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Credible lightness of being Three recent publications discuss the architect's role in sustainability and also the part technology plays

technical & practice

The three books - Lightness1, Dimensions of Sustainability2, Low Tech - Light Tech - High Tech3, have similar philosophical starting points, namely the impact of our constructional activities on Earth. But they take very different approaches.

When, some years ago, Lawrence Henderson said: 'Darwin is right, but insufficient', he was pointing to a two-way evolutionary interaction between an organism and its environment. Humanity acts on the environment as an anti-entropic (order-making) agency. Buckminster Fuller's word, syntropy, is a happier way to describe this creation of order. Intelligent planning is an example of our syntropic interaction with the environment. A healthy 'syntropic fit' between man and environment is within our grasp if we act intelligently, in concert with our evolutionary destiny.

Of course, the time scale of our manipulation of the environment is several orders of magnitude quicker than biological evolution. The next few years will be telling in our choice between fitness and entropic pathology. As a profession we can place ourselves at the forefront of this adaptive decision-making. Cultural adaptation - social, philosophical, economic, technological - is where we have the potential for influence.

Optimism for the future

Imagine an optimistic picture of the world a short way into the next millennium. Tradable carbon credits are not exploited by wealthy nations as a licence to continue increasing CO2 emissions, nor bought up to hold back the developing nations. Countries through which water flows to others act as responsible guardians of that precious resource (witness the Great Rivers 99 international forum in May this year looking at trans-boundary water courses and international lakes). Fossil-fuel reserves (now appreciated as chemical feedstock for synthetic polymers as much as energy sources) are protected and are gradually replaced by the use of natural/ vegetable organic polymers. Travel is used more for cross-cultural exchange than business, which is increasingly carried on electronically. Jorg Schlaich's giant solar stack-effect chimney wind-turbines are springing up, 1km high, in hot developing countries. They generate electricity that powers growing industrial needs; those growing needs are matched by an increasing efficiency in energy use, so that the per capita consumption remains a tiny fraction of the developed nations' current levels.

There are signs that this scenario is not beyond our reach. There is good news to be found in climate and emission statistics. In the global league table of energy-efficient producer nations, China is not the carbon dragon most people would have us believe. It has cut its energy input per unit output in half since 19804. Its efficiency by this criterion lies between New Zealand and Belgium, way ahead of the USA. It is a role model for other industrialised and developing nations alike, as its emissions grow at a rate way below its economic growth. The USA, whose per capita emissions are six times higher, needs to stop saying it won't adopt its proposed target cut in greenhouse gases until it sees 'meaningful commitments from key developing nations' to tackle their emissions.

Also promising, the Swiss and German architectural institutes' codes call for environmentally responsible design. They have (albeit simplified) assessment guides to quantify the implications of building element design decisions.

The psychology of energy users remains an under-developed area of study. The Open University's Horace Herring5 expects that the market response to improved energy efficiency will be a disastrous fuel- cost reduction leading to mushrooming profligacy in consumption (the delightfully-named Khazzoom-Brookes postulate). The market-controlled fuel price ignores most environmental costs, of course. Despite some recent moves, carbon or energy taxes remain unattractive to the short-term vision of politicians. Over the next few years it will be interesting to see how as a nation we approach achieving our own CO2 emissions targets.

The role of the architect

Where is the architect in all of this and what will the architecture of such a world look like? Do we recognise the political dimension of our work and our capacity to affect it? When a client comes to us with an out-of-town site to which perhaps half a million car journeys may be made annually, how hard do we work at questioning the location, the energy of access, not just reducing energy used in running the building?

Will the architecture be light or heavy? In Lightness1, principal author Adriaan Beukers believes that lightness is the panacea to reduce environmental impact and embodied energy - well, he is an aeronautical engineer. We need to be sure that the exotic composites and alloys are environmentally clean and not mined at a high cost in human exploitation. Heavy, locally- sourced materials requiring minimal processing may have respectable environmental credentials as well.

Embodied energy in most buildings is a small fraction of total energy in use (except for those buildings going through frequent major refits), but worth considering. The embodied energy of materials measured by lightness, for example in GJ per tonne, does not help. Some material may be used as a thin film enveloping a building. Glass, with an embodied energy of 5 GJ/T, can repay its capital-energy debt with a week or two of sunshine. A measure of GJ/m2 is much more relevant. Also, the embodied energy in materials such as steel and aluminium cannot be meaningfully compared without considering their life cycles, including multiple recycling.

And how much of our architecture will be real, how much virtual - weightless? As ATMs flood the world, will anybody build banks? Or will we design cybermalls complete with interactive personal bankers?

Dimensions of Sustainability is a collection of the papers presented at the November 1996 conference of the same name at MIT. The papers fall broadly into two strikingly different camps. Thought-provoking philosophical pieces, many from the American participants, are epitomised by Ian McHarg with his return to evolutionary fundamentals and ecological histories. These are juxtaposed with nuts-and-bolts accounts of authors' projects from the likes of Battle McCarthy, Ken Yeang, Alan Short and representatives of many other organisations which have cultivated reputations for designing 'sustainable' buildings.

The label 'intelligent building' is often used to refer to a building's role in maximising business efficiency, in maximising profit. In the context of sustainability, intelligence of buildings is only meaningful in relation to directing the action of responsive elements and systems. In Low Tech - Light Tech - High Tech, Klaus Daniels makes the point well, distinguishing such intelligent buildings from 'computer-integrated buildings . . . for data processing and communications', although he falls short of recognising the real potential. For example, his small section on potentially-intelligent 'Changeable building skins' just deals with blinds and vents.

Daniels' book has the appearance of thoroughness - solid German engineering, weighing in at a hefty 88 Swiss francs. But it requires a caveat. The copious data are oversimplified, poorly explained and in many cases do not stand scrutiny. The book begins promisingly with global consumption and emission statistics, basic data, climate and vernacular building solutions; it is sprinkled with sound philosophical observations. The problem is in the bulk of the book, which is devoted to current technologies, illustrated by case-study projects (few visionary ones here). Much of the format consists of banal lists and tables of criteria - checklists for the mindless? It appears also that the translator is not technically fluent in the subject, and nor was the book proof-read. In places the text is obscure and elsewhere chunks appear to be missing.

While the virtue of lightness remains questionable for Daniels, Beukers's Lightness is an utterly convinced and, with its infectious enthusiasm, fairly convincing celebration. It has a specific focus on materials, especially fibre composites, form and structure. It is a visual and lateral-thinking delight, butterfly-hopping between attractive images (a bit grainy, like any scrap book) and classic icons of technology. The text has three or four parallel strands, distinguished by different typefaces. As with J E Gordon's books on structure and materials, which the authors acknowledge and quote frequently, it is a mine of useful data and lucid explanation. With many references to the lessons of form and materials in nature and a strong interest in dynamic and mechanical structures, it explores curiosities such as tensegrity and aerodynamics in feathered wings, creep and prestress in Tutankhamun's chariot wheels and the mechanics of archery bows. A good appreciation of such phenomena does no harm to an architect's intuitive understanding of integrated design and the behaviour of the materials we work with.

Simon Conolly lives in a steel and glass solar house in west Cork and is a partner in Akiboye Conolly Architects.

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