Something surprising has happened with many so-called “sustainable” buildings. When actually measured in post-occupancy assessments, they’ve proven far less sustainable than their proponents have claimed. In some cases they’ve actually performed worse than much older buildings, with no such claims.
A 2009 New York Times article, “Some buildings not living up to green label,” documented the extensive problems with many sustainability icons. Among other reasons for this failing, the Times pointed to the widespread use of expansive curtain-wall glass assemblies and large, “deep-plan” designs that put most usable space far from exterior walls, forcing greater reliance on artificial light and ventilation systems.
Before its cancellation, the Anara Tower was planned to be one of Dubai’s tallest buildings, and an icon of sustainability — despite its west-facing glazing, high embodied energy in materials, and, remarkably, a giant non-functional (i.e. decorative) wind turbine. The building offered the consumer packaging of an “image” of sustainability at the apparent expense of real sustainability. Illustration by WS Atkins PLC.
Partly in response to the bad press, the City of New York instituted a new law requiring disclosure of actual performance for many buildings. That led to reports of even more poor-performing sustainability icons. Another Times article, “City’s Law Tracking Energy Use Yields Some Surprises,” noted that the gleaming new 7 World Trade Center, LEED Gold-certified, scored just 74 on the Energy Star rating — one point below the minimum 75 for “high-efficiency buildings” under the national rating system. That modest rating doesn’t even factor in the significant embodied energy in the new materials of 7 World Trade Center.
Things got even worse in 2010 with a lawsuit [“$100 Million Class Action Filed Against LEED and USGBC”] against the US Green Building Council, developers of the LEED certification system (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). The plaintiffs in the lawsuit alleged that the USGBC engaged in “deceptive trade practices, false advertising and anti-trust” by promoting the LEED system, and argued that because the LEED system does not live up to predicted and advertised energy savings, the USGBC actually defrauded municipalities and private entities. The suit was ultimately dismissed, but in its wake the website Treehugger and others predicted, based on the evidence uncovered, that “there will be more of this kind of litigation.”
What’s going on? How can the desire to increase sustainability actually result in its opposite?
One problem with many sustainability approaches is that they don’t question the underlying building type. Instead they only add new “greener” components, such as more efficient mechanical systems and better wall insulation. But this “bolt-on” conception of sustainability, even when partially successful, has the drawback of leaving underlying forms, and the structural system that generates them, intact. The result is too often the familiar “law of unintended consequences.” What’s gained in one area is lost elsewhere as the result of other unanticipated interactions. (more…)
Today the world of design is in a position to benefit enormously from advances in sciences, mathematics and particularly, geometry—probably not in a way that many designers think.
As humans we are remarkably good at conceiving the world as a collection of objects, their geometric attributes, and the ways they can be taken apart and re-assembled to do spectacular things (either perform marvelous tasks for us, or provide an aesthetic spectacle, or both). This way of designing underlies much of our powerful technology—yet as modern science reminds us, it’s an incomplete way. Critical systemic effects have to be integrated into the process of design, without which we are likely to trigger operational failures and even disasters.
Today we are experiencing just these kinds of failures in large-scale systems like ecology. As designers (of any kind) we must learn to manage environments not just as collections of objects, but also as connected fields with essential features of geometric organization, extending dynamically through time as well as space. This is a key lesson from the relatively recent understanding of the dynamics of “complex adaptive systems,” and from applications in fields like biology and ecology.
At issue is not just avoiding failures. Though our designs can certainly be impressive, nature’s “designs” routinely put us humans to shame. No aircraft can maneuver as nimbly as an eagle (or a fruit fly, for that matter), and no supercomputer can do what an ordinary human brain does. The sophistication and power of these designs lies in their complex geometric structures, and more particularly, in the processes by which those structures are evolved and transformed within groupings or systems.
The ecosystem of a coral reef requires continuous mutual adaptation of individuals and species, like Yolanda Reef in Ras Muhammad nature park, Sinai, Egypt.
Photo: Mikhail Rogov, Wikimedia Commons.
The most commonly held and influential idea about design is that it’s the art of bringing essentially unrelated parts into a “composition” or an “assembly”. The funny thing is, from a scientific point of view, this idea is entirely wrong. A much better idea about design is that it’s the transformation of one whole into another whole. Not only is this definition more accurate, it’s also crucial for achieving an adaptive design.
Let’s talk about the important implications of this distinction between assembly and transformation.
Why is it scientifically wrong to say that design is the “composition” of essentially unrelated elements? Because nothing that works as a complete system is really “essentially unrelated” — though the sciences used to operate more or less successfully from that abstract premise, and much of technology still does. By contrast, the sciences of the last century have taught us more and more about the essential inter-relatedness of the Universe, from the largest scales of the space-time continuum, to the push-pull world of the quantum. In the biological sciences, we’ve come to understand the multi-layered, historical interdependence of systems, especially evident in the web-like relationships of ecological systems. Wherever we look in nature, we find vast and intricate networks of connections.
Looked at in a certain way, the human environment is a kind of massive delivery system for critically useful information.
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