Five Reasons: To Adopt Environmental Design

Susannah Hagan

A profound and wide-ranging reappraisal of material culture, initially hijacked by geeks and hippies, is being developed within the disciplines of political science, geography, cultural theory, philosophy, economics, the fine arts, the life sciences, and—at last—architecture. Many within architecture, however, refuse engagement with this reappraisal. For them, environmentalism is embarrassing. It has no edge, no buzz, no style. It’s populated by the self-righteous and the badly dressed. Its analysis is simplistic, its conviction naive, its physics dubious, and its metaphysics absurd. It’s a haven for the untalented, where ethics replace aesthetics and get away with it. 

If these claims were ever true, they are no longer. Other more informed descriptions of environmentalism than the caricature above have come to predominate, descriptions in which it is as complex, demanding, and shaded as any of the intellectual obsessions that have to date inspired the avant-garde. Within architecture, environmental design is not merely a set of practical solutions to a set of practical problems; it is the complex tip of one tentacle of environmentalism. Environmentalism itself is a modernist metanarrative put through the postmodern wringer: its aims are universal, but its means are responsive to, in fact dependent upon, individual conditions. Its claim to universal validity rests on the human-as-embodied contained within a physically sustaining system (nature). Since we share this condition, whatever our cultural differences, we are equally obligated to protect that which physically sustains us. This is unavoidably so, however much one might protest that nature is a cultural construct: “[I]t is not language that has a hole in its ozone layer; and the ‘real’ thing continues to be polluted and degraded even as we refine our deconstructive insights on the level of the signifier,” writes English philosopher Kate Soper.1 The correlate to this universal implication is the recognition that the particular is as important as the universal, and that the whole is made up of highly differentiated parts, differentiated culturally as well as materially. Our obligations, with a nod to Marx, take the form of “to each according to his or her needs, from each according to his or her use (or abuse) of nature.” German sociologist Ulrich Beck sees environmentalism as a new stage of modernism, a “post-imperial” or, in his phrase, “reflexive modernism”: “Modernity has … taken over the role of its counterpart—the tradition to be overcome, the natural constraint to be mastered.”2 

In the built environment, which contributes fifty percent of all man-made greenhouse gases, the obvious candidate for leading this “overcoming” is the architect. For although architecture’s direct physical impact is minimal, its cultural impact is disproportionately significant, inside and increasingly outside the building professions. In fact, there are at least five reasons why schools and practices should pick up the environmental gauntlet:

  1. The Intellectual Reason

The idea that the operations and organizations of nature are vastly superior to those of our material culture is not held just by environmentalists or environmental architects. 

After the rigors of the Modern Movement, during which nature-as-model was regarded with great ambivalence, we have returned, on the basis of deeper understanding, to new kinds of nature worship. These can be found in very unlikely places: in the temples of the most arcane cultural commentary and the highest of high architecture. This is Sanford Kwinter on the seductions of matter: “Semiotic structures are binary, hierarchical, closed… . Matter is literally riddled with properties, dissymmetries, inhomogeneities, singularities… . Matter is, in short, active, dynamic and creative.”3 It is the particularity and the dynamism of nature—its capacities to repeat without repeating and to evolve, capacities that have evaded mechanical mass production—which are now within our ability to imitate in material culture (most dramatically in biotechnology). The closer these come within our reach, the more impatient certain architects get with architecture’s conventional boundaries: “The exact, proportional, fixed, and static geometries, seemingly natural to architecture, are incapable of describing corporeal matter and its undecidable effects… . [R]ather than violating the inadequate stasis of exact geometries, … architecture must begin with an adequate description of amorphous matter through anexact yet rigorous geometries.”4 Within this energetic thinking, the goal seems exclusively formal. As far as it goes, one can’t fault it: if architecture concerns representation, and if what is to be represented is shifting, then getting architecture to shift its “description” makes eminent sense. Some, of course, have already addressed this. In the 1980s, for example, Peter Eisenman was already experimenting with using geological phenomena to generate forms.5 

What is new now is the desire to represent formally the dynamic aspects of nature, rather than the more easily represented static ones. Which begs the question: if there is such a keen interest in the way computer and life sciences are revealing hitherto unreadable workings of nature, why is the sight of them enough? Why isn’t there impatience, not only with the way architecture is representing an incomplete picture, but the way it is also enacting an incomplete picture? The sciences that are enabling us to see and the industries dependent on them are once again racing ahead of architecture to meld ever more deeply and inextricably with natural processes. The only architectural practice even trying to keep up is environmental design.

  1. The Practical Reason

An enormous gulf exists between those who look to the new model of nature as the source of new generative strategies and/or forms and those who look to it as the source of new ways of constructing and running buildings. The intellectual pyrotechnics of the former are missing in the latter. The intellectual consistency of the latter is missing in the former. Reading Thomas Herzog or Glenn Murcutt isn’t remotely as stimulating as reading Kwinter or Lynn, but reading their buildings can be. The provocation of environmental practitioners lies in what their buildings are doing, not in their discussions of it. The form of a building, however, is crucial to its environmental performance, as are its orientation and materials. At a more detailed level, the fixtures and fittings of environmental design are also crucial: photovoltaic and solar panels (to include or exclude), (day)light shelves, (day)light tubes, architectural shading devices, buffer zones, planting, hybrid HVAC systems—part mechanical, part passive—ventilation chimneys, etcetera. 

This environmental vocabulary is handled with great panache by some architects (for example, the British Edward Cullinan, and Feilden, Clegg, and Bradley; the Italian Mario Cucinella; and the Malaysians Hamzah and Yeang) and with little panache by too many. In architectural terms, the most interesting practitioners are the ones who break out of any kind of environmental functionalism, architects like the Dutch Mecanoo, the Anglo-German Sauerbruch and Hutton, and Alsop and Stormer, and the French Jourda, Perraudin, and Edouard François (of interest for his imagery rather than his energy efficiency). The range of strategies and architectures is enormous, between firms and sometimes within firms, as they respond to different cultural and environmental contexts. Some designers follow environmental thinking to its logical conclusions; others don’t; some do it sometimes, and sometimes not. 

The difference between those architects who have gone only a little way and those who have gone far down this path is instructive. Perhaps the most prominent architects to have taken up a revision of modernism are those once labeled High Tech and rechristened Eco-Tech by Catherine Slessor: Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, and Nicholas Grimshaw.6

They have a clearly stated intention to improve the environmental performance of their buildings and an unspoken desire not to stray too far from their previous practice and its commercial success. For this reason, they will go so far and no further with a re-formed Modernism. For example, their materials are still high-performance, industrially produced metals and glass with a great deal of “embodied energy.”7 Grimshaw’s Börse, Rogers’ DaimlerChrysler headquarters, both in Berlin, and Foster’s Swiss Reinsurance Bank in London are cases in point.

Positions evolve, however. Rogers’ Tribunal de Grande Instance in Bordeaux (1998) extends the firm’s usual palette of materials with wood. Each of the seven freestanding law courts has a glulam (laminated wood) superstructure on a concrete base, clad with cedar strips on the exterior and plywood on the interior. Wood is a good material environmentally, not only because it resists conducting heat and cold, but also because it adds no carbon to the atmosphere (except in its transportation and cutting). This makes Rogers’ specification of aluminum in the Bordeaux courts’ office block and copper for the roof inconsistent—but it takes time for internal contradictions within a practice to become intolerable. 

Trade-offs will probably always be made between fossil fuel consumption, architectural effect, and structural performance. The real contribution of Eco-Tech has nothing to do with maximizing energy efficiency or methodological consistency. Its value lies elsewhere: first, in pushing the technological envelope of environmental design—­hardly surprising, since innovation is its raison d’etre—and second, in acting as a Trojan horse. These architects’ very reluctance to allow their architectural identity to be diluted by environmental design has meant that they have been able to hold onto powerful commercial and institutional clients who are reassured by the familiarity of the house style and yet must at least pay lip service to environmentalism. This is by no means adequate, but again, it takes time for contradictions between action and intention to become embarrassing enough to resolve, and Rogers, at least, goes considerably farther than environmental window dressing in his work. 

In contrast, Rogers’ former partner Renzo Piano has resolved more of the contradictions between High Tech and environmental practice by leaving the High Tech’s visibility behind. An example of this shift is the firm’s Tjibaou Cultural Center for the Kanak population of New Caledonia. The governing ideas for both the site and the Center were derived from Kanak mythology, which is in large part derived from climate and topography. Around the Center winds the Kanak Path, which represents the five stages of Kanak culture­ creation—agriculture, habitat, the country of the dead, and the spirit world—each of which is closely associated with particular stones, plants, and trees. The Center itself is arranged as a path that reproduces the organizational idea of the Kanaks’ ceremonial path, which is lined with trees and ends in the chief’s hut. Instead of trees, programmatic functions line the Center’s ceremonial path, enclosed in the ten wood “cases,” or huts, that make up the “village.” 

The cases that dominate the design of the Tjibaou Cultural Center were initially conceived for cultural, not climatic, reasons—they refer to the Kanaks’ own huts­—but they were modified to perform their environmental function more efficiently. The cases thus evolved from a cone-like shape that echoed the conical roofs of the Kanak huts to more of a cone cut in half, to increase air flow for ventilation. In both the traditional vernacular and the contemporary approach, the strategy is climatic, taking advantage of the Pacific Trade Winds. The cases are made of iroko wood, with laminated wood elements up to twenty-eight meters high supporting horizontal curved slats that allow free air circulation between themselves and the louvered inner skin. The louvers are computer-operated, designed to open automatically to their full extent when there is a gentle breeze and to start closing when wind speed increases. If the wind shifts direction, ventilation is through the much lower front of the building, evacuating through the top of the double skin. The design was developed through wind tunnel testing and computer simulations carried out by Ove Arup and Partners and the Centre Scientifique et Technique de Batiment. 

The result is a design that may remind the Kanaks of their own minimal built culture but in no way seeks to imitate it. Piano was adamant about avoiding the slightest hint of kitsch. Instead, he imitates the Kanaks’ own interactive response to climate. This is done through a similar attention to passive ventilation, but with very different materials and at a very different level of technical complexity. The laminated wood pillars, for example, are set into a cast steel foundation, which had to be transported across the Pacific to the site, as did the computers and the louvers. Although to construct a building of any size and complexity on an unendowed island would always require imports, for environmental fundamentalists the choices would have been different. Doubtless greater energy savings would have been achieved, but almost certainly not to such noticeable effect. What is striking is the way Piano has allowed climate to inspire form to a degree his former High Tech comrades have not, with the result that his architecture has become diverse in a way theirs has not. This is a choice. Some of the first generation Modernists—Aalto, Barragán, and off and on, Le Corbusier—chose to go the other way, remaining within the idiom of the International Style while responding architecturally to climate—with brise soleil, for example. 

  1. The Technical Reason

Environmental design is demanding. It isn’t merely a question of a few simple, intuitive moves like shading a south-facing northern hemisphere facade in summer, and protecting a north-facing northern hemisphere facade in winter, though it’s astonishing how even this is beyond many. Environmental design began as building physics, and that’s where it ends. The more complex a space and program, the more complex the physical interactions taking place both within it and between the interior and the exterior. The materials of the building are also of central importance. Concrete-as-playdough won’t do. Materials have very different conductivity and reflectivity properties that directly affect environmental performance. The development of powerful environmental software is being driven by the need to test the complex physical behavior of a passive or hybrid building before it’s built to see whether the control of the internal environment is still satisfactory after the reduction or renunciation of conventional energy-expensive mechanical systems. The more ambitious the design, the more this modeling is necessary, since opening a building up to the outside again results in many more variables than a sealed building has to address—fluctuations in solar radiation, wind velocity, humidity, etcetera. At the same time, the environmentally designed building must meet much higher comfort and performance levels than vernacular architecture, the model for a less energy-hungry architecture.

The need to understand the patterns of interaction between the forces of nature and buildings has produced a demand for computing power large enough to perform the analysis. It is only through our ability to import the real complexities of the natural world into cyberspace that we can test the environmental performance of not-yet-constructed buildings. Programs like Radiance and Ecotect, made for designers, not engineers, are as stimulating as they are demanding. Radiance is a “physically based lighting simulation program” that demonstrates the quality and intensity of daylight in any part of any building over a day or a year. Ecotect is a “3-D modeling interface fully integrated with acoustic, thermal, lighting, solar, and cost functions” that supports conceptual as well as final design. The point is that environmental design doesn’t rule out complexity of form or program. A repositioning of material culture opens up new practices as it shuts down others.

  1. The Economic Reason

In Europe, environmental reform comes from the top down. The European Union, through a mixture of legislation, directives, economic incentives, and subsidies, is attempting to redirect its vast bulk toward a less damaging relationship with the environment, built and natural. The United States, under the current administration at least, is resisting any such intervention tooth and nail. Instead, the engine for change is the conventional villain of the piece: big business. This is not in obedience to any moral imperative, but from its usual regard for the bottom line.8 “Industrial ecology” can save companies millions of dollars by treating industrial processes as if they were biological and by transforming production and consumption from a linear entropic process to a circular energy-efficient one. 

There is no waste in nature because all its “manufacturing processes” are interrelated through all scales from the local pond to the globe. What one organism no longer needs is used by another. The biosphere was constructed from these relationships, each further level of complexity emerging from a symbiotic relationship with the levels below. Industrial ecology imitates this interrelatedness. Waste becomes another sellable or exchangeable commodity. Instead of our producing, say, steel, and its waste being dumped as an unwanted byproduct, that waste is used by another enterprise for another industrial process. (For instance, blast furnace slag from steel manufacture can be used as a cement replacement in concrete. In Japan they use up to eighty percent blast furnace cement to twenty percent ordinary Portland cement. In Europe, structural steel is often recycled.) Making the waste of one production cycle the raw material of another has yet to become commonplace, but where it is being tried, it is bearing fruit, as in Kalundborg, Denmark, where:

The project encompasses an electric power plant, … an oil refinery, a pharmaceutical plant, a wallboard factory, a sulfuric acid producer, cement manufacturers, local agriculture … and nearby houses. In the early 1980’s, [the electric power plant] started supplying excess steam to the refinery and pharmaceutical plant. It also began supplying waste heat for a district heating system, allowing 3,500 oil furnaces to be shut off. In 1991, the refinery began removing sulfur for its gas, selling it to a sulfuric acid producer… . [The electric power plant] is now selling its fly ash to the cement manufacturer and will … sell waste gypsum to the wallboard plant … and the pharmaceutical plant is turning its sludge into fertilizer for local farms.9 

There is no reason, given the diversity of environmental practice, that it can’t be diversified even further by those who have yet to engage with it. In Europe, remaining aloof is less and less an option, not only because energy efficiency requirements are becoming more demanding, but also because firms are competing in a market in which those with this expertise have a competitive edge over those without it. Not that everyone in Europe is rushing to upgrade his or her practice. It takes time and money, and many firms would rather wait until they’re pushed. Paul Hyett, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, recently complained at the inaugural meeting of the Global Alliance for Building Sustainability about the slowness of the profession in the United Kingdom to incorporate this new practice: “I can’t force on my members obligations that would make them uncompetitive… . [Nevertheless,] is it necessary to burn fossil fuels for ventilation and lighting every time someone uses a toilet? … Buildings are unintelligent and their design is unintelligent.”10 

Although it may not be moving quickly enough, the profession in the European Union is moving, if for no other reason than clients are beginning to see that although a low energy building may require a larger initial capital outlay, that outlay is “paid back” in dramatically lower running costs. Whether moving into their own buildings or trying to get others to move into their buildings, clients see this as increasingly important. Oil won’t always be cheap in the United States, and clients will begin to respond in the same way they do in fuel-expensive Europe.

  1. The Pedagogical Reason

If, in answer to accusations of foot-dragging, architecture offices can plead practical difficulties—which should be addressed with practical help—architecture schools have no such excuse. Their remit is to prepare the next generation of architectural thinkers and doers. They may protest, with good reason, that they aren’t able to find sufficient numbers qualified to teach environmental design, but this is, at least in part, a problem of their own making. Environmental design has been around for thirty years. Given the usual degree of inertia, that’s twenty years of training lost, twenty years worth of skilled teachers and practitioners unavailable, and therefore a much smaller pool of expertise. The failure to address the issue sooner also means that the pedagogy remains in its infancy. How does one teach architects something that is a technical practice, but a technical practice like no other, one that inhabits the building process from conception to construction and carries enormous formal implications? What is the best way of teaching architecture students to juggle the formal and the environmental so that neither is overcome by the other? 

At the Architectural Association, for example, where I taught until recently, there are both long-standing and emerging teaching practices from which to learn. Neither is entirely satisfactory, but each points to ways a more effective synthesis may be achieved. The long-standing practice, the postgraduate Environment and Energy Program, is found in the AA’s Graduate School and has been running for seventeen years, a distant moon orbiting the boiling planet that is the rest of the school. Young architects, some newly qualified, some with a few years in practice, spend an intensive year acquiring the principles of environmental design, an ability to think their way around the subject, and, above all, a proficiency in the most recent environmental software. Computer analysis and simulation dominate the course. This is in some ways good—it’s rigorous, concrete, and enables students to see clearly which decisions are environmentally advantageous—and in some ways unsuccessful: students don’t have time to integrate the new practice into their established ways of designing. 

The alternative pedagogical approach is in the main school of the AA, at both Degree and Diploma levels. Here, certain design units are deciding, quite independently of the school and each other, to incorporate some form of environmental design into their syllabus, usually as one of several simultaneous means of generating form. No experts are involved in the week-to-week teaching—it is strictly bottom-up— but the pedagogical model that is evolving is, for architects, potentially more promising: students develop conceptual frameworks, which often have nothing whatever to do with “the environment,” and simultaneously research aspects of environmental design on a need-to-know basis. Their intellectual inquiry is therefore both cultural and environmental, and the dialogue between the two generates the final design. The outcome, however, is limited by the nature of the input. Students may successfully research photovoltaics, reed bed water purification, and recycled materials, but they are not able to test either their empirical observations or their final decisions. They don’t have the ability, so painstakingly acquired in the Masters’ program, to analyze or simulate. What is needed, beginning at Degree (undergraduate) level and continuing at Diploma (graduate) level, is a combination of the Environment and Energy and the design unit approaches.

This pedagogical field, like its practice, is open for innovation and experimentation. In Europe, demand is growing among students for more environmental course content, a desire firmly backed by the Royal Institute of British Architects, which now requires all schools to incorporate sustainability into their core curricula. Recruitment is beginning to be affected: students who don’t find what they’re looking for in one school choose another. Students already in a particular school are increasingly critical of tutors who cannot or will not “deliver” environmentally. In fact there is a case to be made for a massive retraining of teachers. It’s hardly their fault the environment wasn’t a focus of their education, but their lack of knowledge—practical and conceptual—­is becoming a threat to their school’s success. 

For those impervious to moral imperatives, made all the more resistible by the smug sanctimoniousness of the converted, surely there is enough intellectual and aesthetic challenge within environmentalism to merit a few toes in the water. The concerns of the current avant-garde and those of environmental architects meet in nature, and the refusal on both sides to acknowledge this common ground is as obsolete as it is limiting. The idea, prevalent among the unenthusiastic, that the exigencies of environmental design pose an ominous threat to their creative freedom is unfounded. Within the framework of a relationship with the biosphere a little more mature than “gimme, gimme,” certain limits are now necessary. There are, or need to be, limits to certain forms of material exploitation, but within those parameters, we find ourselves in a condition described by University of Essex sociologist Ted Benton as “bounded but unlimited.”11 Few architects have even begun to explore the implications of the new embedded within limit—a limit that is material, not intellectual—hampered as they are by the association of the new with the limitless. Why environmental design should be perceived as having more disastrous an effect on creativity than any of the other limitations architects are faced with—of budget, client demands, building regulations—remains a mystery. 

On the contrary, limits can serve as a means of making design decisions less arbitrary, more grounded in the “real.” Perhaps this is one of the causes of resistance to environmentalism—not practical worries about the time and money required to get up to speed, but a sometimes explicit, sometimes subliminal resistance to architecture-as-matter. But in a culture increasingly capable of merging nature and culture, why on earth are thoughtful talented people still addressing only one end of an enormous range of new possibilities? 

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1