The need for Beauty in Sustainable Architecture

FACT: The building industry in the UK are responsible for about 50% of the overall CO2 emissions. Yikes.

As the world gets more and more concerned about the human impact on the environment, the need for a sustainable architecture gets more and more important. However, sustainable architecture is a tricky topic. What does the term 'sustainable architecture' really mean? Many confuse sustainable with 'green', meaning that people, including architects and designers, may believe that a sustainable architecture is of a particular style. By this I mean that many people associate green architecture with high tech, glossy buildings covered in 'green bling', such as solar panels, green roof, vertical gardens and wind turbines. We all know the kind of building I'm talking about and they're not always 'pretty'. Actually, they're ugly. I especially loath the super-conceptual renderings that illustrate some sort of spaceship-looking creation, covered with green patches and an unidentifiable facade material. It's just getting a bit boring. Isn't it time for a conversation about the aesthetics of sustainable architecture?


 Is this beautiful?

Is this beautiful?

My worry is that, if people, mainly architects in this case, continue to associate the practice of sustainable architecture with this 'green bling' and an overall ugly aesthetic, enough of the practitioners will not engage in the problem of sustainable architecture for the issues to be solved. Sustainability needs to engage the creative side of the architects, the part of the designer that wants to contribute to society, but also create beautiful buildings. And actually, this shouldn't be a problem, and here's why: sustainable architecture has nothing, if very little to do about this green bling. The tacking on of solar panels and other green bling is in most cases unnecessary at the very least. Of course, I can understand the need for another energy source, and we are definitely entering a time where the sun will or should be our main source of energy (what other alternative do we really have?). So, solar panels might not be unnecessary, but they need to be used right, or they would be the cause of more harm than good. However, I'm not writing this to diss solar panels, it's just one of those technologies that annoy me because we don't seem to understand how to use them. 


I actually want to make a case for the need of beauty in sustainable architecture. As I'm writing my postgraduate thesis on this, I've come across countless of books on the topic of sustainable architecture and most of them argue that any style of building could be sustainable (and just as importantly durable), given the right process and point of focus. The way I see it, is that it has a lot to do about going back to the fundamentals of design. Not necessarily in the spirit of this year Venice Biennale, it's probably more about localisation. Using the regions natural resources in the way architects and builders did before we had all sorts of transportation to bring us whatever we wanted. If we did this, we would possibly also avoid a world where all major cities looked frighteningly similar. Two birds, one stone.


Remember those things we learned in the first years of architecture school? The importance of orientation, material choices, historical, cultural and natural context, site location, average temperatures, wind orientation and the list goes on and on. What happened to designing for the environmental context that we are given? Maybe it doesn't need to be that complicated. Maybe we don't need to hand over our building designs to 'green experts' after its done to be 'fitted' for some high tech green bling. Maybe if us architects get more involved with the topic of sustainability and integrate it in the design process at the level of importance it should be, we wouldn't end up with a world that looks like those dooms day films we've seen so many of. What I'm getting at here is that a building should not look sustainable, it should just be sustainable. We're far past the point where sustainability is a choice. 

Where the need for beauty comes in (other then to engage us creatives to care about sustainability), is the matter of durability and lifespan. We all agree that the most sustainable thing to do, is to not build at all. If we don't build, we're not using any energy. However, not building isn't an option, we do after all expect to be something like 9 billion people on this earth by 2050. So, if we are going to build, we need to make the buildings last. Today it can seem that the lifespan of a building is about 20 years, and that is obviously not enough. This is where beauty comes in handy. We've seen time after time how beautiful buildings that people care about will be well maintained and often refitted and used for something else when it's original use is out. For example, old factories and other industrial buildings are being converted into much sought-after apartments. Re-use is in fact one of the fundamental ideas of a sustainable practice. 

So, by designing beautiful buildings, places that people care about and want to preserve, we're actually doing something great for the environment, because we will hopefully not spend tons of energy on demolishing and rebuilding. 

Having said all this, the relationship of architecture and sustainability is a complex and difficult one, and it's not just solvable by designing pretty things (dammit!), but by engaging all the brilliant architects we have in the process we are much more likely to lower out CO2 emissions as drastically as we need them to. For this to be engaging, it needs to be interesting and compelling on more levels then just boring regulations and ugly technologies, because that's clearly not how most creatives want to work.