DJC Green Building Blog

Deconstructing sustainability

Posted on November 13, 2013

The following post is by Kathleen O'Brien:

There's some discussion among professionals and sustainable building advocates about market "fatigue" as regards green building.  Given the tendency of many in the industry to value and use green building techniques for their marketing benefits above all else, this is no surprise.

Author Lance Hosey warns that if sustainability is treated as a style, then it can go out of style.

In his recent book, The Shape of Green, Lance Hosey notes that "associating sustainability with its trappings rather than its principles risks looking passé."  When sustainability is treated as a "style," says Hosey, "it can go out of style."  He describes the unfortunate and conspicuous use of green technologies such as solar panels or a green roof on buildings that are pronounced sustainable, but have little to say for themselves other than the "green bling" they are sporting.

But Hosey does far more than bemoan this circumstance, and he doesn't suggest tossing out the concept of sustainability because some marketers are onto the next new thing, or some architects continue to view (wrongly) that sustainability is inelegant and antithetical to high design.  In my view, Hosey returns sustainability to its rightful place when he reminds us that sustainability  is a set of "principles and mechanics for making design more responsive and responsible, environmentally, socially, and economically."   Designers need "an aesthetics of ecology" that can "guide designers to make things more environmentally intelligent, humane, and elegant all at once."

Hosey is asking us to shift our perspective from technological design to ecological design, and offers three principles that together result in sustainable solutions:  conservation, attraction, and connection.  Well worth the read.

Kathleen O'Brien is a long time advocate for and prolific writer about green building and sustainable development since before it was "cool." She lives in a green home, and drives a hybrid when she drives at all. Recently retired from O'Brien & Company, the green consulting firm she founded over 22 years ago,  she is now the Executive Director of The EMERGE Leadership Project, a 501c3 nonprofit whose mission is to accelerate life-sustaining solutions in the built environment through emergent leadership training.

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  1. For the best designers, “green” design becomes indistiguishable from “design”, but those of us in the design industry for the past two decades have seen egregious designs and badly thought out products promoted because of “sustainability”. I still have designers who think that tiles from Turkey — but accompanied by a HPD form — is a better choice for a San Francisco project rather than a ceramic tile manufactured 80 miles away from the project site. I’ve worked with green professionals who wanted to put bricks with recycled content … on a train from Arizona to Seattle, even though the Seattle area has fairly accomplished brick manufacturers. I think the “bookkeeping” aspect of many of the sustainability systems encourages this dunder-headed thinking as well — becuase we’re often trying to check off boxes, rather than pay attention to the design.
    A well designed buidling should be coming in at LEED gold these days, even without the checkboxes. In addition, if local governments cared about this — really — they should take on the administration of these systems rather than defaulting to a private organization.

  2. Sadly, the description of Hosey’s view of sustainability is so vaporous and diffuse as to be useless. “An aesthetics of ecology?” What could this possible mean? “Technological design to ecological design”? What could this possibly mean? Architects can’t do sustainability precisely because it requires a serious engagement with ethics, economics, sciences, and all those other things they thought below them in the magical realm of design with a big “D”. It isn’t their fault. It is like sending a voodoo doctor to cure typhoid. The voodoo doctor has great faith, but little efficacy. The voodoo doctor may rally his tribe to demonize the enemy tribe, or some local witch, or the gods need for sacrifice, but solving real problems is beyond his grasp.

    Thinking deeply and skeptically about how to solve real problems is not only not very satisfying to architects, they are sadly unequipped to even begin the task. This is why it always turns into a stylistic game of formal assertions and self-congratulatory mumbo jumbo whether it is about Modern, Post-Modern, Deconstructivism, or Green. When was the last time any of us met an architect who could do a statistical analysis of a proper sampling of an ecological context let alone any of the serious scientific issues in biology, chemistry, genetics, etc., to say anything meaningful about “ecology” let alone “ecological” design?


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