Thursday, March 27, 2008

Truly Sustainable Design

SOM designed highrise in Dubai.

A new Dubai Hotel

I had an interesting conversation recently with a public official in Las Vegas. This was part of an interview for an article that I'm publishing in a few weeks, so I'll have to keep it cryptic so as not scoop myself. The basis of the conversation was the state of green design today. This man is responsible for one of the more ambitious green building programs around, and yet he does not believe in what he dubs the "new green religion." Digging deeper, I began to understand what he meant. He did not want architects giving him untested technologies and new products that claim a payout after years of building use; he wanted sanely designed buildings that considered the context of the site (in this case the water-starved desert of Nevada) and he wanted the buildings to function efficiently and humanely from the start. So much "sustainable" design today, he said, is "snake oil."

During a lecture in Baltimore last week, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG noted the same thing. He took issue with journalists writing breathless articles about wind turbines on top of highrise buildings in Dubai. In truth, should we be building glass highrises in the desert in the first place?

Context and locality have pretty much been abandoned in our post-HVAC world. With the ability to control any climate, we've gotten away from considering basic elements like site orientation and regional temperatures.

I've come to believe that truly sustainable design does not have to be expensive or tech-laden. It can simply be resourceful. I was recently struck by a project in Sri Lanka. Created with funding from Architecture for Humanity, this new community center utilized the site and the local resources to create an energy and cost efficient structure. One interesting component is the clever recycling of a local waste stream. Sri Lankans use clay pots to cook food and these pots are frequently discarded after one use. Architect Susi Jane Platt decided to incorporate the pots into the building, using them for sound attenuation and insulation:

The two-story structure includes flexible workshops for local industries at ground-floor level and a community hall on the first floor. Bathrooms and a kitchen as well as an outside rec area help make this building the social center of a new housing development. The renderings below show how wind towers capture the cooler breezes to create passive cooling. Storage tanks above the toilets collect rain water. The future users of the space helped to build their center. And the best part: the building was completed for $30,000 U.S.


An afterthought (I've just returned from the local library and felt inspired). I rather like the "Further Reading" idea I started with the Science Vs. Human Nature post. So here's a recommendation if you like this topic. Architecture for Humanity's book Design Like You Give a Damn.