It ain’t easy being green

For reasons I’m not going to get into here I’ve been thinking about “sustainability” in architecture – and though the word has become something of a marketing catchphrase, if given a bit of thought it is not as superficial and cynical as it might sound. It doesn’t all end with Da Mayor’s green roof hoopla or sticking “green” technology on otherwise standard-issue buildings.

Though for as long as I can remember I’ve been something of a green freak, my first contact with the specific issues involved in architectural sustainability was at a lecture by David Cook of Behnisch Architekten from Berlin last year. His main assertion was that environmental sustainability was only part of the issue, with economic and civic sustainability being the other two key components needed for the whole to really work.

Economic sustainability pretty much speaks for itself. If you can’t make something work financially, then even if you get to build it, it will quickly fail and be replaced by something else. An economically sustainable building has the opportunity to become a lasting asset. Cook also pointed out the human factor there – since most of the money involved in operating a commercial building goes to people’s salaries, a building that creates a good environment for humans can save its occupants money simply by limiting staff rotation. That translates into benefits and overall satisfaction for all involved.

He also spoke about his firm’s civic sustainability goals, which for him meant mainly respecting people’s inherently social nature. He said that providing public and semi-public space where people could interact – initially expensive – was in fact a good investment in making buildings truly attractive. This in turn helped to make them economically sustainable in the long run, and that again allowed them to continue functioning in an environmentally responsible manner. Obviously not everyone can build Seattle Public Libraries, but it’s definitely a factor to consider. A real win-win, at least on paper.

The lecture made a huge impression on me – frankly, a bigger impression than most of the very good lectures we’ve had at UIC over the past two years. Though in studio we are often directed to deal mostly with formal and programmatic issues, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Cook’s talk was one of the main inspirations for both my bIGfUNtHING project and my current studio efforts. I don’t think this is the end of it, either.

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