February 14, 2008

What does sustainability mean in practice?

  • It is already changing life for design professionals and citizens
    Greif Architects/Firefly



    Sustainability is not new. Its roots in architecture reach back in history to the earliest communities of humans.

    Every civilization has experienced a bell curve of consumption. On the downward side of the curve, drastic measures to reduce consumption of natural resources becomes necessary while they search for a paradigm to begin a new cycle back upward, typically through conquest or relocation.

    Over 100 years ago the internal combustion engine alleviated the crisis of overconsumption of our food supply by animals. In effect, it replaced the ox that pulled the cart and served to reallocate the food supply for people.

    Today we find ourselves in a similar situation. Economic solutions of the same magnitude must be found so that the next generation can exist and meet its own needs.

    Residents or inhabitants?

    In his book “Ecological Literacy,” David Orr discusses the difference between residents and inhabitants.

    A resident is a temporary occupant, looking to gratify immediate needs to survive and is not interested in permanent roots or making any real investments. In contrast, the inhabitant dwells — as Ivan Illich puts it in his essay “Dwelling” — in an intimate, organic and mutually nurturing relationship with a place.

    Good inhabitance is an art requiring detailed knowledge of a place, the capacity for observation as well as a sense of care and desire to put down roots. In this context, the art of good inhabitance is one of the first steps in realizing sustainability. Sustainability then moves towards a new paradigm of modern society where the individual is seen connected and responsible to a place and not a mere transient.

    Image courtesy of Joseph Greif Architects
    One response to energy overconsumption is to downsize living spaces. Miller Greens, a townhouse project with 850-square-foot units planned for Capitol Hill, has been designed to achieve a LEED gold certification.

    Although sustainability has become a common buzzword, its meaning is debated in terms of its effectiveness in realizing individual, environmental and social change. A face-value critique is that it is nothing more than capitalism seeking political correctness.

    The heart of the argument should focus on humanity’s coexistence with nature as inhabitants, not transient residents.

    Reshaping our lives

    Many scientists contend that the Earth will rebalance itself as needed over time to adjust to overconsumption by humans, with or without people as part of the scenario.

    The architect Louis Kahn once said, “It is my feeling that living things and non-living things are dichotomous... But I feel that if all living plants and creatures were to disappear, the sun would still shine and the rain still fall. We need Nature; But Nature does not need us.”

    Only if a new paradigm takes hold, one that works more in companionship with nature, can we continue to coexist and inhabit the earth as we are accustomed to.

    From individuals to communities, states and countries — a worldwide movement towards this new form of companionship has emerged.

    On an individual level the culture of sustainability is reshaping our daily lives. We are, in some cases by law, provided with options to live more sustainably. Now with more ways to recycle, consume energy and discharge waste, life as we knew it just 10 years ago has changed for both design professionals and citizens.

    Cities like Seattle are taking on leadership roles to reduce greenhouse gases and change the way we design and construct everything from homes to commercial and public spaces.

    Built Green, sponsored by the Master Builders Association with King and Snohomish counties, provides an easy-to-understand rating system to build sustainable new homes or remodel existing ones. Adopted by the city of Seattle in 2000, LEED continues to expand its categories, most recently to include a pilot program for neighborhood development.

    Globally, countries are joining together to reduce their environmental impacts. The Kyoto Protocol creates a strong force in persuading countries to join in solidarity rather than isolate themselves from the global community. Along with 153 countries, 168 U.S. mayors from 38 states have joined the protocol and pledged to reduce the emissions from carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases.

    In Seattle, these issues go to the heart of many among us. Do we see ourselves as inhabitants rather than transient residents in this unique environment in the Pacific Northwest, able to put down roots and take on the responsibilities of nourishing and sustaining what we love?

    The Earth’s natural carrying capacity, impacted by rapid changes in land use, population and climate, is diminishing as we continue to rely on fossil and nuclear fuels.

    So what can a homeowner do, in light of our fragile ecological equilibrium?

    Living sustainably

    One answer is to consume less. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the residential sector accounts for 21 percent of total energy consumption in the U.S.

    For many Americans, downsizing to more environmentally sensitive homes may be an appropriate response.

    Joseph Greif Architects, for example, has designed 10 sustainable townhomes on Capitol Hill, developed by Scott Engler of Heartwood Builders in Seattle.

    The 850-square-foot units have been designed to achieve Built Green five-star certification while targeting LEED gold.

    A green roof adjoins the deck, and the exterior requires minimal maintenance because the walls, floor and roof are constructed of insulated concrete forms.

    The drought tolerant, low-maintenance yards need little irrigation. Pervious surfaces eliminate detention and stormwater runoff. A common entrance, resembling a courtyard, is covered with pervious concrete pavers.

    Inside, recycled and reclaimed materials include glass tile and fir stair treads, and rapidly renewable materials are also included, such as bamboo cabinetry. In addition to low-flow plumbing devices and dual-flush toilets, the homes have Japanese-style soaking tubs, which use less water.

    Energy Star appliances include an oven with an induction cook top. Radiant-heated concrete floors afford comfort and warmth while a heat-recovery ventilator can exchange the air up to eight times a day. Nontoxic, low-VOC paints and adhesives make up the finishes throughout the homes.

    Beyond design and use of materials, making social and emotional connections to future generations creates a sustainable consciousness that speaks to the values within a family, community and environment. So as people nourish a coexistence with nature, taking them a step away from the present to the sustainable needs of future inhabitants, awareness of our consumption of the Earth’s resources can shift.

    Joseph Greif has been practicing architecture in Seattle for 27 years. In 1991 he founded Joseph Greif Architects, which includes residential, commercial, and institutional design. Dyan Pfitzenmeier is a freelance writer and communications consultant with her company, Firefly.

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