Friday01 August 2014

Why is sustainability boring?

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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?”

While 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 consider 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 when someone asked how your marriage or relationship was going, if 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.

Why is sustainability boring?

Why is sustainability boring?

Part of this is being clear about specific outcomes. 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, and many of our clients are very keen gardeners or 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.

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, in order to facilitate a variety of individual approaches. Lowering our environmental impact should be a visionary endeavour, not an exercise in writing tighter codes.


By Jerry Tate

Jerry is the principal of Jerry Tate Architects


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