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Why Well-Designed Green Architecture Is Not an Oxymoron

Words by Daniel Noll
Data & Technology

By Daniel Noll

During day 1 of SXSW Eco I sat in on a keynote speech by Lance Hosey, Chief Sustainability Officer for the global architecture firm RTKL. His talk focused on the concepts outlined in his recent book — The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design. In the book, Hosey argues that beauty is inherent to sustainability, for design is as important as process and materials. Aesthetics of the built environment don’t just make things look better, but rather enhance the usability and productivity of the things we buy and the buildings we inhabit.

The underlying question Hosey seeks to answer is whether sustainability changes the face of design — specifically, in regard to architecture — or just its content. To make his point Hosey compared the results of a Vanity Fair survey on significant achievements in architecture with his own survey of leading architects on the most significant achievements in green architecture. The results were striking — only two architects populated both lists, leading Hosey to conclude that the standards we have for excellence in sustainable building and excellence in design are very different. So is well-designed green architecture an oxymoron?

Hosey quoted several famous architects who have said, explicitly or indirectly, that this is very much the case. Hosey’s book is an attempt to change that by redefining sustainable design so that it may incorporate beauty, joy, and other values that he argues are essential to life itself.

In tracing the origins of this dilemma, Hosey doesn’t spare architects in the blame for failing to merge what Edward O. Wilson describes in Consilience as the conflicting cultures of the arts and the sciences. Hosey quotes from Wilson’s book that “until that fundamental divide [between the arts and sciences] is closed… the relation between man and the living world will remain problematic.”

To bridge that gap, Hosey describes in his talk (and book) three shapes: conservation (shape for economy), attraction (shape for pleasure), and connection (shape for place). In each there are lessons from nature that can inform design to improve not only its physical shape, but also the impact it has on people. Here’s what he means.

Conservation – shape for economy

There are countless examples in the natural world of how plants and animals design their habitats and beings in ways that are efficient and resilient. In the structure of a honeycomb, for example, an economy of resources is preserved. Indeed, many products in our world are designed with lessons drawn from nature. Hosey cites the Aptera 2, the most aerodynamically efficient vehicle in the world, as a design that draws lessons from the shape of a dolphin, and the Shinkasen bullet train in Japan as possessing a nose shaped like a kingfisher bird. By imitating nature, therefore, form of objects can indeed follow function.

One example of architecture following in this vein is the word of Mark West and his students at the University of Manitoba (described here). West and his team have developed fabric-formed concrete, basically allowing for only the most essential load-bearing elements of a beam or structure to be kept, as opposed to larger and (from an environmental point of view) wasteful and unnecessary components to be shaved.

Attraction – Shape for Pleasure

Hosey begins by quoting a Senegalese poet as saying, “In the end, we only conserve what we love.” This is probably reason in and of itself to make sure our built environment has a “wow” factor, but the rationale Hosey lays out for making sustainable environments more beautiful goes even deeper. By bringing nature into places, benefits like reduced hospital stay durations and better moods can be realized. In fact, architects don’t even have to physically put people in touch with actual nature, but rather it has been show that the same effects can be realized by emulating the underlying geometric and mathematical principals found in nature.

One example is the positive effect color has been found to have on creativity. Similarly, certain patterns that mimic tree shapes have been found to reduce stress and increase productivity. It turns out tree shapes tend to have a fractal pattern measured around 1.3-1.4 (on a density scale between one and two) and that human exposure can reduce stress by up to 60 percent. Much of this research has come about in the past 15-20 years and Hosey argues that designers and architects must begin to incorporate these findings into their work.

Connection – shape for place

Who hasn’t complained about the dislocation and mundanely homogenous appearance of strip malls across America? Hosey argues that is sustainability is about connecting man and nature, design should be about connecting design and nature in ways that give a sense of place in the world. Over the past 50 years, economic globalization has led to a flattening of cultural diversity. As Vandana Shiva describes it, “economic globalization has hijacked culture, reducing it to a consumerist monoculture.” Hosey blames the “great designs” of the past for contributing to the problems we’re now trying to solve. The alternative is for architecture to focus less on historical examples of great design and more on how to connect with the natural environment in which they are located. Hosey cites good examples of this concept, such as the Lake Flato world birding center, Tijbaou Cultural Center, Kierantimerlake’s loblolly house, and the Glen Murcutt southern highlands house.

The point of all this is to maximize utility along a new value system—one with the triple bottom line of economic, social, and environmental needs. Hosey argues that in architecture and other product fields we can implement the concept underlying the Happy Planet Index (HPI). The HPI is an index that factors in the number of happy life years in a country divided by the ecological footprint and ecological efficiency of a country (with a bit more math). Could we not also have a happy product index that divided the product’s satisfaction by its ecological footprint?

Daniel Noll

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