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The HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design

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Sandra F Mendler & William Odell, John Wiley & Sons, 2000

The HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design has the look and feel of a 1970s publication, writes Austin Williams . The pages are reminiscent of recyclable toilet paper (the special tough variety for hardened environmentalists), and the cover is something that you would only put on your coffee table to rest your coffee mug on.

The general theme of the book is to outline '10 simple things you can do' to capture the key principles of sustainable design, including, 'Select sites to promote liveable communities' and to 'Promote occupant health and wellbeing'. The 10 points sound like the architect's Desiderata.

There are some interesting ideas here, but difficult to find in all the quack science and cod philosophy. One of the main problems with sustainability dissertations such as this is that they mix up innovative ideas and moral imperatives.

Using 'scientific' analogies between society and the laws of thermodynamics, it argues that if energy cannot be created or destroyed, and occurs in a closed system, all matter, including 'toxic materials . . . will disperse and find their way ultimately into our bodies'. Fortunately, we do not live in a social entropy.

Human progress has always involved the desire to overcome natural barriers and alter nature, not succumb to it.

This equivalence of natural and human processes is spurious and dangerous. In an earlier time this type of thinking ended with a drift towards Social Darwinism (even the early eugenicists did not try to compare humanity to the inanimate natural world). Unfortunately, sustainability advocates are so busy worrying about the future that they haven't learned the lessons of the past.

Obviously, even sustainability freaks have to make a living, and some of the architecture by HOK is very nice. The Daewoo Tower design, for example, looks great. In several pages of justification, the authors laud the building's sustainable credentials on the basis that this 355,000m 2steel structure utilises a gravel and plant root filtration bed. No wonder they needed to set the building on a 8ha site. It does not bear thinking about.

This tendency towards localism is reminiscent of 1930s Soviet autarky, where lack of faith in the system to deliver raw materials meant that each factory developed their own farmyard to feed their workforce, or smelting works to supply the steel for production. Today's version has staff recycling plants and reed-bed WCs!

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