Sustainable Architecture


Sym Van Der Ryn once stated, “In many ways, the Environmental crisis is a design crisis. It is a consequence of how things are made, buildings are constructed, and landscapes are used. Design manifests culture, and culture rests firmly on the foundation of what we believe to be true about the world”.

It has been widely acclaimed by many leading scientists, that the future is unclear for our younger ones still in nursery school. But they still stand very optimistic that by the year of perfect vision (2020), they would have had overwhelming proofs, as to whether human life could continue to be supported by the biosphere over the next century. Nonetheless, they remain pessimistic about the outcome, since a majority of the developing countries are rushing to imitate the community model of the super power. This is a pattern which holds all the records for pollution, isolation and consumption. It is also a model that highly increases the challenge to the earth's carrying capacity, and its ability to meet the needs of the 2020 graduating class.

I perceive this problem differently. I believe that we simply need better system and community designs, and most importantly, the will to implement it. I have observed that humans have a spectacular ability to damage the habitats of all living things while building our own, but we also have an ability to heal it through a sustainable design.

Pierre Elliot Trudeau once said, “Will we be able to face our children and assure them that we did not lack the courage to face these difficult questions (Global warming), did not lack the stamina to pursue the correct solutions”?

A Sustainable Architecture is not an optional subject, but should form an integral part of the design process for all architects. It was described by Jason F. McLennan as an idea whose time has come. Despite the growing interest and consciousness in this idea, few words have been so poorly used as that of sustainable architecture in the construction and design industry. This term has come to mean so many different things to diverse groups of people, which generates a lot of misconceptions that create barriers to it adoption. Many professionals believe that a sustainable building is one that has good windows or merely incorporates a few recycled products. Thus, lot of buildings are been designated green, only because they contain a few features that reduce their environmental impact to some extent*(page 2). Unfortunately, sustainable design is not only about features.

Part of the dilemma is that, the term sustainable design is entirely insufficient to render the need to change our relationship with the natural world. Much better terms could have been chosen, such as ecological design as proposed by Sym Van Der Ryn, to highlight the main focus of the philosophy.

Sustainable Design is the phenomenological basis of a developing movement of organizations and individuals, that literally seek to redefine how buildings are designed, built and operated to be more responsive to people and responsible to the environment. Thus, it could be defined as a design phenomenology that is determined to eliminate or minimize the negative impact to the natural environment, while maximizing the quality of the built environment. This is a very important definition because it highlights many vital elements. First it established sustainable design as a design phenomenology. Secondly, people view sustainable design as a stylistic venture which it is definitely not. Therefore, sustainable design must not be regarded to as an aesthetic exercise, but an environmentalist approach to design and thus it can never be discussed as a fad, or go out of style.

For instance, geographic information system (G.I.S) is a technology that points at a primarily phenomenological appreciation of place. There are some very interesting propositions in the methodology of mapping abstract data in themes, onto a digital form of geography. The first is that the qualities of a certain place could be captured through an abstract tabulation of data. The homogeneity of space is a Cartesian (René Descartes) principle that portrays the contemporary world view as distinct from the primitive. But the difference here is that the pure quantity of data can produce quite toned mappings, as proven by information modeling for land development projects. Thus, it has been confirmed by the geographic information system that with enough data, and enough layers, the distinctive properties of a place will be completely defined. Therefore, it has the ability to objectify place as a thing outside ones world. This objectification might be added by the belief that a place can be contained within a machine, even virtually.

Secondly and even more overwhelming, the very nature of a geographic information system (G.I.S) implies human use in both its compilation and tabulation. That is, data is been collected and organized as according to its usefulness. Accordingly, a sentimental layer could be created in a G.I.S model, by mapping personal routes, and residential locations, which is hardly its common usage. Rather, it is generally been used in mapping data, such as the prevailing wind, automotive traffic, soil alkalinity, and demographic income levels. Therefore, the inherent relationship of use in geographical information system is apparent.

And finally, just as in Architectural drawings, the power of the G.I.S model is in its abstraction. It allows even excels at filtering data. Place is not singular, as it could be seen as vegetation, fauna, or topography, or any amongst hundreds of data types. Thus, it is almost an underproductive task to all the data layers in a geographical information system model.

Based on these three reasons, data filtering, homogenous space, and data oriented to human use. The perspective that G.I.S implies is an inherently objectifying task. The problem with an individualistic basis for an environmental concern is that even though it might appear to be framing the natural world as subject of concern (subjective) at first glance, it objectifies nature on the other side as an exclusive and personal experience.

Because of its emphasis on community — at least potentially — the GIS-view allows for the subjective. We rely on data derived from actual experience (the foundation of phenomenology) in order to construct a graspable model of a geographic region. Furthermore, the GIS-view's relating geography to human use ties human activity, human experience, human community to “nature”. That is not to say that one cannot use GIS to exploit and damage a geographical region. But by deepening our understanding of the relationship between these layers of data, there is a possibility of seeing our relationship to the physical world not as self and other (objective), but self and larger self (subjective). In practical terms, when we invite “nature” to join our human community, or see humans as part of the “natural” community, we improve the quality of life for systems as a whole, and their human and non-human components.

Advanced communicative systems and faster means of travel have reduced the natural distance of the planet, as we are ironically distancing ourselves from our inherent surroundings. Man is very caught up in a magnetic field that absorbs so much of his time, in form of telephones, radios, televisions, and internet. The natural weather is defied in the interior spaces electronically; all this technology has severely hampered the human's experience, and connectedness of nature.

Mans objectives should focus on connecting his daily life experiences to the greater world around him. It is normally believed that human beings have five main senses, namely; touch, sight, smell, taste and hearing. In the last few centuries, our human body has not significantly changed, and yet, our intensely technological and busy lifestyle has begun to numb the very senses that we relied on, for survival.

The above observations motivated me to explore the topic of phenomenology of sustainable architecture. However, my subsequent discourse would not depend on this observations alone, in order to justify the cited ideas. But rather, I would be discussing; the meaning of phenomenology, the phenomenological origin of sustainable design, and the need for Holistic thinking.

The word phenomenology must be precisely defined, in order to be discussed along another very controversial topic, like the sustainable design.

To begin, the word phenomenology must be defined:

Phenomenology, as he [Edmund Husserl] articulated it in the early 1900s, would turn toward ‘the things themselves,' toward the world as it is experienced in its felt immediacy. Unlike the mathematics-based sciences, phenomenology would seek not to explain the world, but to describe as closely as possible the way the world makes itself evident to awareness, the way things first arise in our direct, sensorial experience. By thus returning to the taken-for-granted realm of subjective experience, not to explain it but simply to pay attention to its rhythms and textures, not to capture or control it but simply to become familiar with its diverse modes of appearance -- and ultimately to give voice to its enigmatic and ever-shifting patterns -- phenomenology would articulate the ground of the other sciences. (Abram, pg. 35)

We have been taught that there is no objective difference between good buildings and bad, good towns and bad. The fact is that the difference between a good building and a bad building, between a good town and a bad town, is an objective matter. It is the difference between health and sickness, wholeness and dividedness, self-maintenance and self-destruction. In a world which is healthy, whole, and alive, and self-maintaining, people themselves can be alive and self-creating. In a world which is unwhole and self-destroying, people cannot be alive: they will inevitably themselves be self-destroying, and miserable. But it is easy to understand why people believe so firmly that there is no single, solid basis for the difference between good building and bad. It happens because the single central quality which makes the difference cannot be named. (Alexander, pg. 25)

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