Questioning what sustainable construction really means: USA, India and Ancient Greece

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Socrates - bigger on sensible construction methods than you realised - Alun Salt on Flickr

Socrates - bigger on sensible construction methods than you realised - Alun Salt on Flickr

I like these pieces / polemics on sustainability. Each makes the point that sustainability doesn’t mean build what or where you want and then try and address issues with technology or greenwash. Rather sustainability requires us to think more carefully about what we build in the first place.

1.
Lloyd Alter doesn’t hold back on some of the latest energy-efficient homes in the US. Mumbo-jumbo is exposed and supposed green standards are ridiculed.

Ultimately it is, as Nic Darling so aptly put it, just polishing a turd.

Alter concludes

… if we are going to building really green, we have to start thinking about not adding stuff, but using less in the first place. Less land, smaller frontages, less concrete, fewer green gizmos, fewer “flex spaces” that really aren’t.

2.
Sunita Narain makes much the same point in Green buildings: how to redesign, which focuses on India.

Take the glitzy airport building Delhi will soon get. Developers say it will come with a green tag. This is because the airport is investing in energy-efficient lighting, sewage disposal and rainwater harvesting.

All these are important initiatives but the question remains: could the airport have been designed differently so that it used much less energy in the first place?

But planners first think of building the biggest structures and then try sugarcoating them.

She also goes on to suggest that ‘Indians have forgotten how to build for their environment’.

Instead, modern buildings are examples of monocultures—lifted from the building books of cold countries where glass facades are good to look at and appropriate for their climate.

The same building in India is a nightmare; the glass traps the heat. The building cannot be naturally cooled because windows cannot be opened. It needs central air-conditioning and heating. In this situation, turning the building green means using very expensive glass to insulate better.

Builders avoid this. So the only band-aid green measures left are to include a few token items like efficient lights and water-saving devices in the toilets.

3.
And if you were thinking this is a C21st concern, then Raymond Bliss’s article, ‘Why not just build the house right in the first place’, from 1976 is instructive.

Bliss complains that we would be better advised to do what the title of his article implores, rather than engineer post-construction solutions to winter heating and summer cooling.

From a national energy conserving standpoint, enormous fuel savings would be possible if the yearly flood of conventional construction could be built with an eye to better fuel saving.

And if you think 1976 is a bit recent then Bliss also quotes Xenophon (c. 430 – 354 BC) on how Socrates approached house building.

In houses, then, that look to the south, does not the sun, in the winter, shine into the porticoes, while, in the summer, it passes over our heads, and above the roof, and casts a shade?

If it is well, therefore, that houses should thus be made, ought we not to build the parts towards the south higher, that the sun in winter may not be shut out, and the parts towards the north lower, that the cold winds may not fall violently on them?

A most excellent philosopher.

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