In the fourth and final part of our series, we explore outcomes from the first 20 years of Sustainable design. Whilst the promise of green buildings was heralded as the new frontier in Architecture, we ask if the initial promise has been delivered, and how some of the initial shortcomings and failures in this new design approach have been addressed.
By: Marcus Leyland – Chief Architect
The years since the 1993 launch of BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method), a leading sustainability assessment method, have been arguably the most innovative period of building technology since the later phases of the industrial revolution. This is because BREEAM has impacted all the layers of the technology of building design simultaneously, from site construction, structures, envelope and building services. Though BREEAM initially focused on office design, this model led the way for other structured or ‘off the shelf’ green building systems such as LEED, which appeared two years later. BREEAM itself appeared in a more complex, mature version in 1998. Since that time, these and other systems have served as the means of benchmarking what we describe as Sustainable design.
This era of radical change has paralleled a similarly revolutionary period in the evolution of tools used to design buildings, and if done well, enabling the design team to construct their creations in virtual space in enormous accuracy and detail before excavation of a site had commenced.
Of course, with innovation comes risk, and this article will address this issue of risk, and failure, and push-back, and how lessons have been learned, or not, in the 20 years since a structured approach to the design of sustainable buildings emerged.
Early years – an unexpectedly rocky road
One highly apparent aspect of the green building movement that most laypeople observe is the messianic zeal with which its proponents pursue their cause. The origin of this state of fervor that surrounds the doyens of green and their followers has often puzzled those outside the design professions, who perhaps less acquainted with the latest theories about climate change, might miss the sense of purpose that those leading the charge may believe they are chosen to pursue. The early years of the green building movement have been particularly challenging for those skeptical about the underlying theories, and consequently, those who may question or criticize the technological solution that followed in the wake of those theories. The resulting environment of risk tolerance has been remarkable, with the kind of due diligence or beta testing of methodology required in the aerospace or pharmaceutical industries, for example, rare within much of green building design since 2000.
We are at a point now where we have 15 to 20 years of experience of this new breed of sustainable building. These years of experience have manifest copious volumes of evidence and data concerning the success or failure of the many innovative measures and technologies that have been implemented in the name of sustainability. Despite this, remarkably little has been published about the failures and underperformance of ‘green buildings’. That is not to say that Sustainable design should be seen as a bad thing, as that would be far from the truth.
As an Architect who believes in the fundamental issues of building performance, and their relationship with the environment, and the need for this to be done in an economically feasible manner, I believe that a credible case for the long-term use of sustainable design needs to be made. It is not enough for this to be carried on the missionary zeal of a few passionate Architects and Engineers, it must be proven in the long term in scientific and in real-world conditions. In particular, we need to more closely scrutinize what is called somewhat ambiguously ‘indirect’ environmental costs from ‘social’ causes. At best, these esoteric niceties provide useful ‘feel good’ marketing gimmicks for so-called ‘politically correct’ building designers, but their real-world value, and contribution to measurable building performance efficiency is highly questionable.
Striving for credibility
In 2009, a mere nine years down-range for the North American LEED school of thought, an article was published in the New York Times. This article highlighted a federal government building in Youngstown Ohio, that was designed in 2002, and on completion four years later, was awarded LEED Silver Green Building Certification. Following a performance assessment carried out two years after occupancy, the building failed to meet the fundamental standard for the energy performance of the Energy Star label. The project had obtained points towards its LEED rating by use of fast growth bamboo flooring and native species landscaping, but also achieved a poor energy performance rating from the start.
One key component, its air handling cooling system was no better than any other method used previously in traditionally designed buildings. This had then been compounded by unrealistic assumptions concerning occupant behavior in regards, for example, lighting usage, during the energy modeling of the building during design. The USGBC acknowledged that a problem existed in the fundamental mechanism of LEED and that as many as a quarter of LEED-certified buildings did not deliver on energy performance targets set during design. The article concluded with a prophetic suggestion that green building systems such as LEED might ultimately move towards a recertification model where their validity was for a limited lifespan and required renewal by the owner by them proving the continued good building performance. Such a notion would have broader commercial implications if landlords used LEED and the promise of energy efficiency and lower lease costs to sell their space to tenants.
The article also highlighted a common problem with many LEED-certified buildings that were underperforming in that whilst they adopted many, sometimes quite costly ‘add-on’ technologies, and they did not fundamentally challenge the basic form, plan depth and façade types used. Many were a traditional deep-plan, poorly oriented, and with conventional curtain wall facades meaning that the energy systems used were starting from a fundamentally weak position in the first place. This lack of consideration of the fundamentals of sustainable design was undermining the performance and buildings, resulting in the extra investment from owners being of little benefit.
In 2008, the US Government Services Agency, owners of the Youngstown building, carried out an audit of 121 of its buildings certified under the LEED program. It was found that 53% did not achieve the minimum standard Energy Star Label and that 15% did not perform any better than most buildings completed before the existence of LEED.
These instances, widely published, represented just a few that demonstrated how in the US, early skepticism about the long-term effectiveness of green buildings had entered the mainstream public consciousness, and not without cause. Worse still, and at the same time, this skepticism saw the involvement of lawyers. In 2010, a $100M class action was brought against the USGBC by Energy Efficiency Specialist Henry Gifford, for fraud, unfair competition, deceptive trade practice, false advertising and unjust enrichment. In a bitter exchange of insults between the plaintiff and the USGBC and their supporters that lasted almost two years, the case was ultimately dismissed on a range of technical grounds.
Whilst the case itself is now history, it raised significant issues about the credibility of how green building performance was measured and monitored, and the impartiality of energy performance modeling assessment. The issues raised have since been recognized and accommodated in LEED 2009 and by subsequent revisions of LEED to a limited extent, with new measures including reporting of energy and water use now a condition of the award of certification for a period following occupancy. If a building fails to meet expectations during this period, it may lose its certification. The issue of the lack of third-party review of submitted data however remained.
An article published in USA Today highlighted this issue with school’s design in the US. In 2008, 15% of US schools were certified under Green Building Programs including LEED. This figure rose to 45% in 2012, with a projected target of all schools in the nation being certified by 2025. To date, sixteen states, responsible for more than half of the US’s 100,000 schools, mandate LEED certification for a School Board to receive state capital funding for school’s projects. Many Cities within the US also mandate LEED certification for funding, with New York having the most onerous requirements. Typically, LEED certification adds 2-3% to construction cost, although many School Boards will allow up to 5% over and above the standard rate for schools if LEED certification is pursued.
New strategies and metrics
In 2007, the Houston Independent School District in Texas took a significant new direction in their procurement policy in pursuing LEED certification for two new Elementary schools. Following the USGBC’s promotion of the “green schools save money” campaign, citing a single cost study that showed that Schools designed under the LEED model they should deliver 33% savings in energy. The schools were completed, and in a follow-up study into their 239 buildings carried out on behalf of the Schools District by the local energy provider, the two new schools were placed 155th and 205th out of the 239 buildings surveyed. An investigation revealed that the cause was a simple lack of monitoring and maintenance of systems resulting in energy use is excessive. A startling mindset that green buildings didn’t require maintenance was found within the maintenance staff.
Claims from some advocates that ‘green’ schools improve student performance have so far proved unfounded according to a report by the US National Research Council in 2007, in the most comprehensive study carried out regarding the subject to date. It noted that health, learning, and productivity were “influenced by many individual family and community factors” making the role of the building itself difficult to pinpoint. The report did, however, observe that “school buildings that are dry, quiet, well ventilated, temperature controlled and clean” do benefit students.
Other evidence as to the effectiveness of green schools is not conclusive, a study by USA Today investigated situations where students had moved from an older conventional building into a new green school. In 42 cases, student test scores increased, and in 23 cases results declined.
The USGBC’s dedicated rating system, LEED for Schools. In addition to the usual carbon reduction-based energy use credits and those aiming to conserve water, it includes credits aimed explicitly at schools including optimal acoustics, maximizing daylighting, the use of low or zero VOC materials, and mold resist material and design to mitigate leakage that might contribute to mold, and avoidance of external site contamination. These school-specific measures are for the most part low in cost to implement and achievable within most school board budgets. Critics note that perhaps the single most significant measure that would contribute to student (and teacher) alertness, and potential productivity would be measured aimed at enhancing indoor air quality. Many of these, however, would be costly in term of higher specifications for HVAC and cooling systems and higher energy costs associated with increase airflow rates through HVAC systems. Although included originally by the USGBC in the LEED Schools model, such measures were dropped due to advice from designers highlighting cost and energy use as higher priorities.
An alternative green building model, California based Collaborative for High-Performance Schools (CHPS) offers a more student-oriented means of delivering green schools, with the focus entirely on the building interior environment. This model is operated in only 12 of the US’s States and struggles to compete for recognition against the USGBC’s LEED program, with its powerful marketing arm and membership of over 13,000.
The process itself of registration and assessment under the USGBC model has been criticized as expensive and time-consuming with a federal report indicating that certification under LEED added on average $150,000 in consultant fees to a typical school project. Some legislatures, as a result, pursue ‘shadow’ LED status, adopting several of the measures, and relying on the design teams to implement them, but do not seek certification and third-party assessment.
Evaluating successes and failures in the U.S.
In the US, the Government Services Agency, responsible for building and facilities procurement for the Federal Government, commissioned a White Paper of the issue that was published in 2011. This document investigated building performance and the success of sustainable strategies in 22 of their stock, including 12 completed before 2007, making their evaluation even more valuable in recording environmental performance, financial metrics, and occupant satisfaction, as the buildings had aged in use. The report highlighted four key findings including that on average, these buildings used 25% less energy than the benchmark, had 19% lower operational costs, a 27% higher occupancy satisfaction rate, and 36% lower carbon emissions.
The report was also transparent about the failings of some buildings with three failing to achieve even the basic equivalent energy performance of a traditionally designed building, six failed to meet minimum water use targets, and four exceeded the minimum energy cost in use compared with non-sustainable buildings. The GSA published a series of ‘lessons learned’ from the study that highlighted including the need for upfront investment in sustainably designed systems and building fabric being matched by attention to other areas. These lessons included sustainable O&M practices, lighting design, and acoustic design as it was considered that these had been underestimated in their importance to occupants with some of the best performing buildings failing to merit commensurate user satisfaction. Finally, the need to base resource use assumptions on which energy and water use modeling were based needed to reflect realistic expectations of user requirements.
A slowly increasing number of accusations of systemic failure and anecdotal stories of underperformance raised the alarm amongst both the green building community and the many government agencies who in the early years of the sustainable design movement had also championed the cause of low energy and sustainable building design. Measures and programs were put in place to address the issue and as a means of bringing some form of empirical evaluation of the available data at that time.
Addressing the performance gap
In January 2016, the UK Green Building Council identified what was described as a ‘performance gap’ in the industry with buildings failing to meet original estimates 0f energy savings and other performance targets. The problem was said to be so widespread that they feared a ‘VW-style” scandal where tenants sued landlords for false commitments on the energy performance of offices and other buildings. In May of that year, the study group reported findings, identifying five key measures to improve the chances of projects achieving their intended performance targets.
Aspiration – the need to set a few, simple targets for building performance early in the programming process, before design began. Often, targets were set too late or not at all or were set too low, and merely to meet the minimum standards set out in the building code.
Control – often, the performance intentions set out early in the process may be lost because at a stage in the design, construction and occupancy stage of a buildings service life, mechanisms were not put in place to ensure compliance with or delivery of those original targets for performance.
Design for intended use – often, inadequate consideration of a buildings ultimate purpose or occupancy type during programming and design stages can compromise the performance in use in terms of resource efficiency, and many of the measures put in place to provide the owner with a high-performance product.
Feedback – typically, building systems, including many architectural ones, require tuning during the first two years after occupancy. This includes seasonal adjustment, best practice commissioning and recommissioning processes, and proper education of facilities maintenance staff. Excellent documentation of processes is fundamental as staff may move on. Without this tuning, building performance can be dramatically affected in the longer term.
Appropriate skillset – it is essential to assembly a delivery team that is appropriately skilled, experienced and motivated towards the ends goals of the project. Their willingness and ability to deliver to operational performance targets should form a part of the procurement assessment. Ideally, the team should have proven experience of integrated working across the supply chain.
It is likely that these measures will be reflected in forthcoming updates in green building systems such as BREEAM and LEED. Some of the measures are already addressed within these systems as options but are overlooked as being too costly to pursue by near-sighted owners or inexperienced design teams. Experiences addressed in the UKGBC report highlight that the issues concerned are fundamental to the long-term success of high-performance buildings and should not be perceived as optional.
In a hard-hitting article by the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment in 2017, Richard Conniff published evidence from a survey carried out by the University of Bath in England. This survey carried out involving interview of 108 building professional, Architects, Engineers and Specialists. The questionnaire asked them to rank energy efficiency measures based on a standard British Semi-detached house to keep the study sample. The results indicated that amongst the majority, their answers had little correlation with the reality of how measures equate to energy performance efficiency. In the case of a quarter, their responses would have resulted in a worse case solution than the benchmark building.
The ‘performance gap; ‘amongst designers highlighted a greater need to ensure proper training of designers involved in the design of high-performance buildings. The study also identified a marked disconnect between designers and the energy modelers, who themselves showed little understanding of the consequences of measures being input into models. A combination of a lack of realistic data from completed projects, with the limitation s of the modeling software itself, further compromised the realism of the models produced. The article suggested that better training was required for modelers, including a greater appreciation of real-world factors that influence energy performance in buildings, and a dire need for greater amounts of data from real-world examples to be used to inform the modeling software produced.
Several key notions have emerged from this important period of data collection and feedback analysis. These include the need for greater reporting and feedback on building performance, the need for better energy modeling, the need to develop methods of ensuring that building performance targets promised by consultants are met, and a greater appreciation of how building durability and longevity, fundamental to the success of sustainable buildings, may be better enshrined within Architectural design philosophy.
Reporting and feedback of energy and resource use in practice
A key weakness in early sustainable building practice was the lack of feedback from project owners and design teams following the completion and occupancy of projects. In a 2011 paper published at the International Building Performance Simulation Association, the authors from the UK highlighted several reasons for disparities between projected and actual results in energy modeling but pointed to the underlying single most significant challenge being lack of empirical data from which energy performance might be modeled. Without this information, there was little in the way of data to prove the innovations and risks taken by the owners in their new ‘green’ buildings. In part, because of negative coverage in the media, and for other reasons, both LEED and BREEAM now require such reporting as a prerequisite to retention of certification in the long term.
This measure has had three additional effects on the way sustainable and high-performance buildings are managed after completion. Firstly, it forces owners to take commissioning, seasonal fine-tuning and maintenance of building systems seriously. Failure to do this will quickly reveal itself in increased energy use and even early failure if systems resulting in unpredicted O&M costs. Secondly, it makes owners aware of the need to educate occupants in energy efficient practices in the use of the building or to set out and enforce similar such rules for tenants. Thirdly, where building structure and fabric maintenance plans have been delivered through the implementation of building durability considerations during design, and a rigorous maintenance plan provided, it forces owners to use those plans in terms of inspection and maintenance operations. As with commissioning, albeit over a longer timeframe, failure to implement the maintenance plan will result in costly systems failures and sometimes consequential loss relating to the impact of those failures of occupants and secondary damage to the building and its contents.
The data collected from the requirement to publish is useful in future energy and cost-in-use modeling, resulting in the development of greater realism in how future high -performance buildings are designed and constructed. Whilst the requirement to publish remains wholly within those projects pursuing certification through LEED, BREEAM and other programs, given the broader benefits to the industry and economy, it is highly likely we will see these requirements become part of national and municipal building codes amongst advanced countries soon.
The need for competent energy modeling
Energy became a factor for consideration by mainstream design teams following the two energy crisis of the 1970’s. Initially, this was carried out employing very basic calculations relating to assembly types be they walls, roofs or ground slabs. In economies where energy costs were high, or where energy security was a concern, requirements to meet minimum standards were quickly adopted into national building codes. Before the introduction of powerful computers into Design Offices, Energy modeling languished in this realm of ‘deemed to satisfy’ minimum standards until the mid-1990’s when the introduction of powerful computers allowed the development of new software such as E-Quest that was introduced in 1993.
Following the early example set by the German States, by the early 2000’s in the UK, energy modeling had become enshrined into the Building Standards in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. North America, where energy is still relatively inexpensive is still in the process of adopting this more sophisticated approach to asking developers to prove the performance of their buildings.
In Canada, Cities such as Toronto have taken the lead over national standards in the introduction of their Toronto Green Standard as a requirement of building permits. This requires the demonstration of anticipated energy performance in use by submission of an accredited ‘as constructed’ energy model along with the building permit application.
Energy Modelling methods today are evolving to include a requirement for energy performance to reflect realistic ‘in use’ performance and not simply ‘as constructed’ theoretical targets that are then often neither evaluated on completion or monitored subsequently.
BREEAM UK New Construction, introduced in 2018 includes a greater emphasis on the need for accurate and reliable energy modeling. It provides up to four credits for operational energy performance targets with a further two ‘exemplary’ credits for making commitments to a post-occupancy assessment of energy performance. This shift is mirrored in a reduction in basic credits achievable for compliance modeling from 12 to 9, with a further three available for projects that go beyond zero net regulated carbon emission targets. In North America, and in a similar manner to BREEAM, LEED has included both an energy performance prerequisite and exemplary credit system since its inception.
With design teams overburdened with different national and municipal standards and submission requirements, energy modeling tools, and green building benchmarking systems, one of the greatest challenges today is reconciling these three aspects. This issue needs to be addressed in a way that allows designers without specialized modeling skills to control the relationship between the design as it progresses and the energy performance impact of their decision making. In late 2018, a new program COMPASS, developed by RWDI and the Ontario Architectural Association will be launched in Toronto that for the first time, offer an integrative platform that simplifies the complexities of energy modeling.
Design team integration and process awareness
One of the founding principles of sustainable design is the need for a fully integrated design team where all follow the principle of a collaborative work process. The theory of this notion seems remarkably simple to anybody outside of the traditional design professions, and yet for many of those involved in the design of buildings and the built environment, it is a challenge. Without an integrated team operating in a fully collaborative way, the formulation of strong ideas and effective delivery of the design can be fraught with difficulty, resulting in a less than an optimal solution that then moves on to construction. To understand the reasons why design team integration may succeed or fail we need to understand why the different professions are at the table from the start.
In most design teams there are four key players present, and one key player who invariably is not. The owner/investor is the key stakeholder at this table and ultimately the individual who must take responsibility for the program. It is surprising how many owners do not realize the significance of this and fail to challenge the rest of the design team on matters relating to that program. Sustainable design needs a Sustainable program, with owners clearly defining the aims and objectives of that strategy. It might be best served by use of an ‘off the shelf’ model such as LEED or BREEAM. Alternatively, owners might investigate their business models as to how Sustainable ‘fits’ into their commercial and marketing strategy and work with the rest of the design team to develop a Sustainable program that best represents their business interests, rather than some generic model that might inadvertently harm their company or organization. An owner might even work with a separate design advisory team in advance of the design phase in to develop a Sustainable strategy, that advisory team acting a third-party verification body to oversee the detail of design and construction later in the process.
The Architect has historically been the design team leader. Many owners misunderstand the capabilities and limitations of the Architect. This misconception is a particularly important issue with the design of high performance, sustainable buildings. Whilst the technology of high-performance buildings is becoming seemingly more complex and broader in nature, the critical skill of the Architect is not to know everything about everything as some owners might expect, but to facilitate and ever-expanding dialog between the broad range of players who contribute in a collaborative design process. It is fair to say that the days of the Architect as Dictator and Master Sculpture are long past, today’s Architect must use her or his capacity to empathize, to communicate and above all to articulate the ideas of many and pave the way to a successful building solution by a holistic understanding of the design process. Whilst we see this new kind of Architect in many multi-disciplinary and larger organizations, sadly, many within the profession still hold on to the old notion of the capital ’A’ Starchitect.
The Cost Consultant or Quantity Surveyor has historically been a background figure with a non-executive, oversight role within the team. Many owners underestimate the need for the cost consultant to be proactive in the design process; this does not mean controlling, but to participate in the evolution of ideas as much as the Architect or Engineer; again, vital in the design and implementation of high performance, sustainable buildings.
The fourth member of the team around our table is the engineer, or to be correct, the ever-expanding engineering team. Historically, the engineering profession was a vast and vastly underutilized resource in traditional building design. With high-performance, sustainable buildings, it is essential that this fourth member becomes a creative force for innovation as much as the Architect ought to be. Without a creative and knowledgeable engineering base, the science of the design process is questionable at best, and the first 20 years of green building has demonstrated the road to failure to which such a deficiency might lead.
The fifth member, usually not at the traditional table is the contractor. In many jurisdictions around the world, an unfortunate and highly remarkable dislocation has occurred between the Professionals responsible for the creation of the drawings, and those responsible for the creation of the building. Whilst this schism may have its roots in the historical origins of the professions in some countries, today it is often sadly a factor of commercialism where small numbers of senior professionals lead large production teams with little or no construction experience. During construction, a professional may be involved to correct the mistakes of the proceeding team, at enormous cost to the owner. To this day, many owners are still surprised when this situation occurs and do not realize that it could easily be avoided by the way they commission design services. Because of this phenomenon, alternative means of procurement have arisen that involve the contractor at increasingly early stages of the design process. In the ultimate form of this, known varyingly as P3, public-private partnership, and other synonyms, the contractor may be involved from the programming stage onwards. Any owner must ensure that their design team includes at a senior level, be it an experience construction architect or even a broadly experienced contractor, those who understand the reality of construction, and who have the many years direct experience necessary to learn the harsh realities of what can lead to building failures.
It is remarkable that in the early 21st Century, that one of the very few high-value items that a customer cannot expect quality aftersales service and support from the designer/manufacturer is buildings. A motor manufacturer that sold a car to a customer with a one-year limited warranty, and thereafter really didn’t care if that vehicle lived up to performance promises given when the purchase was made, would not likely last in business very long. Almost all building purchasers face this dilemma, most of these accept, or lucky enough to be able to ignore this situation. When a serious building deficiency arises two, five or even ten years following completion of a building programmed to have an economic service life of 25 or 50 years, most owners faces a choice between a protracted and costly legal battle or resigning themselves to the maxim ‘buyer beware’ and absorbing the costs or remediation themselves.
Alternatives to the traditional approach have arisen since the 1990’s including models where an operator leases a building such as PFI or P3, transferring the risk of ownership to an intermediary developer/operator. Experience with this type of procurement has shown that it does not necessarily deliver problem-free solutions for occupiers, which it is no guarantee of a quality product, nor cost certainty. The bankruptcy of International P3 operator Carillion in 2017 demonstrated that such a model is also far from risk-free commercially.
Instead of such ‘hands-off’ approaches as P3, studies into how a greater focus on making the designers and builders more accountable for their promises and commitments have led to the notion of Performance-based contracting. In this approach, specific KPI’s are established from the outset by an agreement between the owner, designers, and builders. At completion, profits to the design and construction team are withheld until an agreed period has passed during which the capacity of the building in use to meet these targets is evaluated. After this evaluation is complete, profits are released wholly or in part, if partial conformance is achieved, according to the agreed terms of the contract.
Early adopters of this approach include the 1,500 SqM net-zero carbon Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, completed in 2015, and the US Department of Energy’s 22,000SqM National Renewable Energy Laboratory, also in Colorado, and completed in 2010. Both projects highlighted successful processes by which performance metrics clearly defined from the start of the project, could result in the successful delivery of high-performance buildings.
For Sustainable buildings where innovation can play a significant part in the design, and where energy and water use reduction targets are important, such a method offers an incentive for design teams and contractors to deliver on promises made either at the time the project is bid or during the programming phase. Whereas the award of certification might be seen as the ‘carrot’ for effective delivery, the use of ‘performance-based contracting is very much the ‘stick’, and the notion of holdbacks against sustainable performance parameters has met stiff resistance from contractors and some representatives of the Architectural and Engineering professions. Their concerns are centered on the notion that they are not wholly in control of events during design, and particularly after occupancy when the owner’s staff or tenant’s behavior can dramatically shape the performance of the building.
Whilst there is some merit in this argument, there are simple mechanisms that allow occupant influence to be adjusted for in the measurement of building performance such as proper metering of energy and water use, rigorous commissioning, and maintenance logs, and incentivizing contractual mechanisms through leases where base loads are factored into the rent, with anything over that being charged as an extra to that monthly or annual payment. Above all is the human factor – education of staff, tenants and proper training of a suitably qualified maintenance team is an essential factor in ensuring that no stakeholder on the occupant side has a reason not to understand their part in making high-performance buildings work. This last point is significant in that is conveys a message that environmental awareness is not ‘someone else’s problem; and that everyone has a responsibility in managing things better.
A change in design philosophy
In his 1994 book ‘How Buildings learn’, Stewart Brand speaks about “shearing layers”; a theory about designing buildings that can readily adapt so that they may be long-lasting and robust in serving the needs of multiple generations. Brands theory addresses the core of Sustainability in making the building fabric itself something that produces minimal waste in its construction and adaptation, and minimal need for recycling as what materials and systems that are used in its construction over the many phases and eras that contribute to the life of the building are specified to last.
His theory is largely based on that of ecologists led by R.V.O’Neill in their 1986 publication ‘A hierarchical concept of ecosystems’, with the influence of S.N. Salthe’s 1993 works “Complexity and Change in Biology”. Both these publications hypothesize that processes in the natural world that create living things are layered act in different timelines, either adaptively in response to environmental influence or competitively in response to a scarcity of resources. The theory suggests that whilst operating in an integrated manner, there is little or no transfer of information, energy or mass between the layers, making their separate rates of evolution or change independently. Brands notion adapts this theory by analogy to building design, construction, and use.
Although not a new idea, some have tied the necessary changes in thinking in Architectural design to a rejection of the Modernism itself. Echoing the sentiment of many in the late 19th Century Arts and Crafts movement, it challenges the industrial and materialistic nature of 20th Century Architectural thought, and the ultimately finely tuned machines brought about during the late modern and British Hi-Tech era. Their premise is that in their search for technological perfection in the aesthetic purity of their creations that the doyens of this movement have forgotten the underlying processes that contribute to their end goal, and that they have failed to recognize the environmental and social consequences of many of these processes.
On the other hand, one could counter this argument that neither society nor the environment is fixed and unchangeable, indeed by their very nature, both are constantly in a state of reactive flux to outside influences. What is certain is that those ideas that informed the purest form of architecture in the 1930’s are not the same as those we face today. What we need is a new form of Modernism that accounts for the new and expanding consciousness that we have of the symbiotic nature of ecosystems and our built environment, in what is now know by some speculatively as the Anthropocene Era.
Culturally, change is something that happens at different speeds in different cultures. In western countries, the shift from the energy-intensive era of air-conditioned glass boxes to that of the first net-zero carbon commercial buildings has taken a quarter of a century. In other countries and regions, this shift might be faster, in others slower. It is fundamentally important that change is driven locally and from within each separate culture, and that we do not bow to pressure to change from the outside. The dangers of evangelical ‘liberal imperialism’ that sometimes emanate from the more evangelical parts of the ‘Green movement’ in western countries, along with its assumptions about social norms and practices, is blind to the dangers of forcing change on countries that are more different than they can realize. Pragmatic Sustainability does not ignore the specific political and social aspects of sustainability, it merely asks that what is considered is appropriate, and not simplistically imported from another place because it works there.
Many Architects and engineers in Arab countries have argued against such unthinking adoption of western Architectural design notions and technologies, and they are correct where those ideas are contrary to practical issues faced by designers in the Middle East, be they Arab or non-Arab. What is important is that all designers, regardless of origin, address climate, physical context, economic factors and environmental impact in a framework relevant to the place they design for and build.
The expanding modern notion of context that started with Wright and others in the late 19th Century, who recognized the externalities of Architectural and Urban Form continues to develop as the primary design consideration of Architects and Engineers today. Whilst for Wright this was a playful spatial game, for the Scandinavia schools this became a recognition of identity and the place nature had in their consciousness. This deepening of contextualist influence away from the egoist statement architecture of premodern schools has evolved to engage the science of that context, and of the relationship in depth between ecosystems and the way we manipulate and form them for our functional purposes.
Surprisingly, and considering the rapid evolution of the scientific means of measurement and monitoring of those ecosystems, there remains a reluctance amongst many in the design professions to accept a more empirical approach to design, and a lack of awareness of the symbiotic effects their work has upon the external context. Perhaps this is an unthinking legacy of the way Architecture is taught and perceived within the profession, and maybe it is as somewhat selfishly commercial concern amongst the engineering professions to accept new ideas.
Many building owners still have remarkably low expectations as to what is possible, and this, in turn, drives a lowering of standards and outputs amongst both the design professions and the construction industry. Many owners do not understand how life-cycle costs work concerning the long-term building assets they possess, and the significant savings that may be possible if they were to pursue a smarter procurement process. Finally, and sadly, most of the public still do not realize the impact the built environment has on their health, welfare and daily lives. Without this awareness, informed demand for better buildings is difficult to promote.
Awareness of the problem, of what is possible, and the tried and tested, simple solutions that present a way’s and means to genuinely Sustainable design is the greatest challenge. A vital role for the professions is leadership and education of their own, building owners and the public. The commercially competitive world in which the professions and contractors work make them risk and change-averse, something that can be understood, to a point, and only to the point that the status quo is an option, and marginally profitable for a few. For the many, in an increasingly competitive global market for design and construction, innovation and the driving of standards upwards is the only realistic choice. Pragmatic Sustainable design is at the core of this new market, a form of Sustainability that learns from, and building upon, the lessons learned from the first 20 years of practical green buildings.