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.
With apologies to real estate agents, we’d like to say that the three most important factors in design are scale, scale, and scale. One reason is that many of the worst environmental design blunders of the 20th century have been mistakes of scale — especially our failures to come to terms with the linked nature of scales, ranging from small to large. The cumulative consequence of these failures is that the scales of the built environment have become highly fragmented, and (for reasons we detail here) this is not a good thing. Can we correct this shortcoming?
Most designers know something about “fractals,” those beautiful patterns that mathematicians like Benoît Mandelbrot have described in precise structural detail. In essence, fractals are patterns of elements that are “self-similar” at different scales. They repeat a similar geometric pattern in many different sizes. We see fractal patterns almost everywhere in nature: in the graceful repetition at different scales of the fronds of ferns, or the branching patterns of veins, or the more random-appearing (but repetitive at different scales) patterns of clouds or coastlines.
Figure 1. The beautiful structure of fractals, patterns that are repeated and sometimes rotated or otherwise transformed at different scales. Left, a natural example of ice crystals (Photo: Schnobby@wikimediacommons). Right, a computer-generated fractal coral reef that, helped by color and shading effects, could be mistaken for a natural scene (Photo: Prokofiev@wikimediacommons).
Looked at in a certain way, the human environment is a kind of massive delivery system for critically useful information.
It gives us information about obvious concerns, like where we are, where we need to go, where we might find food, where to look ou…