Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Philosophical Approach to Sustainable Design

It's been a while since my last post, so I thought I would include my essay response to a prompt given to me from my Sustainability Building Advisor course, a class I'm taking through the UC Berkeley extension program.

Essay prompt: “What are the benefits and pitfalls of approaching sustainable building from a philosophical position?”

Viewing sustainable building design from a philosophical position presents some weaknesses and strengths, which must be considered as we integrate these principles into more pragmatic and mainstream modern day construction practices.

One of the main benefits to the philosophical approach is that the simplicity and elegance of sustainability becomes immediately apparent: design should be created to meet our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This concept creates a lens from which we can reevaluate our design traditions and building practices. From this perspective, we find that design operates in the present while taking into account the history of evolution, revolution, and refinement in design. This sustainable focus highlights the significant deficiency in traditional design: the full life of the design is not usually considered during development. As designers, we love to consider our products and designs as “timeless” and static. This simplistic consideration overlooks the reality that designs are dynamic, aging, and ultimately another form of our finite resources. A static design assumption is idealistic at best, arrogant at the worst, and ultimately invalid. Sustainable design forces designers to broaden the scope of their work, and to reconsider the overall economic, environmental, and social impact of their creations throughout their entire life cycle.

The strength of approaching sustainability from a philosophical position comes with it an immense responsibility and countless questions with regard to implementation. How can we apply these all encompassing concepts to the design of buildings and designed systems? For how long into the future should our designs be held accountable? To what end should our buildings be sustainable? Based on annual energy usage, on the embodied energy within building materials, on the energy required for construction, or other carbon or energy related metrics? Furthermore, in a society with people becoming increasing specialized, who can possibly possess both the capability and capacity to design a truly sustainable building? This vastly increased scope is viewed by some to be an increase in liability, a burden, and a pitfall. To others, this philosophical approach leads to paralysis caused from designing with an infinite scope, or even to revisiting the initial requirement behind the whole conceptual design process: “Why even build?”

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This philosophical quandary of sustainability is remedied when we approach sustainable building and design from a more pragmatic approach. At the core of this more practical approach is the notion that sustainability is a concept designers should always strive to achieve. Sustainability, in an idealistic sense, is a goal, which the best designers should always aim for, but will never achieve. It is a moving target, which repositions itself as quickly as a project’s design scope is redefined, and ultimately assists us in differentiating between the good and the truly great designs.