installing these devices can be 20 years or more. Most property owners don’t plan on sticking around that long before they start to make a profit, but if we REDUCE the amount of consumption our buildings require, then their energy costs will be greatly reduced and building owners won’t have to wait for a payback. They will see it every month in their minuscule utility bills.

Other “green” technologies such as complex glazing systems and chilled beams have their place, but for a lot of buildings, we simply don’t need them. We can design buildings with simple overhangs, operable windows, stack ventilation and other passive systems that provide the same benefits of “green” technology without the need to actually generate so much electricity. As in every aspect of life, Occam’s Razor holds true to designing sustainable buildings. Simple is always better.

In case my word isn’t believable enough, I’ve extracted some real meaty bits from this article by energy expert Roderic Bunn.

“We have been seduced by the often false promises of new technologies. A building can be mounted with wind turbines and photovoltaics, but they don’t contribute nearly as much as designers think they do because they haven’t driven down the energy requirement to begin with. We tend to glue these things on to the outside of buildings before we actually have reduced the loads of the building as far as we can go. The mantra should be ‘half the loads, double the efficiencies. Halve the carbon in the fuel supply before we go anywhere near on-site renewables. They are often expensive, small, very complex, and maintenance hungry, and the maintainability of these things is rarely taken into account. We are piling in often unmanageable complexity into these buildings, so the consequence is unmanageable complexity. It’s the enemy of good performance. In new buildings, we are trying to drive down energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, and concentrate on the wrong things. We are often trying to do it with innovative technology that requires far more attention in design and construction, and needs aftercare support that it does not get.”

Here’s my favorite part, “just because energy is renewable doesn’t mean you’re allowed to waste it”.

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Posted in: Architecture