The Green Machine–an oxymoron?

September 1, 2008

On the promise of “green technology” I am clearly a skeptic. Sustainable building is another matter altogether. Traditional architecture is by definition sustainable, for pre-industrial builders had only the earth’s longstanding resources to draw upon. Trees, clay, earth pigments, stone, bamboo, and various metal ores were in abundance. They are still relatively abundant and take little energy to harvest and process in comparison to “high tech” materials.

The LEED system that is all the rage in the United States is a wonderful thing, as far as it goes. Developed by engineers, it is linear and process driven. It encourages “innovation” over proven solutions, and rewards “design creativity” over common sense, pragmatic thinking. In its early stages it did not provide credits for historic preservation and had too little to say about adaptive reuse.

That is changing, thank goodness. The concept of “embodied energy” is just beginning to influence environmentalists. Certain materials and technologies consume more energy in production than others. The University of Bath has a calculator for embodied energy, and publishes charts that will help anyone assess the amount of energy that went into building any structure. You can get the information online by demonstrating your seriousness about fighting climate change.

One of the things that distinguishes the “crunchy granola” environmentalists from architects is their serious investment in earth-friendly materials, systems and techniques for everything from blowing your nose to constructing a windmill. The Whole Earth Catalogue crowd are still very much alive, and there are still many communal experiments in sustainable living that do not involve architects. One of these, in Canaan, New York, is run by my bretheren, the Quakers of New York Yearly Meeting. It is exciting and innovative, but there is no LEED architecture on the site.

The folks at the QIVP are serious about earth care. They construct their own houses using things like timbers, wattle and daub, SIP panels, rammed earth and straw. Everything looks like it belongs in the rolling hills of this part of the Hudson Valley. The families raise their children to speak truth to power, and to think independently of what most of society gives them. They grow a lot of their own food. There are university professors, economists, former Wall streeters, and a few ex-Hippies in the group. Its one of the most radically sustainable places I know about.

These are the kinds of endeavors that come to mind when I look at a typical piece of award-winning, LEED certified architecture. Most of what I see in that category leaves me nonplussed and disappointed. I’m particularly bothered about the praise given to Thom Mayne (Pritzger Laureate) and Morphosis’s CALTRANS District 7 building in Los Angeles. Like most of this architect’s work the building is an overblown, agressive monster that resembles a giant air-conditioning plant with overtones of Russian Constructivism. The architect is at war with the California sun. The south wall has a complicated, mechanized system of sunscreens and ventilators that are computer controlled and that will most likely break down irreparably within a year or two. It’s a machine made to control the environment by brute force of technology. There is nothing passive about it.

The American Institute of Architects and the Environmental Protection Agency are doling out awards for these mechanized muscle buildings right and left. As they do so, they send messages to the public and the design professions that our environmental crisis will be erased soon by the scientific and technological know-how that created the A-bomb, the Polaris submarine, and the Beijing airport. The folks a QIVP are not betting on the U.S. government or the Defense Department. They’re going it alone, and doing a lot better than CALTRANS on their energy bills.

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