the sustainability challenge: today & tomorrow
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DESCRIPTIONEssay on Urban Sustainability for a TU Delft course.
Report by Alexandros
Table of Contents
IntroductionReport StructureGetting Started
Priorities“Yes is More”
The Second Life of Buildings and their ElementsA confession
The routes of sustainability derisionA line of defense
The value of Green and BlueThe role of the Architect in a dynamic future
The pros and cons of LabelsA personal reflection
This report is written as part of the Sustainable Development Program course, and it is an attempt to describe the contemporary way of dealing with the challenges of sustainability in the building process. And as sustainability is always about assuming future conditions in order to prepare for them, this report will also attempt to predict the future of sustainable development and the role of the architect in the future build-ing world.
This report will use the lectures of the Sustainable Development Program as a start-ing point and a navigator to the diverse subject of sustainability. Taking the subjects stressed in chronological order, this report will try to comment and expand the issues presented.
Building practice is changing. The energy class of a building, the carbon footprint of its construction, demountability, reusability, flexibility are presently major design factors, shaping different forms and demanding different practices than the ones of the recent past. How can all these extra demands coexist with the old ones, in order for them to fit in one project. How can they be harmoniously managed?
It is true that sustainability imposes extra demands that the architect has to adress.
Sustainable design has to take into account all aspects, as all aspects play a role in determining if the designed construction will be a successful building used for a long time. There are no designed criteria that should take no attention at all. Even criteria usually frowned upon, like the optical “wow” effect helps the building to attract attention, which for some functions is a necessary feature. With that said, it is of course necessary to focus on the features most essential on the specific project, settling priorities for it. In the lecture of Kees Duyvenstein, we saw that it is almost unanimously agreed that energy is the key factor in Sustainable Design. And while hardly anyone could argue that a building with no sustainable energy considerations could be a sustainable de-sign, it is essential to point out that it is not enough, and that maybe it is not even the most essential criteria to focus on. Sustainability primarily underlined the importance of time and its effect on construc-
tions. Energy classes on the other hand are given as a static feature, time-independ-ent, which is of course a good selling-feature for real estate sellers.We have to remind ourselves on the other hand that if the construction fails to cover ever changing needs in its function (flexibility), fails to interact with its surrounding ever changing environment and its inhabiting ever changing human population (peo-ple) the building will soon be demolished before most of its sustainable technologies have the time to surpass their embodied energy. Design is a complex process and no general rules can apply to all cases, that’s why, despite all the consultancy and aid that the computers can provide, it can still only be done by human.
“Yes is More”
As Bjarke Ingels boldly states with his “Yes is More” quote and ideology, the extra demands that today’s design has to meet give extra strength to the design, and the more demands it has to say “yes” to, the more benefit to the design. Using also the analogy of the popular twister game to explain this idea, he sais that as in twister the player have to get to awkward positions in order to touch all the positions the cards force them to, likewise building forms become more and more interesting trying to simultaneously fulfill diverse needs. As hard as it may be to see the extra design considerations so positively (Bjarke In-gels even uses the term “Hedonistic Sustainability” as a title for his lectures), it is a useful mindset that can set a different mood to the usually gloomy and eschatological rhetoric of sustainability “preachers”.
p.1: Twister Boardgame Front Cover
The Second Life of Buildings and their elements
Reuse of old building elements is of course not a new idea. Since ancient times build-ers looked around the building site for materials they could use for their building, not hesitating at times to destroy important buildings to succeed that. Mausoleum of Hali-carnassus, Colosseum and many other buildings suffered from the builders re-use practice.
p.2 The Mausoleum (wikipedia.org)
We could also note here, as an extra note, that the idea of monument preservation which is almost unanimously agreed on in the western world, is not thatimportant for other cultures (Japan etc.) where buildings are believed to be built for their own time and for a specific function, and no point is found in preserving them when their function is no longer fulfilled.In comparison, today’s builder is on the contrary extremely respectful to past build-ings, even the ones with no architectural value whatsoever. For years he had forgot-ten the old trick of looking around for materials that can be reused, reducing thus the costs and the carbon footprint of building procedure. Of course the extra time he would waste thinking of how he could incorporate used elements instead of producing new, discouraged him from these considerations.With the today’s growing environmental awareness, reuse of existing buildings and materials has returned in the building everyday glossary. During the lecture of Anke van Hal, the various challenges of renovation projects were shown.In the Slim&Snel initiative which was presented, is an integrated approach in the reno-vation of 1960’s-70’s building blocks in the Netherlands. It is an attempt to tackle the problem of the large energy demands of these buildings, given that demolishing and rebuilding from scratch is not economically feasible (and prosperous) in the current financial crisis situation.The Slim & Snel initiative relies on the cooperation of renovation companies and in-terested parties in order for the intervention to last no more than 5 days. This is done to make sure that the discomfort caused to the residents will be within their bearable capacity.Despite the fact that the initiative aims to reduce the aforementioned discomfort while providing them a smaller energy bill, residents are often reluctant to agree in the reno-vation works. This is partly because the energy bill reduction is accompanied by a rent increase.Apart from improvements that could make it more a “win-win” situation for residents, owners and renovation companies alike, enhancing people participation could also expand their tolerable time limit. What is more, it is important to combine sustainable technology implementation with functional or aesthetical interventions which would make any discomfort more easily justifiable in the minds of the residents.
As much as these improvements could smoothen the procedure of environmentally friendly renovation projects, one cannot close his eyes towards the prevailing unwill-ingless and negative predisposition of the general public towards sustainability. It is essential to attempt to trace the routes of people’s seemingly inexplicable negativity. And this search can start from the word itself.
The routes of sustainability derision
Words have their own life cycle. The rise in popularity of new terms in our times can be very rapid, due to the common sources of information and entertainment that the world shares through the World Wide Web. The death of a word, on the other hand is not equally abrupt as its birth. Sustainability is a term that is almost 40 years old. During its lifetime so far, it was used to express the need for a switch in behavior and practice, with an eye, not only on current prosperity, but also on future generations’ prosperity. Of course, the word has “suffered” a lot, to an almost irreversible level. While older technologies were already tried for ages and had proven their results, the “new kid”, sustainability, was asked to be comparable or better than its “older brothers”, without having yet the experience needed. One of the most often repeated accusations for sustainability is, well, ugliness. But why was this mental connection created in people’s mind? The reduced beauty of (advertised as) sustainable projects is an outcome of many factors, but mainly of the focus on energy need reduction, which does, in fact, generate a sort of unpleasant repetitiveness. (Another main reason for the aforementioned mental association is that many existing buildings had to implement sustainable techniques years after their construction, with sustainable technologies “sticking out”, as they were not integrated in the appearance of the building during design.) A line of defense
The accusation of sustainability being repetitive and generic, can be refused, if one considers, as he should, the broader meaning of sustainability, beyond Energy. With this mindset, it could be stated that beauty is the most sustainable strategy. If people hate a building, or an urban area, for its repetitiveness and its mindless imple-mentation of all the available sustainable technologies, the chances are that they will abandon it before these technologies pay off. Thus, such a building cannot be described as sustainable and sustainability should
not take the blame for buildings like that. Boring designers, and maybe the market’s demand for environmental accreditations, should probably take the blame instead.
The value of Green and Blue
The benefits of a good design are not always quantifiable. How to quantify the emo-tional impact of the implementation of green in residential urban blocks with no iden-tity? How to quantify the importance of water playgrounds for children? As much as an architect might try to quantify the benefits of his design, the real value that he has in the back of his head is often the most essential, although it is often hard even for words, let alone numbers, to describe.Even in an ever-evolving future, an architect should always remember the basic char-acteristics and values of his profession.
The role of the Architect in a dynamic future
The trend of overspecialized employers, as predominant as it might be during the past century, seems to slowly fade out. The information that a specialist only could know in the past, is now reachable within seconds through computers, leaving him only with the big burden of its management. What is more, the considerable problems occur-ring when a task is separated in phases, carried out by different specialties, made the need for integrated design prominent.The architect was always meant to be the technician above all other technicians, organizing, designing and assigning roles to all other fields. The word itself, which comes from ancient greek language, means the “first of the technicians”. This duty forces him to have a broad range of interests, to know at least something about eve-rything. It is thus inherent to architecture to be able to play different roles, and to be able to organize different projects. In all these roles though he, more or less, does the same thing: discerning the essential from the unessential, the urgent from the not so urgent and setting the priorities for each human intervention in his surroundings, in order to fulfill more human needs than before.In all the roles that were presented during the lecture of Jacques Vink (from the dutch architectural office Ruimtelab), this also applies. Even if it seems like for some roles, some of his features are more needed than for other roles the most essential feature is for him to be able to do the aforementioned analysis of the situation in order to be able to do the synthesis needed at the specific time. Thus even if a role can be done without strengthening features that seem less needed, this could be a dangerous trap to fall in.If a “craftsman” (words in brackets used with the meaning given to them during the lecture) for example lacks the sense of budget an “entrepreneur” has, or an “archi-tect’s” sense of the effect that time will have on his creation, the social understanding of “researcher”, or the social and organization skills of a “facilitator”, his designs might not have enough strength and correlation with the existing social and material context, in order to combine harmoniously with it and thus sustain.
The pros and cons of Labels
Label words always have two sides: they help us organise the world we live in, group-ing in our minds similar items, filing them under a label, sacrificing, on the other hand, the special treats of each and every single item, and thus risking broad generalisa-tions.
A personal reflection
A saying has it that “if you don’t look at where you want to go, you will go where you look at”. The future is difficult to foresee especially in unstable times like the current ones. But it is always important to focus closely in your goals to have chance of actu-ally succeeding them.My personal focus is integrated architectural design. I believe that structure, climate, energy, light, materials, social aspects should all be taken into account in the initial phases of the design. Computers nowadays give us more and more tools to examine different design scenarios in less time than was needed in the past. This changes the decision making process during design, making it an even more interdisciplinary proc-ess.Taking part in a dynamic multidisciplinary design team like the one described above, is a future I am currently working towards. With the rising importance and speed of calculation tools for the aforementioned building features and the growing need for scientific reasoning behind architecture, I believe that in a few years interdisciplinary architecture design will be standard practice.Calculation tools and the generalised awareness on the irrationality of neglecting the time effect during design, are expected to make us discard the term “sustainable design” for just “good design”, as it will be indisputable that sustainability issues are adressed during design.
1. Ingels, B., 2009. Yes Is More: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution, Evergreen.2. Mpouras C. 1999 Courses in the History of Architecture, Symmetria3. Hal, A.v, 2009 The Merger of Interests, Breukelen, 4. Lecture Notes/Slides AR0085 Sustainable Development Programme (TIDO)5. Duijvenstein K., Building & Environment lecture & article