Columbia University GSAPP (Jill)



Oct '06 - Feb '08

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    By inhabitat
    Dec 28, '06 10:00 PM EST
    Columbia University Avery Hall, GSAPP, Greening the Ivory Tower, Greening Columbia

    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?

    construction waste

    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.

    Nautilus Earthship House
    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.”


    • strlt_typ

      do you have any other information on how they built the geothermal heating for steven holl's linked hybrid?...because i mentioned this to my boss and his first reaction is: how are they going to maintain these pipes 100 meters underground?...i'm assuming there are chambers down there for people to access the pipes

      Dec 29, 06 1:31 am
      or how the geothermal system will be built...
      Dec 29, 06 1:38 am

      imagine that is not such a big issue dammson. i think when they say geothermal they are really talking about a big ol heat pump, and that tech is pretty standard.

      i do wonder if holl's project is green in other aspects or does it all come down to energy (which is only about life-cycle costs, and not construction, siting, materials, etc)?

      i think peter is not happy with the approach to design that assumes the goal is being green (or maybe he just don't like children). an approach made embarassingly real by folks like ed mazria, who took good ideas (and some very bad ones too as he himself has pointd out) and turned it into quasi religious-y architecture that said nothing and did nothing other than work as poster for "green design". which is a pity, cuz it has left a bad taste for people who want to be green without being too preachy about it.

      i am glad to see so much working coming up in the steven holl vein lately. less enthused by the work of foster and cetera, who tend to oversell and underperform in reality (much like mazria et al did wayback when).

      what would really impress me is a sincere change in approach like the one advocated by mcdonough in cradle to cradle (not his own work though, ironically), rather than our current focus on energy efficiency. energy is very important but looks to be more about treating the symptoms than offering a cure that will lead to real sustainability...collectively we seem to be on the right track though. i hope.

      btw, methane from meat production produces more greenhouse gases than automobiles. maybe it is time for architects to advocate vegetarianism too...?

      Dec 29, 06 2:42 am

      jump, but it is an issue...i saw the e2 on pbs and they showed a diagram of pipes being buried underground...

      Dec 29, 06 3:00 am

      jump...can you explain more on this "big ol heat pump" you are talking about....

      Dec 29, 06 3:02 am

      Welcome Jill- I missed your debut posts, it's exciting to have your talent blogging on the 'nect. Inhabit has been part of my daily read for a while :)

      Academia seems to be run by ego not intellect (re: Eisenmann, et al). Sustainability and social justice require egoless humility to figure out what best serves the collective good, not glamorous grandstanding with flashy 'new' ideas as drive the architectural faculty. There have been a few exceptional exceptions from sambo to cameron, pliny fisk to ed mazria. But grassroots demands from the student body can eventually force the profs and curiculem to be adjusted to address issues of sustainability and humanity.

      Holl is a greenwasher in my book- I've yet to see more then a token effort in high-performance buildings from them.

      Dec 29, 06 9:30 am
      vado retro

      save the earth. commit suicide.

      Dec 29, 06 9:41 am

      yup, that be right vado...

      dammson, i don't know what system holl is using, but the principal is pretty basic, and probs described well enough in the e2 show. if interested have a look []here[/url]. it may be that the maintenance issues are significant, but the technology is about 30 years old, and the ground loop itself is usually advertised to last somewhere round the same (i have read from 30 to 50+ years). i don't know what is required when problems arise but imagine it is not so different from any other buried not an expert though...and am not sure what happens when scale jumps to a project of this size. bound to be issues. assume there are also answers...

      but, what i really like about the approach is that geothermal heat pumps have a longterm payback, and that means the people building these homes are not just building to make a quick profit and run off. Any evidence of a switch to that sort of longer term mentality in china is i think a good thing, regardless of whether it is on the surface slightly greenwashed or is a signficant step that is not even remotely common in the states yet, so we can't be too uppity about it...

      Dec 29, 06 12:27 pm

      sorry, mixed up the link...

      should be:


      treekiler, those are interesting choices. i used to carry mazria's pasive solar energy book around like a bible in the 80's. that and "bioshelters ocean arks and city farming" (by jack and nancy todd) were a perfect balance to the verbiage from eisenmann that was coming out round that time. i liked both, and still do, as long as i don't read what they say too closely (both sides of the camp are ego-iste-ish, and highly polemical, in my opinion) and pay more attention to their intentions, which are still quite interesting....

      mazria and fisk have some important points to make, but i honestly think the world has passed them by slightly. there are more options available than they ever imagined when they began (thanks to technology and culture), and the movements they pioneered have gone mainstream (calls of greenwashing notwithstanding), which means lots of really smart people are applying themselves to resolving the issues without the cultural/stylistic baggage they are burdened with. that is really impt cuz mazria and others are somehow not capable of making compelling buildings, nor able to sell their ideas to the people who really have the power in our world (bankers, politicians, etc)...

      which is why i am happy to give credit to steve holl and tom mayne, who are making a (small) effort to do something that merges the two extremes of thought. more of this and we may finally begin to make up for some of the crap we bin doing for the last 50 years, at least in an environmental sense. if not them, we also have the recent buildings by Cook and Fox and similar; not as artsy, but more mainstream, and sellable to the developers and the banks, cuz of the cost benefits found in energy efficiency.

      i am hopeful that more of this will happen, even if it isn't perfect , and even if it does seem a bit of a fudge to me that most sustainability talk starts and ends with energy use.

      Dec 29, 06 12:31 pm

      It seems like part of "high" academia's reluctance to discuss sustainability is because of a certain cynicism, related to the branding of all things "green" or "eco-friendly," being used as marketing ploys. Personally I share this sentiment, but I don't think that's an excuse for academia to ignore the issue.

      I'd like to see the academic world start to take a closer look at the issue and take a critical stance towards de-mystifying all of this green jargon to decide what really constitutes environmentally sensitive architecture and what architects can really do to best serve the movement.

      It seems like a lot of the potential for saving energy has more to do with the technology available and the clients willingness to invest in up-front costs to use it than the architect's abilities necessarely.

      Let's face it, a normal brick apartment building with no "eco" technology is really better for the environment than a whole street filled with houses donning all the "green architecture" acoutrements.

      Dec 29, 06 5:19 pm

      just to throw a little gasoline on the green education fire - to truly learn about sustainable design, you should be studying landscape architecture instead.

      In most LA programs, you will learn about ecology, habitat, biodiversity, botany, site mitigation, climate, materials, culture and more - all wrapped in a blanket of design... So you don't like that most arch professors have no clue or those that do only design ugly buildings? most landscape prof's don't have those hangups - and a few are even pretty hot shit when it comes to design...

      Dec 29, 06 6:15 pm

      I really liked this post. I went to Columbia oh so long ago and I distinctly remember Tschumi (who was dean while I was there) labeling sustainable architecture a 'phase' when asked about it and there was this disdain in his voice when he said it. So that might give you an idea of how the faculty there views those kind of issues, if they even think about them at all. I think a better place to study sustainability would be at a school that has a LA and Planning department along with architecture, since I think the definition of sustainability is actually sort of narrow and too focused on green-the word and the color. For example, you can design an ecologically sustainable house, but if you plop it down in a exurb subdivision full of cul-de-sacs, you have to drive everywhere to get anything and it negates the point of the house somewhat. Sustainability at all scales would be interesting. I think that exploring how sustainability is and can be defined might be interesting at a Columbia-type school, which is so interested in (re) definitions of standard architectural language and in questioning things-though I think Columbia questions things on a superficial "form + image, no substance" level, not really deeply.

      Also, liked what you had to say on the housing studio-it was by far my favorite and best studio while I was there too, for the same reasons you mentioned.

      Dec 29, 06 9:56 pm

      agree with you treekiller.

      i wonder if for you the non-green city is not a legitimate habitat?

      thing i like most about great Landscapae Architecture is that it doesn't focus on being green. lots of amazing hard surface designs by west 8, for example. not sure if his/their stuff is particularly green, ecological, bio-massed or botanised, but he makes good places. that is the locality where architecture and Landscape architecture, and all the rest meet, at least for me. but it isn't by definition environmental in the sustainable sense. not even close really. that still takes an effort.

      i think there is a problem we have created by dividing landscape and architecture, and an even larger problem associated with the definition of sustainability. what IS sustainability? and what are the correct tools for dealing with it?

      ie, is the problem with automobiles an energy issue or a planning issue? lots of planners assume the latter, because they have an anti-car agenda, but i can make a convincing argument for the former. which means we may be barking up the wrong tree. there is in fact a great deal of evidence done by actual researchers (and not polemicists like calthorpe, et al) that shows the compact city model does not reduce traffic ( to the contrary total car-miles is sometimes increased) because our society is not set up for a monocentric linear life anymore...and anyway shrinking household sizes has been causing drops in densities just as fast as how do we draw the line between easy design solutions and very complex and intractable cultural problems? i am quite convinced that being green will mean a new kind of political will, and not better educated architects (really, only a dingbat architect doesn't know enough to site a building to encourage passive ventilation and solar gain; architects are not 12 years old, whatever esienmann's comments may imply).

      Dec 30, 06 12:05 am

      I think that the GSAPP is more concerned with sustaining Peter Eisenman's relevance.

      Dec 30, 06 1:46 am
      the righteous fist

      "buildings consume 40% of the world's energy"

      ok, sure, but i don't think that grabbing all the shit and flagellating our sorry professional selves into some sort of theoretical appeasement is going to solve anything.

      one of the reasons why sustainability eludes architectural theory is surely because it's not very theoretical. it's a political issue requiring ongoing cooperation and discussion with lots of different parties, it's nothing that any one discipline can solve in any number of conferences, plans or manifestos. yet i sense the architects are at it again, inching toward claims of authority or responsibility beyond their capabilities in an effort to remain relevant.

      it's like the racket that is the advanced architectural housing competition, when the percentage of buildings in the world actually designed by an architect is so small, what purpose are these charettes? who do they benefit? is it wrong to suspect a blind insularity here?

      in short, is sustainability the new social housing? a problem bigger than the discipline, co opted in the name of social redemption and professional relevance, but ultimately turned against us as we fuck up something we never had control over in the first place?

      Dec 30, 06 10:47 am
      daniel ryan

      I've been working in an office specialising in Ecological design over the past 3.5 years and I can certainly see this split between a discourse on aesthetics and culture and one of performance. Ultimately only a certain amount of a fee can go to experimentation and research. The experimentation tends toward the introduction of new high performance environmental materials. Frequently most of the research is about testing the materials to various standards and getting local approval - not very glamourous.

      However, the issue is that after a number of built experiments you can reach a point where that part of the fee for experimentation can now be dedicated to aesthetic refinements. Frequently environmental architects shift the goal posts by ditching one material for a newer one with even better performance. Meanwhile other materials are praised, then damned, then praised again. (Concrete's bad, then it's good if it has GGBS; Aluminium is bad, but not if recycled; steel is bad except if the connections are bolted). The performance measured is regularly simplified into an aim of the minimisation of CO2 in production and use. This has replaced the previous performance standard of an steady state of 21 degrees Celcius. Unfortunately this rarely results in aesthetic distillation.

      The flipside to this though are your Glenn Murcutts, Shigeru Bans and Morphosis who spent their early projects doing structural and aesthetic experiments and now use building science to add a further layer to their work.

      What is frequently labelled as sustainable architecture is really architecture with an interest in building services. Just as structures and landscape provide a great impetus for experimentation and revitalisation in architecture so too should this.

      Dec 30, 06 12:04 pm

      While I generally agree with you ...and deeply resonate with your statement: "Green architecture is thoughtful architecture, and thoughtfulness is crucial to good architecture. Good architecture is born out of vision, passion and social conscience"

      Why then, do you take issue with "Earthships"? You deride this thoughtful, passionate socially conscious architecture as 'crunchy' and 'ill-fated'.

      'Crunchy' i will grant you. (personally, i prefer to describe them as 'organic' or 'biophillic'...but i guess i can't argue with crunchy. i mean, it is an earthship).

      I have lived in one of these delightful recycled houses for more than five years. And while not perfect, 'ill-fated' it most certainly is not. I thrive in my earthship with its great natural light and elegant, yet simple and affordable design. i have no bills yet i have ample electricity, heat, water, greenhouse foods, hot water and effective natural systems to recycle the 'waste' (while restoring the aquafer and topsoil). Through my earthship, i also feel a strong connection to nature and her cycles: the changing seasons, the sun's path across the sky, the wind, the rain, the's all connected.
      this is ill fated? bah. humbug.

      take a drive around the asteroid belts of mc mansions sprouting 30, 40 50 miles from our urban cores....or take a walk through the celebrated lifeless 'modern' street scape completely deviod of anything natural or human scale...

      ...and then come up to my earthship where i will pick you a banana ripining on the tree in my kitchen (i have a good crop this winter (considering im growing a tropical fruit 8500 ft up in the rockies without help of any electricity chemicals or groundwater.).

      There are many ill-fated things in our culture. But, earthships, my dear Jill, are not one of them.

      p.s., i don't work for the earthship folks. just sticking up for my 'crunchy ill-fated' way of life. think of me next time you pay your utility bills. I'll think of you next time I don't.

      Dec 30, 06 8:12 pm

      mike- can you post pics of your earthship?

      Jan 1, 07 12:37 pm

      Hey Mike-

      I appreciate your comments, and I don’t have any ill will towards earthships. I’ve seen pictures of many lovely ones, and despite the fact that we may all have different tastes, no one can argue that earthships are the epitome of creative, resourceful, DIY spirit. “Ill-fated” was probably a bad choice of words here and I apologize…

      I admit that I was simply trying to make a point abou why academia has such a negative stereotype of green building, and was picking on earthships as an example of the “crunchy” stereotype that I think puts many academics and architects off from green building. While I see nothing wrong with earthships, I think that the fact that green design has long been associated with a hippy aesthetic has been something that has prevented the green movement from saturating mainstream American culture, and this is unfortunate, as sustainability is ultimately not about style or aesthetics, but about thoughtful, functional design. Finally we are starting to see a wider range of styles and markets going “green”, and I believe this is the sign of a positive turning point in American culture. So, please forgive me for picking on Earthships — I was simply using them as an example to make my point. With any luck, this point will be moot in the future, and green building will be about functionality rather than style, and will come in enough different styles to suit any taste.


      Jan 1, 07 4:09 pm

      hi jill,
      the housing studio was interesting to me, in that larger questions came into play- funding, political support, social relevence, and the evaluation of design began to be 'touched upon.' in terms of sustainable design, i agree with many of the earlier responses to your post about how it has become a catch-phrase, with implications that have left a bad taste in the mouth of many. i wonder, if instead of making a large, generic label of 'sustainable design', it can be deconstructed within the academic realm as a value-added premise, and therefore proposed with more clarity and precision in terms of a variety of potentially-enriching designs for ie: health, facility of navigation, cost-savings in recycling/reuse, design and redesign, interaction with the public + evaluation of the design based on participatory politics and social action. i think this is happening at columbia in terms of these 'thematic' issues, but i think that it would be a great thing if the program offered a 'sustainable design studio' based on a breakdown of specific themes and issues. sustainable design studio, could be proposed with a big question mark at the end of it, in order to question the title and what it means today- not what it meant and the implications it carried in the past.

      an even more exciting possibility, would be if the school created a broader interdisciplinary team of critics to give feedback into how 'sustainable design' impacts economies, communities, etc. with lessons and approaches on how students can make their ideas relevent through design on a larger scale. what is architecture, if it is not, in the real world, dealing with and trying to communicate the value of your design, the aesthetics of your work, to a public and clients that will ultimately fund the project? politics, economics, social context- are all critical in marketing and getting the project to be 'sold'- and in my opinion, sustainability is a good way of getting people's attention about the critical aspect of the design.

      the term aesthetics originates from the scientific realm, and is the concept of 'experiencing a world outside of oneself.' if the aesthetics of a design project included the capacity for students to imagine the experience of their work, value of their architecture 'outside of themselves,' would that not directly translate a structure's value + meaning?

      Jan 2, 07 1:45 am

      1970s earthships represent the extreme low end of construction costs- so much of the bias may be towards the raw unfinished materials and crude DIY details. Much of the vehiment distaste beyond the crudness is with 'hippy' associations even from former babyboomers commune kids who desire more materiality in their lives.

      The current generation of 'green' houses range from the low to high end (but how can a 20K+ sf mcmansion really ever be green????). As more metropolitan homes and architectural digest demographic houses become 'green', popular taste and impressions will shift from the negative to the positive. The current trend seems to be to build sexy highly polished buildings with all the green bells and whistles - look at pugh+scarpa, marmol radziner, and ray kappe all in LA. (Don't look at steven holl's work for inspiration). for examples of affordable green housing also look at pugh+scarpa's colorado court or most of the competition entries for katrina housing. these look like houses - and most folks want the iconic gabled colonial with a chimney (or tudor, or spanish, or mcshit of the week)... not a high tech/modern house. *sigh*

      mike- I still want to see pics/drawings of your earthship :-)

      Jan 2, 07 1:37 pm

      strange to say the least that the eco-discourse still largely is tangled up in the tochy feely versus sci-fi solutions to the sustainability as a design issue. quite strange also the shallow yet common interpretation that green design literally needs to imply "green" as in the color of clorophyll (let's make a building that has grass on the roof. or on the walls or somewhere.). sadly, as mentioned several times in this post, you still pretty much have a choice that comes down to either mudhut or pseudo hitech. either: foster-like design where an undergrad-esque base geometry is picked as a formal preference upon which a couple of long well-known ventilation and/or solar energy harvesting principles are glued on to the finished construct. or: paolo soleri et. al that in all validity the work may have really is often a bit much even for the most open-minded of architects, not to mention slightly more square-headed developers and politicians, with the talk of stardust and flower power that is about as useful to the sustainability discussion as would be any association with an ideology of yore long since imploded under it's own weight and unrealism.

      on the other hand, however much green is the word of the day even in the estate agent vocabulary (you know that professional cathegory not so likely to contribute to our eventual salvation), to label it a phase or something generally optional to take in to account but preferably not is just sad and bizarre. or, put more diplomatically, about as relevant to society as deconstructivism itself which I could call imbecil but i won't.

      ultimately it's us students that need to boycot teachers and others professionals talking about phases and such, and demand that the sustainability issue be presented as something more than a choice between clay and paper or steel and glass but with solar panels and natural air flow.

      a couple of comments -

      i presume that the comment on studies showing that attempts to plan small, tight and walkable city centers actually increase car traffic is not to say that we should hold on tight to the functionalist/zoned/suburbian automobile-centric planning idea?

      i do think architects ought to advocate vegetarianism, an anyone else too, for the reason mentioned as well as a number of others.

      really interested in images of the earthship!

      sorry for the polemic tone everyone, it's morning and deadline coming up (just after christmas break, how about that!)

      Gustav Fagerstrom

      Jan 11, 07 4:24 am

      jill, hope you spend more time 'doing' sustainable architecture than talking or theorizing about it..

      i think the problem why we don't see a lot of good green buildings is that architects spend more time thinking than actually making one.

      anyway, just my 2 cents

      May 25, 07 2:10 am

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