TSA welcomes Cindy's True Green series on sustainable design. Today's post summarizes the debate surrounding sustainable design.
During the July #aiachat, architects sang the praises of sustainable design and green building. Kyle Lee @KyleLEED says, “Green design is not only ‘good’ but a necessity.” @tomorrowsproject says, “67% of our poll respondents say sustainable design is already synonymous with good design.”
Others cite difficulties with increased costs of construction and persuading reluctant clients. In other words, according to this group, ‘why’ we build sustainably has been answered. Consensus reached, amen to that. And then we continue to stumble on the ‘how,’ the pragmatics of execution. Increased initial costs and unwilling clients have long been the one-two knockout punches for sustainable design.
In fact, beyond the community of sustainable design experts, you can hardly miss the frequent challenges. Particularly fierce shots target US Green Building Council’s LEED certification system, the reigning model for green design.
What are the problems with sustainable design?
Here’s a brief recap of the major complaints.
1. Poor Performance. Some buildings are not living up to their promised energy efficiencies. Legal ramifications of de-certification are flying.
2. Credibility. The ever-present bugaboo, greenwashing, undermines the credibility of the entire green tech industry. As The Atlantic said, being green is just too easy.
3. Conflicting Standards. The myriad of green codes, regulations, and standards such as LEED, state or city energy codes, and BREEAM confuses clients and experts. Sometimes the criteria conflict. Which should we follow?
4. Low Standards. LEED isn’t strict enough. For instance, according to recent report by Environment and Human Health, Inc., the highest level of LEED (platinum) does not mandate clean air quality and allows toxic materials. Does LEED actually protect human health?
5. Weak Design. Frank Gehry continues to profess allegiance to sustainability while condemning the methods, specifically LEED. Why don’t we simply let A/E professionals use their judgment?
6. Lacks Vision. LEED doesn’t inspire designers. It fails to represent true sustainability in a holistic sense including social justice, beauty, spirituality, quality of life, and education. It’s simply a checklist, not a transformational concept.
7. User Complaints. Most recently, people that live in LEED buildings have started their own anti-sustainability campaign.
How should responsible, environmentally-concerned AEC professionals respond?
From this list of attacks, I see a pattern of three significant types of problems.
- Is LEED the best option for sustainable design? Several of the items (performance, user complaints, and conflicting standards) confront LEED. Does it need tweaks or a major overhaul? Or should we throw it out and move on to a better system?
- In terms of sustainable buildings and cities, where do we go from here? Is there support for sustainable design in the long run? And frankly, exactly what is sustainable design? (You might think I’d start here, but I’d rather jump into the middle instead, grapple with some particulars, build some context, and see how those situations influence the abstract idea of sustainable design.)
Sustainable design is after all the single most critical problem that the modern building community has ever faced. Rather than the promised upward trend of endless new technologies and progressive growth, we have discovered epic mistakes, some that are irreversible. Our buildings make people, ecologies, even the planet sick. We abuse energy, waste resources, and destroy natural systems.
So where do we start? How do we learn a new way of thinking? Watching the tsunami of environmental catastrophes aggregate, brilliant people have pondered the problem for decades. We have practiced many new ways over the past ten or fifteen years.
More than that, environmental damage represents the first massive step backward that the industrialized construction industry has ever faced. We don’t even have the patterns required for identifying, analyzing, and solving problems at this scale. It’s nothing short of a new way of living; a new way of being.
If in fact, we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us, are we sick too?
A True Green Series
I have my ideas. And I bet you do too. I plan to tackle this list, and perhaps a few other stray topics, over a series of posts.
I hope you’ll read, and more than that, I hope you’ll join the conversation – here on the TSA blog or on Twitter where you’ll find me as @urbanverse.
Because I sure don’t have all the answers, or know everything. I know what I know from my experiences and study. And thanks to the joy of internet and research methods, I can gather a lot of data.
I believe it’s important to open the conversation. Complaints deserve fair analysis. And I believe the more we challenge our practices, values, and solutions, the better our work.
Are we true green? Are you creating truly sustainable environments? Are we giving future generations a reasonable chance?
Hang on, bumpy road ahead.