May 22, 201208:00 AMPoint of View

The METROPOLIS Blog

Lab Report: XXVIII

Lab Report: XXVIII
New ways of envisioning architecture, design, and construction are being created at ITAC (Integrated Technology & Architecture Center) by a team of professors, students, and industry professionals. The lab focuses on what co-director, professor Ryan E. Smith calls a “building ecology.” Specifically, it centers on what many in the architecture and building profession know as “green” building. Unfortunately “green” is often the latest trend in establishing design cred, and fortunately the approach at ITAC is much more thoughtful and comprehensive. Professor Smith offers some insight into the work at ITAC and on the larger discourse on “green” building. He begins with the terms people use such as “eco,” “enviro,” “sustainable,” and “green.” Many of these terms are often viewed as proxies for a “liberal” political agenda (for example, global warming), which can produce resistance to the terms themselves as well as to useful design and building strategies. He argues that part of the problem is the simplicity of these constructs: “‘Eco’, ‘Enviro’ ‘Sustainable’ and ‘Green’ all presume that humans and nature can find an ultimate balance.” The debate, Smith explains, must transcend the labels of “green building” and “eco” because, those terms “seek a conceptually, but physically impossible, balance with nature. The human and nature dialectics of buildings are not to be reduced to morality (liberal agenda), or neglect (conservative agenda). Rather, the systemic relations between man and nature provide yet another more literal and measurable context against which we can evaluate design decisions. Therefore, rather than reducing the question of buildings and the natural environment to efficiency or conservation alone, architects need to view buildings more systemically.  We chose Peter Graham’s word to describe this movement: ‘building ecology.’”

Lifecycle Energy Accounting, image via itac.utah.edu

In other words, the focus must move towards ensuring that humans will continue to survive and thrive: “There is much we know about building dialectics with nature, but there is so much more that we do not have the ability to know, anticipate, and for which to plan.  Large-scale catastrophic events, such as Hurricane Katrina or economic collapse, can escape human management and control with such force to precipitate cascading effects that have profound social, economic, and ecological consequences.  This is strong evidence that we are in a new phase of human existence, that the occurrence of such catastrophes should be sufficient to transform multiple aspects of our individual and collective behavior as humans. This is not an environmentalist agenda; it is not an ethics question alone; this is a matter of human survival.” This framework demands a reconsideration of design strategies. One issue is the conflation of attaining a positive “green” rating with actual efficiency: “In the recent past we have witnessed an interest in the energy performance of buildings. Upon close inspection this discourse is occurring at a superficial level. Actual energy performance is being confused with the application of commercially available rating programs being demanded by building owners. Intentions notwithstanding, research by the New Buildings Institute has shown that many of these buildings are not performing as their authors are claiming or as the rating programs are promising.” Moreover, many architects and developers place emphasis on high-technology strategies. But as Smith observes, “New ‘green’ products, many of which are not produced with a social or ecological consciousness or conscience, have been marketed beyond their ability to deliver. This leads to self-negating technologies for the sole purpose of achieving a marked energy reduction. Are PV cells going to produce more energy than they consumed to be manufactured? And is that energy worth the human impact of toxic chemicals polluting water and potentially endangering the health of manufacturing laborers? Hence it becomes necessary to distinguish between commonly used terminology (green, eco) and the actual systemic performances of buildings considering the breadth and depth of the social, economic and ecological considerations. This cannot be done on the back of a napkin, this is a matter of research.” It is this research-based approach to how architecture can help humans thrive, grounded in practical considerations, that can fundamentally shift the field towards better, more efficient strategies. My next post will be the second installment of this in-depth interview with professor Smith on how to re-vision design and construction as a building ecology. Sherin Wing writes on social issues as well as topics in architecture, urbanism, and design. She is a frequent contributor to Archinect, Architect Magazine and other publications. She is also co-author of The Real Architect’s Handbook. She received her PhD from UCLA. Follow Sherin on Twitter at@xiaying For Previous Lab Reports follow this link.

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