Critiquing design for sustainability

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

I like the philosophy here – that design which only contributes towards offsetting its own environmental impact is not ‘good’ for the environment, simply not as bad as it could have been.

Perhaps this needs to be considered more widely. The last time I flew I offset the carbon. It only cost £1. Well why not pay £2 and offset the carbon of the person next to me, just in case he hasn’t? Or even if he has? Why do we think in terms of ofsetting our personal impact when it would be far more cost-effective and probably easier to jump right in and think more socially.

Would this encourage others not to do it, thinking that do-gooders like me will do it for them? Well not if you subscribe to Richard Dawkin’s ideas of altruism in The Selfish Gene where he explains why strangers risk life and limb to save the lives of other people’s kids. Because we know that if we do we encourage a society that will look after our own kids when we’re not able to.

Unless a ‘green’ building actively remediates its local environment – for instance, scrubbing toxins from the air or absorbing carbon dioxide – that building is not ‘good’ for the environment. It’s simply not as bad as it could have been.

Buildings aren’t (yet) like huge Brita filters that you can install in a city somewhere and thus deliver pure water, cleaner air, better topsoil, or increased biodiversity to the local population.

I hope buildings will do all of that someday – and some architects are already proposing such structures – but, for the most part, today’s ‘green’ buildings are simply not as bad as they could have been.

A high-rise that off-sets some of its power use through the installation of rooftop wind turbines is great: it looks cool, magazine readers go crazy for it, and the building’s future tenants save loads of money on electricity bills. But once you factor in these savings, something like the new Castle House eco-skyscraper still ends up being a net drain on the system.

It’s not good for the environment; it’s just not as bad as it could have been.

(Read the whole thing at BLDGBLOG: Architectural Sustainability.)


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