Monday, 10 March 2008

sustainable design essay

This is an essay written last semester for Environmental Sustainability. Re-reading it, it concludes weakly with a tangential Noah's ark .. but its reflects the confusion, there is alot that design can do, but ultimatelythere needs to be a change in the way we live, in the comfort we expect, in the way we relate and in the way in which we have our being.. failing that, and one should not be pessimistic, but possibly noah's ark is advisable. This was a philosophical take on essentially a practical question, would it have been too much to bring the gospel in.. the role of design is to point to christ? meh..
(This is my first post with pictures in, if you subscribe reload if that possible, this is an editted repost of an earlier first trial with only one picture)

The essence of a sustainable home is one that is sustainable: environmentally, socially and economically and yet is also enjoyable to live in and improves quality of life. Discuss the role of design and thoughtfulness in the creation of sustainable homes.

If design is to effect true ‘sustainability’ it must conceive radical new expectations of human existence, the preconditions for which so fundamentally challenge present socio-cultural assumptions as to constitute a world-view change; at the heart of this change is a return to true community in place of contemporary individualism, in a move that would re-imagine the ‘home’ as an interdependent cell in the organism society; if design is to effect sustainable homes it must first, in its character of practice, become sustainable, it must explicitly challenge counter-sustainable cultural norms before then forging a positive framework of settlement to serve a new understanding of true ‘dwelling’.

There is a difficulty in any discussion of sustainability because its hackneyed terms have lost their meaning. When greenness became marketable the resulting emotive greenwash lead to a blurring of definitions in a field already fraught with uncertainty. The 1987 Brundtland Report has defined sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This anthropocentric view of sustainability, that it is human life that is being qualitatively sustained, must be tempered by a humility that is informed by the complexity of and objective intrinsic value in nature that ‘deep positions’ on environmentalism revere. It is also assumed that the binary state of sustainability renders discussions of degrees of sustainability incoherent, but also that it is not a fixed state harmony nor end-product, but rather a process of change, just as life, that which ultimately is being sustained, is a process. ‘Sustainability’ is objective and ultimate, ‘quality of life’ is subjective, and beyond being kept alive, improvements to quality of life are concerned more with non-material things, it is crucial it be understood as this if are to avoid the misguided association of wealth with happiness.

To advocate a design solution on the credentials of its environmental sustainability to the exclusion of its economic or social sustainability is to set up a false dichotomy, a socially healthy society and a healthy natural environment are mutually dependent and it is this triple bottom line by which the viability of any design should be assessed. Nadarajah et al argue that it is culture that binds together economic, environmental and socio-cultural concerns and that culture should be viewed as a way of life and as a way of living together in dialogical coexistence, creatively adjusting to changes. This ‘culture’ engages our relationship with place, the nature of home and our very ontology and should be the pivotal point on which we interact with sustainability concerns.

Heidegger argues that “dwelling is the basic character of Being, in keeping with which mortals exist’” Dwelling as a mode of being in the world, is not only produced by, but also precedes building: “Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build.” Others have commented that the ideal home is not just a house which offers shelter, it is an emotional space, even a state of mind, and ultimately home is a place where personal and social meaning are grounded. For a complete understanding of sustainability home must reflect this more emotional and socio-cultural understanding of home on the grounds that this ‘dwelling’ is saving where “[saving] really means to set something free into its own presencing ... saving the earth does not master the earth and does not subjugate it, which is merely one step from spoliation”.

Finally, sustainable ‘design’ must consider both the discipline and product of the discipline, the interaction between profession and public, and the performance of the designed product. ‘Design’ has become an exclusive term, for purpose of this essay it will be liberated to denote both process and product of construction: social and physical, professional and amateur.

Image 01 – The ‘Hole in the Ozone’ -
Image 02 – CO2 concentration over time – An Inconvenient Truth -
Image 03 – Variation in global temperature with global CO2 – An Inconvenient Truth -

That we are currently living unsustainably, is primarily supposed from indicators in the natural environment with respect to its ability to sustain life: the depletion of ozone, natural resources and ancient forests and the degradation of soil, water and air quality through the polluting effects of chemical treatments and waste. Sustainability will not be achieved by considering these as problems to be medicated but by diagnosing the human actions which have generated these symptoms, the negligence that permitted them and most importantly the assumptions which motivated those actions. I will argue that these motivating factors constitute materialism, a distortion in the complex relationship between the self and the natural world.

At a social level also there are indicators that we are not living or building sustainably, Clammer observes key problems inherent in much contemporary urbanism including: “the extent, speed, and intensity of world urbanisation; … rural depopulation; … pollution; land use and values; crime; …and social patterns and family instability.” These all impinge on the quality of life sustained, but furthermore this problematic urbanism demands radically more energy than gradually changing and more socially stable societies, in the case of Pruitt Igoe and similar schemes vast natural resource, material and energy is wasted in their eventual destruction, but most insidiously these social problems and the design to compensate and medicate the issues has resulted in an “urban language of separation” which in a vicious cycle proliferates individualism and exacerbates materialism. Callenbach argues that this situation can be attributed to the “rules of a market driven society” And Schumacher argues that while previous civilisations may have exhausted the resources of their local environment, if now by this market-driven consumption “we squander the capital represented by living nature around us, we threaten life itself”

Unless we understand the root of this unsustainability, we are can only expect design to make cosmetic changes to the problem. Schumacher argues that “We are suffering from a metaphysical disease, and the cure must therefore be metaphysical.” If metaphysical, the root of the problem may be less our understanding of the environment, as our understanding of the self and its place in ultimate reality. It could be argued that it is the outworking of an existential problem, manifested in the modernist project, the Cartesian dualism that sets humans apart from nature, and the individual self apart from ‘the other’ of everything beyond the self. The effect of this problem is exacerbated by contemporary design and technology which enables the literal division of the self from its supporting environment and from its consequences, this division again leads to a materialism, as the divided self seeks weight or identity in material possession, an approach which “contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited.” The environmental implications of this are clear, and education and regulation should mitigate potential damage.

However, this Cartesian dualism goes much further, having set the self apart from the other, the world and the transcendent; it undermines the basis for objective morality and the basis for truths about the world to be known. Radical pluralism, deconstructivism and post-modernism have promoted a scepticism of metanarratives, including the environmental, they have sought to liberate the individual from responsibility and cast doubt on a scientific epistemology which informs climate concerns. It has been argued that the self has become narcissistic, this has implications directly in terms of increased energy use to fuel each isolated existence but more than that, if narcissism is a ‘loss of meaningful touch with objective reality’ the basis for building a sustainable future in a world that exists beyond the self is undermined.
Image 04 – Hermetically Sealed Suburban Living – Mark Gilbert –
Image 05 – Suburban Sprawl, Phoenix, Arizona – Cities for a Small Planet – David Hurn, Magnum

The suburban house can be viewed as an outworking of this narcissistic worldview reflecting the individualistic worlds tailored to personal pleasure that are seen as the zenith of this age. These houses are unsustainable simply in their use of land and material, but further than that, they cement in place unsustainable social structures of separation, they speak a message that venerates consumption and they proliferate assumptions of mobile, commuting and placeless lifestyles. Nadarajah warns of the environmental implications of placelessness as “The Principle of Symbolic Universe …[which] involves recognition of the fact that we are from a physical location that is wrapped with meanings … being in a specific location, responding to the specific environmental context.” The alienation that comes in part from the dissolution of architectural language has led to apathy, distrust and footlooseness. Grounded community and concern for the specific has given way to short-term tenure and escapism.

These are the foundations of unsustainability; design, if it is to effect truly sustainable homes, must seek to address the cause, to subvert the paradigm of individualism and materialism. Design relates to the environment in its use of resources, and it directs practically its users’ interactions with their environment, but most importantly design has a voice and a public presence, it reflects, expresses and influences the worldview assumptions of its population. No house is simply an unsustainable house, but a force within a trajectory towards a more or less unsustainable future.

Image 06 –Cradle Mountain Wold Heritage Area, Australia – Simon Kenny – (Understanding Sustainable Architecture, p43)

No home exists in isolation; a house would be its most sustainable were it not built at all, a house being the bricks and mortar shell devoid of life. If the home is to play a part in sustainability, it first must be understood and engaged as a tool in and of itself, rather than endured as merely a burdensome physical form, requiring heating and cooling. The role of the home in a sustainable urban framework is a product of our understanding of the role of the family as an element in a sustainable social framework. The creation of sustainable homes will follow from sustainable dwelling, the saving home must operate at the point our conception of the family falls from sustainability. This is evidenced in the greater per person energy requirements of single person dwellings, themselves a product of less-than-sustainable social concepts of family. The creation of sustainable homes calls for an interdisciplinary effort to establish a sacred notion of family, and design must engage family and community in both the planning and constructing of home.

Image 07 – Hackney Homes Resident Consultation –

The role of ‘design’: creative planning and conceptualising, constructing and finishing, self-evidently is central to producing homes that are sustainable. The role of the designer as external consultant however, and the relationship between process, product and community is more contentious. Vested interests of the building industry lie in maintaining such a divorced paradigm, which has resulted in the failure of estates like Pruitt Igoe, and less dramatically but more insidiously the speculatively developed urban sprawl of “socially homogenous, inward-looking and largely inactive dormitories.”

When speculative development fails to be sustainable it may be in part due to poor construction and lack of environmental consideration, but this would be secondary, were the developments made human from the stage of conception, were there true and accountable community, and were it to make efforts to address the self-other dualism at the heart of unsustainability. These notions have been visited by Ruskin’s in his social vision for a Primary Architecture ‘rooted in landscape and vernacular traditions, existing in perpetuity, reconciled to the accidents of its own material, and not offering to defy the fallen nature of the world and its inhabitants’ rather than an architecture ‘imported and propagandistic, superimposed by imperial requirements, pseudo-transcendentalist, merely imaginary aesthesis, existing in vacuo with a hypothesised population, undifferentiated or stereotyped’
Image 08 – Habitat for Humanity, Sweat Equity –
Image 09 – St Ann’s Allotments, Community and Participation –

It could be argued that the architect-developer led paradigm for speculative housing has propagated a concern for sustainability as product rather than process, and as image rather than effort, serving a market looking for an escapist comfort. Design must engage deeply with people and locality, design must be accountable beyond this generation, it must be more than people-friendly, it must be intrinsically human, held together by human relationships.
Architects, in this vision for the creation of sustainable homes, must no longer be ‘a profession without ethic’, and must first set their own house in order, make what sacrifice sustainability entails, and on this basis be the prophets to a new movement of environmental design.
Image 10 – Curitiba - Universidade Livre do Meio Ambiente
Image 11 – Curitiba - Universidade Livre do Meio Ambiente-
Image 12 - Curitiba - Public Transport -
Image 13 – Curitiba – Recycling –
Image 14 – Architecture Centre, London –
Image 15 – Architecture Centre, London – http://

Curitiba’s successful, clean and sustainable development is attributed to Lerner’s policy of citizen participation. The role played by design, is interdisciplinary and holistic as is reflected at Curitiba’s University of the Environment. To similar effect, in Cities for a Small Planet, Rogers proposes ‘Architecture Centres’, as venues for public debates and strategic plans, promoting participation and realising the untapped wealth of knowledge within the citizenry.33 This participation begins to decentralise design and obliges the design profession to cooperate, engage and serve the city beyond the client, and the world beyond the recouping of short-term investment. This way architecture is owned, place has a face and community might be united by a common purpose.

Sustainable architecture divorced of a human component, assumes the ‘role of design’ is to create a device that will remove the need for people and relies on the modernist notion of grand design as saviour which stifles community initiative. What is needed is a shift in design practice towards a bottom-up model, by design proclaiming a possible alternative value-system, and by example demonstrating that living with less is possible. The notion of education as saviour is misguided given the moral nature of the problem. We have, as a generation, unprecedented education and information at our disposal, and yet we live destructively. This is a question of morality and motivation, design that fails to demonstrate a framework that appeases the existential angst at the heart of unsustainability is mere indulgence.
If we can learn to dwell, and from there build, there are strategies and modes of emphasis that might be pursued; Susannah Hagan writes that the qualities of design proposals can typically be judged under three criteria “Symbiosis, the relationship between building and nature… Differentiation, the recognition of, and response to, the particularities of geographic and cultural place… Visibility, the symbolic and aesthetic emblems… that a building should visibly and overtly reflect its commitment to sustainability.”

Image 16 – Hollow Spruce, 1988, Richard Harris (Understanding Sustainable Architecture, p28)

Culture and design should draw us closer to nature, because a lifestyle lived in hermetically sealed spaces will beget an environmentally apathetic user, simply by virtue of ignorance as a result of the degrees of separation, but further more, architecture should draw us to nature, for its unpragmatic beauty.
Image 17 – Indigenous – Craft, Story Place - Arabic Arch (The Green Imperative, Papanek p124)
Image 18 – Indigenous – Craft, Story Place – Venetian Detailing (The Green Imperative, Papanek p124)
Image 19 – Indigenous – Craft, Story Place – North Africa Detailing (The Green Imperative, Papanek p125) Image 20 – Postmodern Pastiche – Houston Children’s Museum -

If we must first dwell before we can build, there is a danger in advocating indigenous architecture as a function of design, pastiched, pseudo-local architecture is counterproductive in its message and construction. Design if it is to be put the service of dwelling must first meaningfully engage with the history of a place, with regard for establishing permanence, no longer planning obsolescence, no longer viewing design as disposable.

Image 21 – Temple tower at Wat Phra Si Maha Uma Devi, Bangkok -
Image 22 – Church Ceiling, Madrid,
Image 23 – Stonehenge,

If our environmentalism assumes intrinsic value of nature, a philosophical question arises as to what system of values beyond us, endows nature with value. Architecture which points beyond itself to the spiritual, to a creator, contributes to a cultural discussion of the value of nature, points to a metaphysical answer to a metaphysical problem, and crucially it points beyond the self and its market-driven supposed needs.
Image 24 – Slums -
Image 25 – Storefront home in Tijuana, Teddy Cruz, Adbusters #71, p23
Image 26 – Emerging Slum Architecture, Teddy Cruz, Adbusters #71, p23

At the micro scale of recycling bottles to the macro scale of wasteful urban arrangements, design should seek ways to parasite onto those projects dominated by human greed. The re-use and re-greening of brownfield-sites offer financial drawbacks, the role of design here must be to capitalise on existing structure literally and metaphorically, a new indigenous architecture of necessity is already being formed on the post-industrial and slum outskirts of major cities. Parasitism potentially illustrates and makes use of the systemic waste of society.

Image 27 – Venturi, Sketch Proposal for a Monument, German Ed, 1979 p184
Image 28 – World Development Movement Postcard, 2007
Image 29 – World Development Movement Postcard, 2007

Buildings speak messages, reflect worldviews, and convey values; however, in adopting an intentionally evangelistic approach to a design, there is a danger of inducing a green-fatigue. The emotional hyperbole that accompanies the fashionable eco-style, when proved shallow, will only serve to exacerbate the post-modern cynicism of this infotainment age and thereby deflect positive action. If design is to carry a message, now more than ever it must be honest and honest about the true cost. Such is a message spoken by a house which takes joy in the non-material, which wears its metaphysical assumptions on its sleeve, a house that is a home, that is permanent, that is reconciled to locality and materiality, a house that thinks and loves beyond its self.

Image 30 – Greenpeace Volunteers building a Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat, May 2007,
Image 31 – Greenpeace Volunteers building a Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat, May 2007,

One might propose the sustainable home as one that fatalistically accepts the inevitable demise of environmental quality and so sets about constructing an ark, that they might sustain life beyond this. It is this root fear that begets this over-consumption, in a vicious cycle cynically exploited by marketers and politicians. Design must speak of hope; it must engage people practically in its process; and it must seek to develop a moral framework based on the objective value of life beyond the self.

Williamson, TJ; Radford, A; Bennetts, H (2003) Understanding Sustainable Architecture London : Spon Press

World Commission on Environment and Development (1987)‘Our Common Future (The Brundtland Report)’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Schumacher, EF (1993) [1973] Small is beautiful : a study of economics as if people mattered, London : Vintage
Rogers, R (1997) Cities for a Small Planet, London: Faber and Faber
Heidegger, M (1993) [1978] ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ in DF Krell (ed.) Basic Writings from Being and Time (1927) to the Task of Thinking (1964) London: Routledge pp347-63
James, O (2007) Affluenza (,æflu'enza): how to be successful and stay sane, London : Vermilion
Blunt, Alison; Dowling, Robyn (2006) Home. London: Routledge
Papstergiadis, N (1996) Dialogues with the Diaspora: Essays and Conversations on Cultural Identity. London: Rivers Oram Press
Rubenstein, R (2001) Home Matters: Longing and Belonging, Nostalgia and Mourning in Women’s Fiction. New York : Palgrave Macmillan
Bunkše, Edmund (2004) Geography and the Art of Life, Johns Hopkins University Press
Nadarajah, M; Yamamoto, Ann Tomoko (Eds) (2007) Urban crisis : culture and the sustainability of cities Tokyo : United Nations University Press.
Clammer, J (1996), Values and Development in South East Asia, Kelana Jaya, Malaysia: Pelanuh Publications
Callenbach, Ernest (1999) “Ecological rules of a sustainable society” Takashi Inuguchi, Edward Norman, Glen Paoletto (Eds) Cities and the Environment: New Approaches for Eco-Societies. Tokyo: United Nations University Press pp19-22
Smith, M; Whitelegg, J; Williams, N (1998) Greening the Built Environment, London : Earthscan

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