21st century architecture and sustainability

“Green”, “sustainable”, “certified”, “LEED”, “USGBC”, “passive house”, “renewable”, “organic”….there are literally dozens of “buzz words” floating around the digital stratosphere these days to describe  everything from toothpaste to underwear to dishtowels to houses that are more ecologically responsible. But what does it really mean to be “green” and how does it affect architecture in the 21st Century?  Have you ever tried to sift and trudge through all of that marketing crap to get to the meat, the nitty-gritty, the soul of sustainability? Yeah, me too.  It’s damn near a full time job even for those in the know.

I look back to my architectural education, my first studio – Vernacular Architecture.  We had to research “vernacular” building.  It was seriously eye opening.  Homes built, say, in England “way back when” are mostly constructed of stones for the walls and heavy timbers for the floors and roof.  Why is that?  This is exactly what we had to find out.  It’s because THAT’S WHAT WAS THERE ON SITE when the house was built.  A guy wanted to build a house so he looked around and asked “what do I have to build with?”  He noticed the land was littered with stones just below the surface of the dirt and he had some old growth trees nearby.  PERFECT.  And thus, he built his house.  This same theory holds true for every other type of “vernacular” architecture throughout history (except those cooky Romans – they hauled in material from all 4 corners, but then they ruled most of the world so we’ll let it slide).

These are what I like to call simple architectural “best practices” which would at least get you to a green listing or two by virtue of the way things were done.  In “the old days” houses and even office buildings were designed for passive heating and cooling and at least a little daylighting.  The designer had to pay attention to the sun path, solar heat gain, surrounding natural vegetation and grading and the sites macro and micro climates in order to take best advantage of all these “systems” so that the building would be functional and comfortable for the users.  We’re obviously talking about times before the central HVAC system.

Today’s buildings, on the other hand, do not work within their specific locations and climates, they work DESPITE their specific location and climate.  And this is due to our advancements in modern construction technology.  We can literally build ANYTHING, ANYWHERE at ANYTIME.  This is a marvelous statement and awe inspiring.  Imagine what the great architects of old could do with today’s technology!?

But, with respect to sustainability and “green” architecture, have these technologies and techniques helped or hindered the progression of architecture?  If you ask me, it’s hindered, not helped.  Because, if you think about this critically, the “sustainability” movement is actually a regression for architecture.  We’re simply going back to “best practices” and utilizing techniques and technologies that are CENTURIES old – passive heating and cooling, daylighting, trombe walls, heat sinks, wells (water reclamation), leach fields…the list goes on, but you get the point.

Designed by Cadaval & Solà-Morales Architects.

21st century architecture is becoming an expression of all that is BEST about design and building and the sustainability movement has been the catalyst for that expression.  As resources dwindle and become scarce we’re seeing buildings constructed that will actually stand the test of time once again and that to me is VERY exciting.


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