Architectural Blatherations

The Hypocrisy of Sustainable Design

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The Good Oil

There is irony in dollops that the very topics we tried to teach students at my old department, DADS (at the School of Architecture, University of Sydney) are now hot-to-trot across the globe under the name of sustainable design.

We were talking about energy efficiency and economy of materials thirty years before architects ever heard the word kilowatt. The irony redoubles when we learn that the students who were most hostile to these very concepts are now their most ardent proponents.

A lesson from my old school

What made these students, now middle-aged architects, change their minds? Simple: we in DADS were a pretty nerdish lot, spending our days wandering around armed with sound-level meters, barometers and other esoteric scientific equipment. Architecture students—and to a much lesser extent architects—prefer to get their information from people like themselves. Dr Garry explains it all in detail in The Favored Circle, but here we'll just call them the frappucino set. You know who we mean.

Energy efficiency: a constantly rediscovered concept

Frankly, we suspect that most of these architectural proponents of sustainable design have only the vaguest idea of the realities of their chosen fetish. They talk of saving energy, of re-using materials, of helping the planet. All of these are wonderful goals. We subscribe to them wholeheartedly. Let's take one typical example: Whenever we see yet another glass-box skyscraper in our hot and humid hometown of Sydney, we just want to scream. Dr Garry has worked in many of them, and he can tell you from painful experience that double-insulated glass does nothing to impede radiant heat, not to mention glare.

Sunshading fenestration is not that difficult to do, as Dr Garry spent endless hours trying to teach architecture students. He found the whole idea bleeding obvious, but it seems that architects do not. Whenever some signature building is put up with decent sunshading, the architect trumpets about it as though he or she has made a grand discovery, and only they are brave and visionary enough to implement it. For reasons beyond us, both the public and the critics swallow it each time.

Feeling good about doing nothing

Richard Leplastrier
Mr Richard Leplastrier

Sustainable design is tied up with several other potent architectural theories: those talking of truth to materials, or the use of natural products, of expressing structure, and many other mythologies.

Architects, never noted for their keen analytical minds, tend to get all these very different ideas confused into one muddied barrel. An example: Mr Richard Leplastrier is one of Australia's most feted architects, recipient of the coveted Gold Medal from the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, and many others.

As far as we can work out from his published writings (which are often so romantically jumbled that we cannot follow them: maybe it's just us), and from classes he gave when Dr Garry was a young student, Mr Leplastrier's ideology is there swimming around in the same barrel. One example: one lecture Dr Garry attended many years ago had Mr Leplastrier describing all the beautiful timbers he was using in his latest design. He proudly pulled out a gorgeous piece of timber. He glowed as he said in reverence When you saw [cut] it, the timber is still wet. He went on to describe how he had personally selected the rare Queensland rainforest trees to destroy.

At the time Dr Garry thought that was way cool. Voluptuous attention to every tactile detail was just what we architects should be doing. Looking back on it, it seems almost criminal. And Dr Garry is hoping that he misheard Mr Leplastrier as to the origins of the timber, but we don't think so.

The efficiency of buildings

The sad and simple truth is that building construction is not especially profligate: iron, silica, water and rocks of various forms constitute the overwhelming bulk of most buildings in the West. We have these in abundance, and we extract them quite efficiently: that they are so cheap says as much.

Next on the list would be timber. You would think that an insistence on plantation timber would be uppermost in the mind of any sustainable architecture enthusiast, but, as Mr Leplastrier demonstrates, the issues become muddled.

Now to on-going savings. Over the life of a building, electricity is the main consumable, and one where we might hope to achieve some savings. Sure, let's go with insulation and sunshading. Anything to cut down on the air-conditioning load. But let's put that into context. The giant power plants that provide electricity are actually quite efficient in the scheme of things. If we remember our facts aright, they are about ten times more efficient at producing energy than, say, internal combustion engines. Or, say, those cute little wood-burning stoves that some sustainable designers like to push. So, laudable as it may be, reducing energy consumption in building design is a pitiable way of reducing the toll on the earth's resources.

A real way to save energy: use public transport

Sustainable design is, in our opinion, a theory tackling a problem that does not need to be tackled; in the same sense that tackling AIDS and malaria in Africa would bring vastly more benefits than spending the same resources on obesity in the United States.

There are many better targets, and none more so than transportation.

Moving people by private cars is staggeringly inefficient, and moving goods in trucks by the internal combustion engine only slightly less so. The energy efficiency of the internal combustion engine is a only fraction of that of any electricity plant.

Moreover, little of that energy goes to its intended purpose. Most cars that we see on our daily travels carry a single person: the driver. That is a tonne (ton) or more of car, plus a few dozen kilos (pounds) for the person. Most of the output of the already inefficient engine is moving steel, plastics, and fuel; not people.

Put a bunch of people into a bus rather than a private car, and you are at least twice as efficient. Put them into a train, and you are anywhere from five to ten times better off. If you can viably move them by boat, you are at least ten times more efficient.

The hypocrisy of the architects

If the architects so passionately advocating sustainable design really wished to contribute to the cause they profess to espouse, they would not drive a car. Ever. They would use public transport or bike. But they do not. Hypocrites to the very end, each day they drive to work, each day they drive their kids to school, each weekend they drive to the supermarket; usually in SUVs.

Public transport? Those architects most passionate in its advocacy are those least likely to use it.