Rethinking Sustainable Architecture

Selfridges Building by Frank Gehry (Image: panoramio)

Selfridges Building by Future Systems 

Rethinking Sustainable Architecture
by Anand Parthasarathy

I took up sustainability, rather seriously, about 10 years ago when I was just getting ready to graduate with my bachelor’s degree in architecture. And like everybody else, I was fascinated by the notion of ‘Green Buildings and Sustainable Architecture’ – relatively new terms back then, though energy-efficient buildings have been talked about since the 70’s. Since then, I’ve tried to develop a philosophical stance, trying to understand what sustainable architecture really meant, at least to me – for too long I had been relying on standard textbook definitions to explain the concept of sustainability, rather than touch on its architectural interpretation.

As architects it’s often too tempting to view sustainable design as a concept that begins and ends within something, let’s say, as limited as the ‘LEED rating system’ or its local variant: the ‘Green Mark’. Historically, ever since Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ (1962) and the subsequent energy crisis of the 70’s, there have been several attempts to provide a globally acceptable definition of sustainability. In 1987, the Brundtland Report of the United Nations came out with a definition of Sustainability that has since been widely in use:

What is “sustainable” architecture?

….building “that meets the needs of contemporary society without denying future generations of the ability to meet their needs.

– The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) Brundtland Commission 1987

Even to this day, people from almost all fields of inquiry have relied on this definition, regardless of its limitations.

Following this, there were two dominant forms of sustainability talk. One, an abstract ‘model’ of the 3-E’s (Economy, Equity & Environment) more often referred to as the triple bottom-line, and the other, a watershed of green building benchmarking systems such as LEED, BREEAM, Green Mark, etc., offering ‘lists’ of industry best practices.

Two dominant forms of Sustainability Talk: ‘Lists’ (LEED, Green Mark) & ‘Models’ (3-E’s) (Moore, 2007)

‘Lists’, though derived from local experience, rely on generalisation or standardisation of green design approaches, enabling them to be applied universally. Local conditions tend to be obstacles – not opportunities – in applying universal best practices.

‘Models’, on the other hand are based on justified arguments of sustainability, mostly from academic and political realms of discourse. These models are static and represent an idealized or abstract understanding of sustainability.

‘Models’ and ‘lists’ of sustainable design, though helpful as heuristic and analytical tools, tend to ignore ‘situated’ or ‘contextual’ logics that are critical for such efforts to succeed. Simply put, I’d be more inclined to nurture a plant that I intentionally bought, sowed and whose benefits I shall reap later than something that was ordered to be planted in my backyard: ‘Ownership and Consensus’.

‘Models’ and ‘Lists’ of sustainability are limited and abstract. Having said that, rethinking sustainable architecture is about identifying competing interpretations of what people tend to consider “sustainable” as opposed to relying on universal models or lists of sustainability.

Since the early 2000’s there has been a shift in thinking in academic circles, while the mainstream industry still largely relies on green benchmarking systems and abstract sustainability models. Guy and Farmer (2001) produced what is considered to be an important piece of research that marked this shift in thinking by identifying competing logics or claims of sustainable architecture or architectures.

For someone who was trying to define sustainable architecture in more concrete terms, I found this research to be of great significance and critical in arriving at an understanding of what might constitute sustainability in architecture.
Guy and Farmer identify six competing logics of sustainable architecture, as tabled in the image above. They define logics as coherent and consistent ways of building. The following is a discussion of the six competing logics. Each paradigm makes a competing claim for sustainability:

1. ‘Eco-Centric’

Earthships – Biotecture

Buildings classified as being eco-centric are fragile and harmonious with nature or rather look like nature. Technologies are off-the-grid and decentralised with no reliance on external sources.

2. ‘Eco-Technic’

European Investment Bank, Luxembourg

Kiefer technic showroom – Germany

The Eco-Technic paradigm treats space as being global and urban in nature. Buildings are intelligent, heavily reliant on technology and tend to look like the future.

3. ‘Eco-Cultural’

Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center, New Caledonia by Renzo Piano

Cidade De Goa, India

Buildings in the ‘Eco-Cultural’ paradigm are a reflection of local cultural practices and lay heavy emphasis on place-making. They tend to look authentic, phenomenal and technologically vernacular.

4. ‘Eco-Medical’

A typical American house

Clean and non-toxic buildings

The ‘Eco-Medical’ paradigm requires buildings to look healthy and typical, placing emphasis on human health. Buildings tend to avoid pollutants, favour clean and non-toxic technology.

5. ‘Eco-Aesthetic’

Selfridges Building by Future Systems

Minneapolis Museum by Frank Gehry

Buildings tend to alienate themselves from the surroundings and are technologically organic and non-linear. They emphasize creating an entirely new ecological system that reconfigures our consciousness of nature.

6. ‘Eco-Social’

Mass Housing

Decentralized Technology (PV Panels)

Spaces are socially constructed in the Eco-Social paradigm. Buildings tend to look accessible and non-hierarchical. They are technologically decentralized, participatory and flexible to change.

To conclude, “sustainable” architecture is a concept, or better, a discourse that is very much under construction – its meaning will not be discovered in the laboratory, but constructed in public space.

“The pluralism of sustainable architecture(s) is, no doubt, a perceived obstacle to those who would standardize a set of best practices. Our position is the opposite, that the diversity of tectonic practices is – like biological diversity itself – a necessary if insufficient condition to construct a sustainable built environment”.

Guy and Moore, Sustainable Architectures: Natures and Cultures in Europe and North America, Routledge, 2005♦


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