Interviewed by Ahmad Zohadi
AIA, LEED AP BD&C, faculty member in Architecture at the University of Kansas
Architecture is a profession. Architects, as all professionals, act in the service of the public’s health, safety and welfare (HSW).
‘Heath, Safety and Welfare’ can be seen as a large category that includes everything from code compliance to cultural sustenance. The most crucial HSW problems humankind faces now is caused by the rapid industrialization and population growth of the last 200 years. These factors have led to the depletion and degradation of life’s resources, mass extinctions of many species, and anthropogenic climate change. There is no greater challenge and professional responsibility for architecture than to solve these problems through Sustainable Design. If the objectives of Sustainable Design are to be fulfilled, this will take the multidisciplinary efforts of the entire profession along with other design, planning, and construction professionals. Individual efforts will be important, but the challenge is too big to be met by a few heroic individuals (the old model of architect as ‘gentleman artiste’).
Unfortunately, much of architectural practice continues to operate from this neo-romantic paradigm that over-values ‘passion’, individual aesthetic expression, and phenomenal excitement. The formal expression of Sustainable Design must be sought, but this effort must not compromise the physical performance of our designs. The stakes are too high. If James Lovelock (the scientist who first used the concept of ‘Gaia’ to explain the threats of climate change) is correct, the earth (Gaia) is not at dire risk, humankind is not at dire risk, but human culture is. Sustainability occurs at the meeting ground of; environmental performance, equity performance and economic performance.
This ‘triple bottom line’ (TBL) thinking provides us with a new paradigm from which to redefine architecture and the role a professional architect must fill in humankind’s attempt to redefine its relationship to nature. The ideal sustainable design fulfills the triple bottom line by acting like a species in its habitat. Paraphrasing from the “Living Building Challenge”; it provides as much energy as it uses, harvests its own water, is adapted to its context, operates pollution free, promotes health and well-being, and is beautiful. Description: The literal meaning of sustainability is the ability to sustain.
That is simple enough. But it leaves the question, “sustain what?” My answer to this question is,”… a healthy way for our species to occupy this planet”. Our rapid industrialization of the planet Earth and rapid population growth over the last 200 years has led to a very unhealthy relationship with the planet. This age, the Anthropocene, has been defined by the depletion and degradation of life’s resources, mass extinctions of many species, and anthropogenic climate change.
What should we do in order to establish an ability to sustain a healthy way for our species to inhabit this planet? First, we must act as though we are part of Earth’s Nature, not separate from it. Our sense of separation from Nature has caused us to consider Nature to be “the Other” to be feared, conquered, and exploited. Second, we must cure ourselves of our hubris. Our modern technology has allowed us the illusion that we are “in charge” and have succeeded in overcoming Nature. We have, in the ancient Greeks’ terms, put ourselves in the place of the gods – “hubris”. Third, we must act as though the Earth has limits. It is, in Buckminster Fuller’s term, “Spaceship Earth”. We are all passengers on this blue marble, and the resources are finite. Fourth, we must act according to Elkington’s “Triple Bottom Line” thinking. That is, Economic interests, Ecological interests, and Equity interests must be seen as co-dependent, not as conflicting objectives. A sustainable state does not exist without finding the synergies amongst these three bottom-lines. Only by addressing all four of the above can we develop the ability to sustain a healthy way for our species to inhabit this planet. Or in other words, to achieve sustainability.
© Interviewed by 2A Magazine, Summer 2015