The final part of the definition is the most obvious one. Clearly, one of the major goals of the movement is to reduce impact on the natural environment. What is not as obvious is that the ultimate goal, indeed, a necessity, as we grow from six to seven billion people and beyond, is not only to reduce impact to the natural environment, but also to eliminate negative environmental impact completely through skillful, sensitive design.
A project perhaps should not even be called sustainable or green until it reaches a high level of performance. The most serious adherents of the sustainable design movement are not content with merely limiting damage. From project to project, they continually try to up the ante, finding ways to enhance comfort while further raising the bar in environmental performance.
As Sim Van Der Ryn discusses in his important book Ecological Design: "In many ways, the environmental crisis is a design crisis." It is a consequence of how things are made, buildings are constructed, and landscapes are used."
Sustainable design is an approach that looks to the design process to heal as effectively as it has damaged. Bill Browning and Dianna Lopez Barnett also describe it accurately in their Sustainable Design Primer, by reminding us that "it represents a revolution in how we think about, design, construct, and operate buildings."
Sustainable design implies responsibility and it implies a far-reaching respect for natural systems and resources, respect for people and respect for the cycle of life.
Learning to Respect Nature
It is helpful to think about sustainable design in terms of the word respect. The opposite of respect is contempt. Our current system of construction, materials manufacturing and design are done in such a way that it may as well be contemptuous of natural systems. If you respect something you honor it, you act as its protector, as a steward or parent. It is in this vein that we describe sustainable design. When you have contempt for something you abuse it, neglect it, ignore it and use it up.
Of course, the truth is that it is not really contempt for the natural world or any big conspiracy that is behind most environmental degradation but rather it is a by-product of ignorance and the inertia of progress and politics. Nature, in most cases, is just in the way. In the 21st century we can no longer plead ignorance and innocence for our actions. Because we know that our buildings are a big part of the current crisis, inaction and resistance to the sustainable design movement can only be viewed now as contempt.
Sustainable design also implies intention — to seek the best solution that balances environmental concerns with comfort, aesthetics, cost, and a host of traditional architectural or design concerns.
While it implies intention, sometimes sustainable design can be an intuitive process among skillful designers who have successfully integrated the principles into their design process. Sustainable design should be thought of as a verb, not a noun, meaning that the act or process of sustainable design must clearly be separated from the product.
Almost no buildings being built today are, in the truest sense, sustainable. This is not so much the failing of the movement, but the reality of changing the incredibly complex system that is the building industry. The sustainable design movement today has produced a lot of better, less damaging, more efficient buildings, but the buildings themselves cannot be called sustainable.
It may be fine to label them as "green" buildings if necessary, but the word sustainable should be reserved for buildings that truly have no negative operational impacts on the environment and few embodied ones.
It's Only Good Architecture
In many ways, sustainable design is simply expanding the definition of good design to include a wider set of issues. Traditionally, architecture dealt with several factors, but cost, schedule, functionality, and aesthetics drove the decision-making process, or as the ancient architectural theoretician Vitruvius discussed: — firmness, commodity, and delight.
But sustainable architecture adds more layers and asks more questions. Is it good? Is it the responsible choice? What effect will these design decisions have on the environment? On human health? It reminds us of a wider set of issues that for too long have been ignored in the design process or, if not ignored, given a very minor role in shaping the designs of our buildings and communities — afterthoughts.
As William McDonough, one of the pioneers in the green design movement asks, "Was Auschwitz a good design?" It certainly was efficient at what it was designed to do, but was it good? Of course not! While this is an extreme example, we can think of many others with similar implications.
If a building wins design awards but suffers from sick-building syndrome due to poor detailing and specifications, is it a good design? If a building was built on budget and on schedule and meets all programmatic requirements but does so by imposing an enormous ecological burden, is it a good design?
Sustainable design helps instill a sense of responsibility and higher purpose back into design. Designers who adhere to the philosophy are not merely providing a product or commodity, but they are providing a service that goes beyond the immediate client to other people, to other species, and even to future generations.
McDonough eloquently describes this as "intergenerational tyranny" because the decisions and consequences we make today will be inherited by the innocents of the future. Sustainable design seeks to provide solutions that are "good for all species for all times."
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Jason McLennan is founder and director of Elements, the sustainable design consulting division of BNIM Architects, one of the pioneers in the green architecture movement. He is also the founder and CEO of Ecotone, a company dedicated to educating design professionals and the impact of the construction industry on the environment. Ecotone has just become the first publisher in United States to go "carbon neutral."
This article is excerpted from The Philosophy of Sustainable Design, copyright © 2004, available from Ecotone Publishing Company LLC and at Amazon.com.