What Is The Original Green?

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Originally, before the Thermostat Age, the places we built had no choice but to be green, otherwise people would freeze to death in the winter, die of heat strokes by summer, or other really bad things would happen to them. Today, as we are working to re-learn how to live sustainably, much of the focus is on the gadgetry of green: Gizmo Green. This notion that we can simply invent more efficient mechanisms, and throw in some bamboo to boot, is only a small part of real sustainability. First, we must build sustainable places, because it does not matter what the carbon footprint of a building is if you have to drive everywhere in order to live there. The four foundations of sustainable places are Feedability, Serviceability, Accessibility, and Defensibility. Only after the place has been made sustainable does it make sense to discuss sustainable buildings. The first of the four foundations of sustainable buildings is Lovability, because it does not matter how efficiently the building performs if it is demolished and carted off to the landfill in a generation or two because it cannot be loved. Even a landmark so revered by the architectural profession as the Boston City Hall is now in danger of just such a fate because it is famously unlovable. Only after the building is lovable can it go on to be sustainable by being Durable, Flexible, and Frugal. This blog will discuss each of these foundations and their implications at length. Participation is invited by anyone interested in pursuing holistic sustainability. Click on the title of this post under “Recent Posts” to the right to respond and to read everyone else’s responses.

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Published in: on February 10, 2008 at 8:13 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. Great idea. I’m looking for some good ideas for existing house retrofit, as well as some standardized approaches to a green envelope that can be flexible enough to deliver good design, and work in different climates.

  2. Steve,

    Congratulations on launching this blog on such an urgent topic.

    This disussion reminds me of Einstein’s famous remark that “the significant problems we face can not be solved by the level of thinking which created them.” I think we are all beginning to recognize that sustainability has to be more than just another clever new technology, which too often implies a new set of unintended consequences. Technological efficiency has to be part of the solution, no doubt – and we must press ahead with promising technologies like solar. But surely sustainability has to deal too with the larger patterns of our lives – and of our histories.

    In that context traditional buildings, and heritage structures, are a huge and often under-appreciated resource. It’s increasingly recognized that they already embody much energy, they often use materials that are low-energy in the first place (wood and masonry instead of glass and steel) and they have already proved their sustainability by — well, sustaining.

    Moeover, as you note, the fact that they are loved is essential to their longevity, and therefore to their resource efficiency. I don’t think we can afford to be too jaded about this, or too artistically esoteric; it’s just too easy to kid ourselves about the real durability of what we do. We shoudl bear in mind that the connection between sustainability and lovability by ordinary folk is not a mere romantic notion.

    So it’s very often true what they say that “the greenest building is the one that’s already built.” And the next greenest building may be the one that learns the most from those other buildings that have lasted, and proven their fitness to human need. Experimentation is fine, up to a point, but successful evolution relies on using the proven as well as the experimental.

    Some people will say, “well, that was what people needed back then, maybe, but the world has changed.” Yes, it has changed some. But last time I checked, we were still about the same two yard tall, three MPH walking social critters we’ve been for centuries, with the same needs of fresh air, sunlight, moderate temperatures, social contact — and beauty. We haven’t reinvented nature; we’ve only deepend our iunderstanding of it. And that should make us more humble, not more arrogant.

    And yes, there’s a lofty place for art in human experience, but in my book it doesn’t trump city-making – or sustainability. Surely we can create art that integrates within sustainable cities, instead of imposing questionable utopian technological fantasies on them? We are not the only ones worrying about the wisdom of that latter course these days, given the unhappy evidence to date. (Indeed, people have been worrying about it at least since Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander in the early 1960s.)

    So maybe we need to look in our own back yards, look at the genius and the “collective intelligence” of so much vernacular architecture, and try to learn from it? Not to parrot the past, or to erect theme parks. (After all, there’s plenty of “commodification” to go around these days, and we can all take heed of the old saying about “people in glass houses”…)

    Maybe we also need to be more willing to integrate from various sources, and see what works – not as novelty for novelty’s sake, but as a way of adapting better and more humanely to the present. As a way of being more sustainable, and more worthy of a world that deserves to be sustained.

    And in that we can integrate the bold and the experimental, up to a point; but we can find some measure of collective wisdom about where that point is. I always like what Borges said about all this, that “between the traditional and the new, or between order and adventure, there is no real opposition; and what we call tradition today is a knitwork of centuries of adventure.”

    I look forward to more discussion of your very sensible analysis of the four foundations of places, and the four foundations of buildings.

    I’ll sign off by noting to your readers that INTBAU (the International Network of Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism) is exploring all these topics actively. I am very pleased to say that Steve is on the board of the USA chapter. Anyone interested can go to http://www.intbau.org. Membership is free!

    Best,

    Michael Mehaffy
    Chair, INTBAU USA


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