Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sustainable Architecture - Article written in 1997

Sustainable Architecture


A sustainable society is one that can persist over generations, one that is far-sighted enough, flexible enough and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or its social systems of support.[i]
Sustainable architecture is related to a world wide movement towards sustainability in all aspects of life. It is the act of building that supports the existence of humanity without destroying its environmental and cultural context. Some authors consider sustainability movement as “another step in the process wherein society has moved from a nomadic hunting order, to an agricultural order, to an industrial order and is currently moving to an information based order.” [ii] In general, it is an attitude and way of thinking and acting responsibly towards the context of our existence. It is a term that represents the social and cultural shift in the world order, patterns and styles of living, a new attitude and way of looking at the world.

Theoretical Background

The history of thinking about sustainable development is closely linked to the history of environmental concern and peoples’ attitudes to nature. Both represent responses to changing scientific understanding, changing knowledge about the world and ideas about society.[i]

Definitions of Sustainable Architecture

The basic definition of the term sustainability is derived from the dictionary word Sustain meaning: 1. Bear weight of, hold up, keep from falling or sinking (c.f. Support), 2. Enable to last out, keep from falling, give strength to, encourage, 3. Endure without giving way, stand, bear up against, 4. Undergo, experience, suffer, 5. Allow validity of, give decision in favour of, uphold, 6. Bear out, tend to substantiate or corroborate, confirm, 7. Keep up or represent adequately, 8. Keep going continuously. [ii]  Sustainable is an adjective describing an object to which is given support, relief, nourishment, or supplied with sustenance and thus continuously kept alive or prolonged
The popular interpretation of the words “sustainable architecture” describes an approach to architectural design that minimizes sustenance or resource consumption so as to prolong the availability of natural resources. However, the definition of “sustainable” does not imply a minimization of sustenance. “Sustainable” simply expresses the fact that resources do maintain our environment. Sustainable architecture describes the fact that we receive what we need from the universe. This realization compels us to respond with care or stewardship in the use of those resources. Sustainable architecture, then, is a response to an awareness and not a prescriptive formula for survival.[iii]
Sustainable architecture is part of a larger concern of creating sustainable environment, which is an environment for human occupation, performance and the support of life to which sustenance or nourishment is continuously given.
The term “sustainable” does not express the minimization of the expenditure of those resources necessary for the prolongation of the life. The term does define the fact that no humanly created environment can survive without the contributions of the larger natural environment or ecological systems. Sustainable architecture, then, is a response to an awareness and not a prescriptive formula for survival.[iv]
Sustainable architecture is sometimes misunderstood as a romantic nostalgia to the past with its simple and unpolluted vernacular ways of living. On the contrary, sustainability is a call for an adoption of a new way of thinking and acting responsibly towards the surrounding environment and the creation of new environments. It is an invitation to honour the process instead of praising the product. It is important to note here that one should not expect to reach typical ways of doing things. Each context requires in depth understanding and acting according to its needs and potentials.
Sustainability is sometimes misunderstood as refraining from taking action and living passively in order to avoid using up the available limited resources. The Rocky Mountain Institute defines sustainability as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.[v] This definition stresses the right of living for present and future generations. It also hints to the impact of irresponsible rapid development, exhaustive use of resources and environmental pollution exercised by previous generations after the industrial revolution which affected the living environment of our present generation. The cry for sustainability in all our aspects of living is a legitimate one. Sustainability is meeting the needs of present generations without limiting the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.[vi]

Historical Development of Sustainable Architecture

The concept of sustainability (the "S" word) has been around for a long time, although only recently has it entered popular culture. The modern roots of sustainability begin in the early 20th century theory of renewable resource management, most notably in sustainable agriculture and forestry, and in theories of "sustained yield." The real power of the concept of sustainability lies in its integration of economic, social, and ecological systems, previously studied and dealt with separately.[vii]
Until recently the concept of sustainability was addressed separately by many discipline in an effort to save the environment and natural resources. It was realised that individual efforts were not sufficient to restore the already damaged environment without a collaborative effort between all involved disciplines. The concept was expanded to include all aspects of human existence. In architectures, the modern movement, which started with the turn o 20th century, addressed mainly aspects of technology and industrialisation.
Architecture of the 20th Century began as a celebration of the age of industry and technology; but this is rapidly changing in response to a new age of information and ecology. From an ecological perspective, mainstream architecture for the past two decades has sent out all the wrong messages. These machine age influences share one thing in common. They embody the profligate consumption of fossil fuel and a technocentric and anthropocentric view of human habitat. Particularly from the 1970s to the present, the celebration of such industrialized features as exposed structural systems, vast expanses of plate glass, and cantilevered or tilted steel trusses have somehow become synonymous with "progressive" architectural imagery.[viii]
The concept of sustainable architecture started as an effort to save energy during the seventies. A return to traditional passive solutions of cooling and heating using windtowers, earth sheltering techniques and design concepts (ex. courtyard and compact design). It was also appreciated in all studies of vernacular architecture without directly addressing the theme of sustainability in vernacular architecture.
The following are major developments of the concept sustainable architecture:
1950’s Interest in Vernacular Architecture
Interest in vernacular architecture started as a reaction to non-human outcome of modern architecture practices which lasted for 50 years. The celebrated book of Amos Rapoport House form and culture[ix] was very influential in focusing attention on vernacular architecture and its multidimensional meanings including climatic, resources, and socio-cultural factors.. The significant work of Paul Oliver[x] addresses aspects of vernacular architecture in many parts of the world as social and cultural phenomenon. The work of Hassan Fathy[xi] addressed many aspects of the concept sustainable architecture while developing new villages for Egyptian peasants using available resources, employing self-help methods, applying vernacular construction techniques, while recognising social and cultural aspects of architecture.

1970’s Solar Architecture

Previous to the use of the term “sustainable architecture,” the term “solar architecture” expressed the architectural concept of the reduction of the consumption of natural resources and fuels. The intent was that we could conserve our fuel resources through the immediate capture of the available solar energy through appropriate building design.[xii]
Following the energy crisis in 1973, an energy conservation movement encouraged innovative solutions to reduce energy consumption and dependency on international oil supply and increase use of renewable energy sources. The main sources of renewable energy were solar energy using installations of photovoltaics and wind farms. The energy conservation movement suggested conscious utilisation of energy sources, acceptance of less comfort levels, responsible attitude towards the environment.

1980’s Ecological and Environmental Architecture

Ecological and environmental concerns have expanded well beyond the issue of the consumption of non-renewable energy sources. The massive consumption of all natural resources during the economic boom of the 1980’s, both renewable and non-renewable, has placed a severe strain on global supplies and caused irreparable damage to our atmosphere.[xiii]
The energy conservation movement of the 70’s was merged with the economic development movement of the 80’s in an effort to avoid the disasters of irresponsible industry based developments of the early 20th century. An embracing Ecological and Environmental concern was addressed by many disciplines. In architecture, Environmental Study areas and courses were established in many university.

1990’s Sustainable Architecture

The modern sustainability movement began when The World Commission on Environment and Development, through the Brundtland Commission, released their report Our Common Future in 1987.[xiv] The Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The Brundtland Commission tried to reconcile the interests of economic development with those of environmental conservation. Whereas the sustained yield perspective of the early 20th century focused on biological systems, the new theory of sustainability considers human needs and wants as well as ecological functions and processes.[xv]
The definition of sustainability as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” is accepted world wide. It illustrate a new human consciousness of the historical moment and conditional existence of our generation. Yet, it requires some elaboration and clarification.
The Bruntland Report defined the notion of sustainable development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. As this is a very general statement it will be necessary to elaborate and define further. One may, for instance, define sustainable development as the economic, social and environmental aspirations of groups, which may or may not have economic growth as a priority. The achievement of these aspirations is subject to a set of conditions. These include inter-generational equity, which requires that the stock of environmental resources passed on to the next generation should not inhibit their aspirations, and intar-generational equity, which seeks to increase the likelihood that the current aspirations of different groups will be met.[xvi]
A wholistic view of sustainability, as opposed to partial views by different disciplines, pauses a new challenge to all participants in the field. The interdisciplinary approach is inescapable if all aspects of sustainability are to be addressed in our future solutions.
Since its inception in 1987 through The World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainability has been embraced by environmental groups, scientists, government organizations, and various interest groups, as well as the architectural community.[xvii]
The concept of sustainability is addressed by many organisations and individuals in the field of architecture. The Union of International Architects and the American Institute of Architects, the most influential organisations in the field, are promoting the application of sustainable architecture through awards, competitions, and  Internet sites. Architect James Wines of SITE architectural firm, has published a book entitled "New Wave Organic Architecture- Building Art in the Age of Ecology", for Benedikt Taschen Publishers. Several milestone events influenced the development of the concept sustainable architecture. The most influential event was The "World Architecture Congress" in Chicago. A gathering sponsored by the American Institute of Architects and the International Union of Architects to focus on sustainability. A call for sustainable communities solutions was issued in hopes of cultivating images which reflect a design-based integration of the issues. 700 entries from 50 countries were received.

Levels of sustainability

The building of shelter consumes one-sixth of the world's fresh water supply, one-quarter of its wood harvest, and two-fifths of its fossil fuels and manufactured materials. As a result, architecture has become one of the primary targets of ecological reform. [xviii]
Sustainability is a concept that addresses many levels of our environment. The global concern of continuous destruction of the Ozon layer, the green house effect, and global worming reflect the need to address sustainability as related to the planet Earth as a whole. The impact of environmental pollution, such as oil spills, hazardous waste management, water pollution, nuclear radiation and acid rain, are addressed on regional levels including several countries. Consumption of resources, recycling and waste management are addressed on the country level. The problems of the built environment are addressed on the city level. On the neighbourhood level, issues of safety, belonging, and services are the main concern. The building design and behaviour is another important level of the sustainability concept. Finally, the interior space, where human  existence and interaction takes place is first level of sustainability concept. All these levels are interrelated and inseparable. Any decision taken on any level affects the other levels considerably.

Aspects of Sustainability

1. Environmental, Planning and Design

Sustainability is generally understood to begin with a concern by humans for the future of humanity. This anthropocentric view is expanded to include a concern for all life, with the realization that humans depend on complete and healthy ecosystems as much as they depend on other humans. This perspective places a high value on human life, but accepts that human culture ultimately owes its existence to nature in its entirety.[xix]
The first aspect of sustainability is related to the environment. It deals with the natural and the built environment. A sustainable approach towards the environment considers both natural and built environment important parts of the context which we live in. The natural environment suffered greatly from 20th industrial and waste management practices. The natural environment requires attention and careful manipulation especially after our realisation of its fragility and destructive natures if tampered with. The built environment is what we build among the natural environment and should, first of all, relate to it. A large part of the built environment was created according to abstract concepts derived from the industrial revolution slogans, i.e. “the House is a Machine to Live in” adopted by Le Corbusier and “Less is More” by Mies van der Rohe. The built environment includes all levels of urban planning, city planning, urban design, architectural design and interior design. Both environments should be sustained by our human actions.

2. Psychological, Social and Cultural

Sustainability is part of a trend to once again consider the whole instead of specifics. Sustainability emphasizes relationships rather than pieces in isolation. The ecological movement has focused attention during the last century on the degradation of natural systems. Sustainability brings to light the connections between natural and human communities, between nature and culture. Sustainability is not at all about regressing to primitive living conditions. It is about understanding our situation, and developing as communities in ways that are equitable, and that make sense ecologically and economically.[xx]
Sustainability was previously looked at as a concern for the natural environment and the need to develop better ways to sustain its vitality and conditions. The concept of sustainability has expanded to include the human environment. This aspect of sustainability considers psychological, social and cultural aspects of the human existence as important and intrinsic part in order to create a sustainable environment.

3. Economy and Resources

The management of resources in many parts of the world is an alarming situation. In many parts of the world, economic resources are spent on present needs and desires without much consideration to future generations. We will run out of resources at some point in time if we continue these irresponsible practices. Sustainability is responsible and conscious management of available resources in order to sustain the existence of our future generations.

[i] - Adams, W. M., Green Development: Environment and Sustainability in the Third World, Routledge, London and New York, 1990.
[ii] - Ehrlich, S. Flexner, G. Carruth, and J. Hawkins, Oxford American Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1980.
[iii] - Kremers, Jack A., Defining Sustainable Architecture, Architronic,1995
[iv] - Kremers, Jack A., Defining Sustainable Architecture, Architronic,1995.
[v] - Barnett, D. and W. Browning, A Primer on Sustainable Building, Rocky Mountain Institute, 1995.
[vi] - Koester, Robert J. Sustainability Is An Architecture, Architronic, 1995.
[vii] - Center for Sustainable Communities, Tutorials, 1995.
[viii] - James Wines, New Wave Organic Architecture - Building Art in the Age of Ecology, Benedikt Taschen Publishers, 1996.
[ix] - Rapoport, Amos, House Form and Culture, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J, 1969.
[x] - Oliver, Paul, ed., Shelter and Society, Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, New York, Washington, 1969.
[xi] - Fathy, Hassan, GOURNA: A Tale of Two Villages, Ministry of Culture, Dar El Kateb El Arabi Press, Cairo, 1969 and Fathy, Hassan, Architecture For The Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1973.
[xii] - Kremers, Jack A., Defining Sustainable Architecture, Architronic,1995.
[xiii] - Boake, Terri Meyer, Sustainability & Construction Technology: An Attitude in Support of Quality, Architronic, 1996.
[xiv] - Brundtland, H., Our common future  (The Brundtland Report). For the World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press, 1987.
[xv] - Center for Sustainable Communities, Tutorials, 1995.
[xvi] - Economic Commission for Europe, Guidelines on Sustainable Human Settlements Planning and Management, United Nations, New York and Geneva, 1996. p. 17
[xvii] - The Origins of Sustainable Development and Its Relationship to Housing and Community Planning, CMHC, January, 1991, p. 6.
[xviii] - James Wines, New Wave Organic Architecture - Building Art in the Age of Ecology, Benedikt Taschen Publishers, 1996.
[xix] - Center for Sustainable Communities, Tutorials, 1995.
[xx] - Center for Sustainable Communities, Tutorials, 1995.

[i] - Economic Commission for Europe, Guidelines on Sustainable Human Settlements Planning and Management, United Nations, New York and Geneva, 1996. p. 17
[ii] - Haggard, Kenneth, International Solar Energy Society’s Twentieth National Passive Solar Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, panel forum discussing “The Problem with Sustainability”, July 1995.