GREENING THE IVORY TOWER?
Buildings consume 40% of the world’s energy every year.
Buildings generate almost half of the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming.
40% of landfill currently comes from construction waste.
Clearly, the building industry has a huge impact on the state of our environment. Because of this influence, architects have a moral and social responsibility to learn about and concern themselves with issues of energy and environmentally sustainable building. After all, architecture is supposed to serve the greater good of society… isn’t it?
Green building has been getting increasing amounts of media attention recently, as well as a lot of hype from developers and even real-estate agents. Environmentally focused government and corporate organizations are becoming more commonplace, from the USGBC
and Sustainable Building Coalition
, to the LEED program
and even an Eco-broker
certification program. With this increasing presence in business and real estate, what is academia doing to address concerns about sustainability? Is there a similar green movement going on in the academic world? While I can't speak for any other schools, my experiences at Columbia University have given me the impression that academia is behind the curve on this issue.
To be fair, I am just a second year student at Columbia
, still trying to complete core classes like "Building Systems" and "Fundamentals of Digital Design," so I haven't had much time to explore electives, where sustainable design classes live. That said, it is disturbing to me that design studios – for the most part – seem to completely ignore issues of environmental sustainability, and in some cases even overtly discourage students from trying to deal with these issues in their designs.
There was an especially telling moment at the beginning of last semester when we had the studio lottery to pick our critics for housing studios. After all the critics had given their presentations (exploring issues ranging from geographic mapping to pre-fabrication) one student in the auditorium stood up and asked what the studios were doing to address concerns about the environment. This question was met by a long silence, during which you could have heard a pin drop. The 8 critics exchanged glances, humming and hawing a bit before finally coming up with a variety of answers, each dismissing the issue of sustainability to afterthought. Each answer was slightly different, but the general impression given was that while they all thought sustainability "is an important issue," none considered it a weighty enough topic around which to focus one's conceptual research and design.
I’m not quite sure why there is such reticence within the academic community to discuss green building. My hypothesis is that most academics think the subject matter is too pedestrian, too “engineery,” or too “building-systems” for the lofty debates of post-modern ivory-tower architecture. Case in point: the main place where sustainable architecture is discussed at Columbia is in the building systems classes
– and these classes are all taught by engineers.
An "Earthship" House
Perhaps this reluctance to engage the issue can be attributed to the fact that many of the faculty members lived through the energy crisis of the seventies and the corresponding green building movement of that era. Maybe they don’t want to think about anything that reminds them of sod houses, “Earthships” or any of the other ill-fated crunchy attempts at sustainable building that are still associated with green architecture today. The fact that the environmental movement is still seen as an activist “cause” (rather than innovation or simply good design) probably doesn’t help its case. Living in an era of postmodern subjectivism, contemporary architects tend to shy away from anything that smacks of moralizing. While I would agree that architects need to carefully consider our opinions and beliefs and not make simplistic normative judgments - at the end of the day, designers need to have opinions. Good designers are those who are brave enough to take a stand on issues and postulate ways in which the future might be improved through design.
One concern I frequently hear from academics is that the green building movement is an over-hyped trend with little conceptual or theoretical basis in which to root serious discussion. As recently as 2001, Peter Eisenman was quoted as saying: “To talk to me about sustainability is like talking to me about giving birth. Am I against giving birth? No. But would I like to spend my time doing it? Not really. I‘d rather go to a baseball game.”