If you had to explain the most important aspects of architecture to a layperson, what would they be?
Firstly, I would say that we need to think of architecture as more than just buildings. It is really important that we expand our concept of architecture to include cities and infrastructure. An entire campus, for example, can be architecture – from individual buildings to the entire infrastructure that serves it including sidewalks, lighting, roads, sewer systems etc.
We also need architecture to highlight the excellence of both quantitative and qualitative results. This includes measurables like energy consumption, carbon emissions, and water usage, but also a sense of soul and intangible inspiration – aspects than can only be perceived and experienced. This is just as true for a bus stop or mobile home as it is for a museum or commercial high-rise.
Is architecture always positive?
No, and we need to understand that architecture causes a lot of problems. Most of the time, people say that WE are the problem and that WE are causing things like climate change, pollution, and the like. But I would say that the problem is architecture. Trees also eat, breathe, grow, overpopulate areas, produce food, and waste resources, but they aren’t considered sources of pollution, extinction, or climate change.
So, what makes architecture a potential hazard?
I think the damage caused by architecture is due to the fact that it has not evolved beyond old standards of how it is valued, constructed, implemented, or used. Essentially, we are still conceiving and building things as we did before Darwin instead of implementing the lessons of evolution. Architecture encompasses all the things that make up the built environment and it has a disproportionate influence on the physical/natural world, yet we still perceive it as something outside of the context of nature.
But how could buildings be part of nature?
Although we talk about buildings being LIKE a tree one day, we are not actually thinking about them as trees. I think that we should try to create new life forms such as living buildings. Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are already a scary thought and part of our food chain. Now, imagine something similar on a city-wide basis for architecture. I wonder if manipulating organisms to react and function like brick, glass, or concrete would give rise to new diseases or super viruses?
I think it is important to understand that we do not need to mimic or be LIKE nature with the things we design, but that they need to be part of nature. And I mean that in a literal sense. As soon as we have ecologists designing cities, buildings, and nations, we will quickly start to see changes to our footprints affecting the living planet.
And where do you see the most room for improvement?
The lure of fame – the lure of becoming a starchitect – is just overwhelming. We have a growing obsession with architecture that is fit for the front page of glossy magazines rather than true solutions for communities, the environment, and people.
We need to add a bunch of words and terms to the daily activities of architects such as meta populations, ecosystem, biodiversity, conservation biology, keystone species, continental conservation, and eco-zones.
Where should this change begin?
Evolutionary science has to play a much larger role in how we design and build. To expand on my earlier answer, architecture is more attuned to geology than biology; as a collective whole it has a gigantic impact and the potential to have the same type of influence as a coastline, river, or mountain range.
Green design, as it stands today, is still focused on fundamental alterations within standard construction – like replacing one type of wood with a more ecologically sound and socially harvested alternative or sourcing products from local manufacturers. These alterations can bring about huge improvements on environmental issues.
So, green architecture isn’t radical enough?
There is nothing wrong with today’s approach to green design. My company does a lot of energy models, LEED projects, and net zero building research. These types of projects have real savings and benefits, but if we think that bamboo flooring is going to stop the extinction of rhinos or regrow the rain forests … well, it won’t. This is something I am fully aware of while we are helping people to choose a better heater for their apartment or while calculating how to design a solar panel array to maximize energy production. These small alterations are important, but – at the same time – we also need a massive evolutionary leap in architecture. The research I have been involved in over the last six years or so on ecological restoration, oyster habitats, urban design, and resiliency has opened my eyes to the scope for much bigger improvements.
Your book states that today’s green housing initiatives aren’t doing nearly enough and compares their efforts to “polishing silver while the Titanic is sinking.” Could you give us an example?
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2013, electricity consumption per household is projected to decline by 6 % from 2011 to 2040. However and overall, housing stock is projected to increase energy consumption by nearly 25 % over the next twenty years. Thus, even though electricity per household is going down, the residential sector’s overall energy consumption will still increase by 24 %. So, it is simply not enough to reduce energy use per household if this does not stop the larger trend and uptick.
Most of the residential increase is due to appliances and electronics. Although televisions, computers, stoves, refrigerators, and other appliances have become much more energy efficient, today’s homes use so many of these that we are moving in the wrong direction.
So, what can each and every one of us do to really make an impact?
During the research for my book, I had a really amazing conversation with Ilkka Hanski, a professor at the University of Helsinki, who has done a lot of studies on meta populations. This really changed the way I perceived architecture, city planning, urban design, and what we need to do to foster a richer relationship with the natural world. At the same time, it was equally extraordinary what he had committed not to do. He decided not to mow his lawn for a year and recorded the biological state of his yard. At the time, there were something like five to ten different species living and growing in his garden. After just one year, that number had jumped to 373 plant and animal species, two of which were on the Red List of endangered species. So, I guess one of the biggest things each of us can do is NOT to do something. Stop cutting your grass to let nature regain a foothold.
Sometimes, simple calculations help us to visualize how tiny behavioral changes can have a big impact. Could you give us an impressive example?
From an energy point of view, U. S. homes consume 5 % of all electricity used in America just for lighting. That is more power than New Zealand, Denmark, Switzerland, Ecuador, Iceland, and Ireland use for everything they do! By simply switching to LED bulbs and installing occupancy sensors, we can eliminate 80 % of the electricity used for lighting. This translates to a 4 % overall reduction of U.S. energy use. In terms of carbon emissions, this simple change would stop more than 86 million metric tons of CO2 from reaching the atmosphere. It would take more than two billion trees, growing for ten years, to sequester the same amount of carbon dioxide. That’s not bad for changing a few light bulbs and switches!
Header image: heratiker/ photocase.com
All other images: Chambers Design, Inc.
Interview: Lia Pack