Sustainable buildings are for people

Photo: The Eco-city project 1996. Credit is to The Children’s Parliament UK. 

Architecture, culture and community

Editorial to the book: 100 SUSTAINABLE SCOTTISH BUILDINGS, 2017

Chris Butters, GAIA International

Just as society’s goal is, in the words of the Bhutanese king, gross national happiness, so the ultimate goal of buildings is wellbeing. Architects have sometimes protested that if their buildings are beautiful, people will love and take care of them, and so that is “sustainable”. That’s not enough; there’s no excuse today for buildings that are not both economically reasonable and ecologically sensitive as well.

Scotland’s famous biologist, planner and holistic thinker Patrick Geddes, virtually invented the credo of sustainable development with his triad of Place-Work-Folk; deriving from the natural sciences his insight into the intimate interrelationships between ecology, economy and people. What does sustainable design mean in terms of society and culture? It addresses the commonalities, and the uniqueness, of people; and their needs, and their dreams. And it must do so without – to rework the Brundtland phrase – reducing the ability of future generations to meet their needs, and to dream.

Triple context of time, place and person

To do this, architecture must respond to the triple context of time, place and person. Place is perhaps the easiest of these; it is what all ecological architecture tries to do, by a sensitive, elegant and efficient response to local environment, energy flows and resources. Adapting to time is less easy, for time is not only about durability, or about buildings which can adapt and age well; time is also about unknowns; about what future generations may find neither functional nor beautiful. Few of us today love the brutalist techno-optimism of post-war design, yet their makers followed, as we do, a sincere and positive intention. How well will some of these 100 Scottish buildings function, and be perceived, and loved, in 100 years’ time? Only our descendants can answer that.

Yet responding to people is even more challenging. It is firstly physiological: sustainable buildings must be healthy buildings. Beyond that, they must foster psychological and spiritual wellbeing. And beyond that again, buildings must respond to culture: not only for people in different countries but within the same country: young people or old people, poets or engineers, tenants or owners, perceive, relate to and use buildings very differently. Building is also a human process, not a noun but a verb; all building is both a social, an educational and indeed a political act. Planning, constructing and maintaining buildings either fosters confidence, identity, understanding and solidarity, or it doesn’t. Participation is a key; it can’t always be achieved, but where it can, it is the surest guarantor of long term sustainability.

Community matters

Community matters. No mere slogan, community is our place in life. Our community may be ecological, and it may be rich, and it may even be beautiful, but if it is not happy, there’s nothing. This, too, is the skill of sustainable planning and building – of placemaking. And for this, participation processes are not just the key, but the very doorway.

The article continues after the videos from The Childrens Parliament in Scotland.

Eco-architecture is well beyond its puerile metaphorical phase of buildings shaped like snail shells. I recall visiting 1970s versions in the USA; nature-like forms, yes, but they were often built with polyurethane foam, plastics and concrete! Intentions are one thing, but real impacts are another. Architects are often preoccupied with form, but sustainability and ecology are more essentially about content.

Ecodesign is also now well beyond its initial focus on the technical, material aspects of sustainability alone, such as pollution or energy, that obsession with solar panels, “smart” gadgets and superfluous technical hype. The eco-technology? That’s the easier part, and it is getting easier. But whereas solutions always work on the drawing board, or whatever the calculations say, buildings are about human behaviour. Social science research including post-occupancy evaluations are bringing to the fore how sustainability targets are very often not being achieved, thanks to us two-legged creatures who can trash any theoretically sustainable building from day one, because we either don’t understand it or don’t care.

Brilliant engieering

The key point to realise here, is that we as designers cannot deliver sustainability: we can only make it achievable, and more likely, by solutions that are as user-friendly and simple as possible. Nothing is sustainable without reasonably caring and ungreedy people. A corollary of this is passive design with a minimum of technology – Howard Liddell’s Ecominimalism. As Schumacher said, it takes a good engineer to make something bigger and more complicated, but a brilliant engineer to make it smaller and simpler. Efficiency with as little fuss or bling as possible. This architecture is seldom pretentious or egoistic, but quietly sensitive to its place, its work, its folk.

Awards after several year

For the cultural, human side is the bottom line. Buildings should never receive awards on the day they open but only after several years; to be then judged not only by the bean-counters of carbon and lifecycle costs, but equally by the experienced wellbeing of the users of those buildings. Only these together – both their objective and subjective sustainability, if you like – provide the yardstick of success. Place making and architecture, and indeed all product design, demand ecological meaning, and economic meaning, but what are they without social meaning? Sustainable building and placemaking arises where the rigour of ecological science meets the art of social and aesthetic quality. Where hands, head and heart achieve a kind of dance and balance together.

But then will we, humans, sustain it?

What is so meaningful in this new paradigm is that we leave behind our specialist straitjackets, for sustainable design makes us whole again; it reinserts us as humans, and the work we do, as parts of a whole (this is the meaning of the biblical word at-one-ment). Ecodesign embraces all people, and all of time, and all of space. We avoid using rainforest timber from far away on the other side of the world, and we consider intergenerational equity, far beyond us in time. We respect the past, and we care for the future. We respect our own local places, here, and we care for the places and resources and wellbeing of less fortunate people far away.

Hence our motto in GAIA is about wellbeing: to design buildings and places that are healthy both for individuals and communities, and for the planet’s ecosystems. In broader terms: Design that is healthy for people and for the planet.


Photo: Planning their own, sustainable future: The Childrens Ecocity workshop with GAIA Scotland




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