Friday, February 22, 2008

Finding Value in Sustainability

Sustainable building methods are the future—environmental and financial efficiency as well as improved total building performance are its main selling points. When asked whether sustainable methods are profitable, Cecil Balmond argued that sustainability has not caught on as the best method of design and construction because of political inertia and a fear of the new. Nostalgia he says, is the necessary evil that impedes the growth of sustainable design.

First there must be a definition of terms. In America, the terms “green” design and sustainable design have been used interchangeably, causing confusion in what the movements are trying to achieve. “Green” design, is an “eco-friendly” approach; where materials, building systems, and site planning are chosen for their minimal environmental impact. This type of design is known to be expensive, financial returns take years to decades (PV arrays, composting toilets), while comfort (nostagia) is sacrificed immediately. Sustainable design, is a new way of thinking about design all together. It is about optimizing systems to function as efficiently as possible, while limiting environmental impact through efficient building performance. In sustainable design, the design/construction team is an integrated group of designers, consultants and contractors who work together in order to check efficiency, quality and timeliness of delivery from the beginning of the project.

“Green” design is at times off-putting—I put little value in reducing “global warming,” because a change from 80 to 81 degrees in summer makes little difference to me. Carbon footprints are even more off putting, since the only scientific consensus on carbon emissions is that carbon-dioxide feeds plants. This may isolate me in my field, however, I do value sustainable design and believe that it is the future of building professions world wide, because I can set aside the purely environmental aspects and embrace its efficiency. Where nostalgia sells to an individual home buyer, efficiency sells to corporate and public sectors.

The average home buyer will never have a house custom built by an architect, they have little to no choice in the methods used to build their homes or the systems within. In this case, nostalgia wins because the average home buyer is looking for a home they like aesthetically, if a Tudor house is what they want, who can tell them that their taste is out dated? Instead, there should be a focus on applying sustainable building methods to corporate and public projects. The American federal government, as well as local governments have already shown a willingness to forgo nostalgia, and accept new forms and aesthetics for efficiency; like the Cal-Trans District 7 building and the San Jose City Hall.

In the building professions, nostalgia also plays a role. The architect wants to design a building from top to bottom, then hand the project off to a contractor, who wants detailed drawings form which he leads his team to build the project. The engineer is left to the side, to figure out how the building will stand up. In a sustainable project, these three fields are integrated, working cooperatively from the beginning to design an efficient project and an efficient means of production. Single authorship is lost.

The way buildings have been created for centuries is changing, and design and building professionals must face the challenge and begin to work cooperatively. Sustainable projects are profitable throughout the world, and corporations and governments as well as educational institutions have shown that they are willing to pay a premium for increased efficiency; as more building firms develop integrated and sustainable design methods it will become the norm and begin to spread to smaller scale projects.

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