Why Modernism isn’t modern anymore part 2: the cost of energy in building

August 12, 2008

In the historic preservation movement, there is a simple maxim that underpins every effort: “the greenest building is the one that’s already built.” That is because the “embodied energy” in the existing structure makes it essentially irreplaceable in the energy-starved world we live in.

Ian McHarg understood this over 40 years ago when he wrote his masterpiece, Design With Nature. Every human-made intervention in the natural world involves the expenditure of energy. Energy is the real cost of building virtually any structure, from an outhouse to a bridge.

The true obscenity of Modernist building is its inherently wasteful use of energy. Many of iconic buildings of the past 20 years–Norman Foster’s Hong Kong Bank, Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s building in the City of London–were proudly touted as among the most expensive structures ever built. The expense of their construction was not simply a matter of cost per square foot (thousands of dollars in every case) but of the energy consumed in producing their “high tech” materials and building systems. Low-e glass in thicknesses that could resist high winds, titanium skin, high strength steel cables, carbon composite structural components–these are only a few of the thousands of high cost-elements used in these buildings. Moreover, the “experimental” structural and HVAC systems in these buildings–part of their allure for critics–stretched the conventional systems for manufacturing and fabricating components to their limits, expending extraordinary amounts of human capital as well as energy. The favored materials in contemporary architecture–metals, glass and concrete–consume more energy in production than any old world materials. They are renewable, but at enormous expense. And these experimental surfaces are unlikely to withstand the weathering that traditional buildings handle with ease, making them costly to maintain and perhaps even obsolete within a generation.

Proponents of experimental “green” buildings, such as skyscrapers with hanging gardens, million square foot convention centers with puny passive ventilation systems and other such oxymoronic follies, argue that technology is necessary to solve the “problems” of building sustainable structures in the global marketplace. There is faulty logic in their arguments. Despite the proven maxim that any energy efficient building skin should be no more than 40% glass, Modernist architects insist that all glass curtain walls are the lightest and most environmentally responsible buildings one can erect. Despite the inherent danger in erecting buildings higher than 50 stories, risking loss of life similar to that of 9/11, Modernist architects continue to dream of mile-high skyscrapers with  complex “green” technology that will reduce their gluttonous energy use by small percentages. Few of these “cutting-edge” designers discuss low-tech or traditional building solutions, such as timber, brick, rammed earth, stone or adobe buildings. Why? Because the ideology of Modernism rejects such “nostalgic” nods to the past.

The “engineer’s aesthetic” of the 1920s has morphed into a romance with building technology that is unprecedented in world history. It seems that anything is possible in building science, and indeed larger and lighter structures can be built today than 50 years ago. But the cost of such wizardry, in currency, resources and energy, most often exceeds any benefits achieved. Critics seldom question the wisdom of using these resources, because novelty is still prized above all else in the design professions. Pursuit of “new form” and “new structure” supersedes rational balancing of energy resources.

Like gas-guzzling SUV’s and super-sized McMansions, the monumental buildings of today’s “starchitects” nearly always push the boundaries of scale, technology, and form–they are large net consumers of energy. Yet few questions are asked about the social and capital costs of these experiments, as they are often foisted upon the public by insecure public officials anxious to see an increase in cultural capital for their institutions. And because there is no balancing point of view among architectural critics today, virtually every high profile public building emerges as a public relations “success” regardless of its intrinsic merit.

Contemporary society now faces one of the most alarming crises in human history–global climate change amidst crushing energy shortages. Buildings protect us from harsh climate, but use a disproportionate amount of energy in construction, and produce more waste than any other human activity during their first years of operation. Modernistically-inclined architects have for decades ignored the challenge of designing smaller, more efficient, and less-technologically complex buildings in favor of Buck Rogers like dreams of future spaceships for human habitation. The current fascination with Buckminster Fuller shows how little we remember of the folly of such faith in technology–nearly every invention from the mind of this eccentric futurist ended in failure.

In the next post I will explore the second reason why Modernist architecture, like the Dymaxion house, belongs to the past rather than the future of spaceship earth.

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