Sep 14, 2010

Sustainable Design - an oxymoron?

Sustainable Path filled Town Hall's downstairs meeting room September 14th with the Seeking Sustainable Systems speaker series. Ash Awad from McKinstry (a very very big design, build and operate company) and Daniel Friedman, PhD from the UW's College of Built Environment

McKinstry's revenues are upwards of $400 million, Sustainability services are a significant an growing portion of that revenues, and have been before and after the economy crashed. Ash tell us that at McKinstry: "Sustainability is about efficiency." Here is their approach:
1. Efficiency
2. Systems efficiency
3. Move the energy - efficient district energy
4. Renewable systems
Remember Natural Capital by Hawken and pa & da Lovins? Ash rolled off the numbers - the inefficient of buildings, homes, blocks, neighborhoods and cities. Aaargh!

So- why efficiency? Ash states:
"I don't think there is such a thing about sustainable design, sustainable build, sustainable operations- its about integrated outcomes." He listed the reasons:
  • Fragmentation
  • First Cost are the hurdles. In the IT field total cost of ownership is used. Not so in our built environment.
We need to Drive Demand - We need laws, regulations - check out Referendum 52 (a bill to authorize bonds to finance construction and repair projects increasing energy efficiency in public schools and higher education buildings, and continue the sales tax on bottled water) and the BETC in Oregon, the business energy tax credit, We need new Energy Codes - components are efficient, but they are not used efficiently. Check the box does not make for a sustainable building (sorry LEED -you took us far but we need to go further) or buying the tool does not mean it is used. Energy rates are too low. This is kind of like driving demand. We don't need to build new stuff, we need work on what we have. We need job creation on new technology for efficiency in our current built environment- from power plants to buildings, homes etc.

Daniel is the Dean of the College of Built Environment. He talked about traffic - keeping it real. Really- what is a better example of sustainability in our built environment than traffic? There you are in your car, burning up dinosaurs, emitting GHGs, and wishing like hell you could be on a bus or lightrail that would take you where you want to go in a reasonable amount of time. He talked about how committees are a form of passive aggression. I love this man! But really- Daniel explained the importance of the College of Built Environment: The UW got this one right: an educational institution that gets the interlinked nature of sustainability. $1.3 billion dollars of research comes out of the UW, and more and more of it is focusing on efficiency.

So what the heck is the college of the built environment? Architecture, construction management, landscape architecture, and urban design and planning.

Daniel's equations:
Architecture - Construction = Less than zero. Archi means chief, the first the order of authority & primitive: Command and commence. Tech means crafter, doer. Now the chicken and egg question, what comes first? Architecture, construction management, landscape architecture, or urban design & planning. The answer is none do: they are all interlinked, integrated.

What is missing from the built environment's system? Public health: Sprawl, obesity, hypertension and lifelong habits are linked. We need to look broadly. Our behavior: Only 20% of Americans are college educated. Marketing- advertising is changing how we behave. How do we drive less, consume less, become more self aware. We could eliminate air conditioning if we changed our attitudes towards perspiration. Work habits, expectations, how we use the time in our day, driving- what did we do before we had electricity, cars, refrigerator. Measurable integration of technologies: so architects, builders, designers & planners are forced to work together.

So what's it all about: Changing behavior.
What changes behavior: Education? sometimes. Positive feedback? sometimes, Negative feedback? sometimes. Real time information served up right? Money, Altruism, Logic, Laws ? yeah, sometimes....

What can you do?

Keep it real and keep it meaningful. You can turn off the light- changing the light bulb is not enough. Get engaged, get educated and spread the word, spread the action by taking action.

And let's not forget social justice. What happens if sustainability is the pleasure of the rich and those who never have gone without? It's too easy to focus on buildings, too easy to focus on design, too easy to check the box for a silver, gold or platinum star. You and I are part of the problem and part of the solution. The actions we need to take are not known, and we will only know them if we try.

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