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Rough Guide to Sustainability

technical & practice: Rough Guide to Sustainability, Brian Edwards & Paul Hyett, RIBA Publications, 2001, pbk

This book is a series of essays, predominantly by Brian Edwards with a short contribution by Paul Hyett. It is described as a 'student primer' to sustainability issues and I can only guess that it is directed at students for two reasons: first, as a backdoor way of influencing the debate since, as Hyett notes, 'any . . . obligation on architects to work for some ill-defined objective like the good of mankind is quite simply unenforcable in law' (page 15) (he prefers that the RIBA short-circuit the arguments and exert its influence on the world's students); and, second, the level of critical analysis is presumably thought to have necessitated less rigour.

Presumably, the roughness in the book's title refers to the hurried and synoptic style of the prose, which constrains the author(s) from going into significant detail about any of the issues.

The result is that many of the claims are simply assertions.For example, Edwards notes that the destruction of forests (note the word 'destruction') results in the 'extinction of 20,000 species a year (most before they have been discovered)' (page12), or how about, 'radon. . . is a major source of lung cancer, especially for those who smoke' (page 75).

Effectively, Edwards celebrates the fact that sustainable development is indefinable, a 'virtuous but imprecise concept open to various and often conflicting interpretations' (page 7).

This means that it becomes a process, rather than an end objective - a process that can be maintained by indicators as opposed to quantifiable goals.The end of the book, therefore, because of its reliance on moral appeal rather than precision, provides 'both spiritual and practical'guidance, with which the ethical designer can do the right thing.Ultimately, it argues that we - individually and socially - need to tighten our belts.

'Society', Edwards tells us, 'needs a culture of reduction, not ever-growing consumption' (page 65). In an appeal to the wartime ethos of rationing, he continues, 'a reduction in consumption means that supplies will be available for future generations' (page 64), as if eking out scarce rations in the trenches. It is reminiscent of a Second World War poster that stated: 'Buy nothing for your personal pleasure or comfort, use no transport - unless urgent necessity compels.To be free with your money today is not a merit. It is contemptible.To watch every penny shows your will to win.'Dried egg for everyone.

Perhaps because the smooth edges have not been added, the book has not masked some of the more condescending aspects of sustainability.One quote likens humanity to 'a virus'on the planet and concludes that 'no architecture has moral validity unless it addresses. . . being environmentally sustainable' (page 83).The nascent authoritarianism, which bemoans the fact that 'democracy is a crude tool but the only one available' (page 14) is seldom made so explicit in more refined texts.Critically aware students ought to be able to see through it.

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