Hopes for Sustainability
For example, the Mediterranean pavilion designed by Mazria for the Rio Grande Botanic Garden Conservatory in Albuquerque, New Mexico maintains its climate with little or no external energy input, largely due to the types of glazing Mazria's firm selected.
But given the existing infrastructure of inefficient buildings, how much of an effect can present-day architects have? Plenty, according to Mazria, who estimates that three-quarters of all the structures that will exist in 2035 have not yet been built. "This is the hope for the future," he says. "Design professionals have huge power."
And architects can improve energy efficiency of a building not just through the design of the building itself, but by making careful landscaping choices. In a tour of campus trees as part of the HOPES conference, instructor Whitey Lueck lamented that too often in architecture — even in "green" building — the landscaping is an afterthought.
"People just think in terms of materials," said Lueck, thus missing out on the power of landscaping as a tool for achieving sustainability. "Instead of building a two-foot-thick wall" to maximize building insulation, for example, "you can build a one-foot-thick wall and plant a tree," he suggested.
ReVisioning the Profession
Many of the speakers at the HOPES conference redefined the role of the architect in society. Jack Elliot, a professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University, charges architecture faculty members with the job of fostering an environmental ethic in their students.
To dramatize this for his own students, Elliot takes them on walks in the hardwood forests around Cornell to show them live maples and oaks like the ones that must be felled when architects specify those woods in their buildings.
For Steve Badanes, cofounder of Jersey Devil, based in Stockton, New Jersey, the role of architect goes hand in hand with the role of builder. Combining these activities actually prevented him from becoming a licensed architect in the 1970s at a time when the American Institute of Architects considered constructing one's own designs to be a conflict of interest.
In contrast to that AIA attitude, Badanes believes that "the future of creative work lies in the hands of those who construct their own ideas." As described in in Devil's Workshop: 25 Years of Jersey Devil Architecture, he designs to reduce the environmental impact of structures, with an effort to situate them appropriately within their cultural and environmental context.
One example of a Jersey Devil design/ build project, the Hill House in La Honda, California, blends into its hillside, with a circular floor plan and sunken profile. Its grass roof provides an appealing aesthetic and contributes to wind deflection and passive heating and cooling. As builders, Badanes and his team were able to alter the design on the fly, incorporating large boulders from the site where they had originally specified smaller stones.
Some architects may worry about teaching their skills to clients for fear of losing future work, but Mark Lakeman relishes such a role at City Repair in Portland, Oregon, where he is both architect and facilitator. At a HOPES panel discussion about affordable housing, Lakeman and Lydia Doleman, also with City Repair, spoke about their work at Dignity Village in Portland, an evolving community for formerly homeless men and women that started as a small cluster of tents.
Doleman emphasized that "affordability is also about empowerment and involvement." With budgets of under $500, Doleman and Lakeman have worked with Dignity Village residents to design and build small houses using discarded construction materials and environmentally friendly straw bale and light straw clay. Residents thus not only gain housing but develop skills that they can apply to future private and communal structures.
Lakeman finds his work with village residents personally rewarding because it involves building social capital rather than investing in flashy marketing, and it gives him more freedom for innovation than does conventional architectural practice. Lakeman reported that Portland city officials have welcomed this opportunity as well, after some initial resistance. "Sometimes we do things guerilla-style," he said; "then they quickly become permitted."
Cameron Sinclair applies similar ideas on a global scale as executive director and chief "eternal optimist" of Architecture for Humanity (AFH), the nonprofit he cofounded five years ago. Under the motto "Design like you give a damn," AFH has hosted design competitions and collaborated with other organizations to facilitate design solutions to humanitarian crises.
For example, AFH has promoted work on a mobile HIV/AIDS clinic for sub-Saharan Africa, and transitional housing for people displaced by war in Kosovo, by the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran, and by the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
"This is something that our profession can tackle, and we must," said Sinclair "We've already seen the difference that design can make." Like City Repair, AFH seeks design participation, not just construction assistance, from future building users.
In their current work rebuilding Kirinda, Sri Lanka, after the recent tsunami, Sinclair's team listened to residents who said that certain trees were off limits for building materials because tree numbers were dwindling. Mud bricks will substitute, with the additional benefit that they can be made locally, providing income for villagers. Rainwater catchment systems for irrigation and solar-powered water pumps will provide additional environmental and financial sustainability.
ReSolving Community Problems
As satisfying as it may be to tackle the question of architectural sustainability for new buildings on new sites, some of the most challenging problems come from sites that have already been used. The highlight of the conference's "reSolve" component was a 24-hour design charette to generate ideas for ecologically sound redevelopment of a polluted local industrial site.
During the charette, design teams proposed a variety of new uses for the Eugene Rail Yard, including a farmer's market, affordable housing, and a bioremediation research facility. A panel further explored the complexities of building on brownfields in general and at the rail yard in particular.
Other speakers and panels at the HOPES conference addressed the topics of sustainable restoration of historic structures, adaptive reuse of buildings, and reuse of building materials. A design challenge awarded prizes for sustainable and ecologically conscious solutions to community problems, such as using Grasspave to allow a parking lot to double as a soccer field.
The conference also featured workshops on LEED certification and solar energy systems, an exhibit of related student projects and professional design work, a green business and nonprofit expo, and the "Trashy Fashion" show. Attending such conferences will help the students of today to serve our planet well when they are the senior designers of 2035.
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Nancy Novitski writes about people and the environment from Eugene, Oregon.