An occupational hazard of working in sustainable design is the constant reminder that everything has impact. For everything in your field of view, materials and energy were wrestled from the ground and shipped around the earth in impossibly complex ways. Human intention versus human consequence. Sigh. Some decision-makers are self-described designers, but many more are engineers and businesspeople, whose priorities are more pragmatic than lyrical: How can we use far fewer materials and get the same results?
We might call this Sustainable Design. That may not resonate with the engineers in the room, which is too bad. Engineers are often more likely to wrangle life cycle data, or to calculate a building’s impact and performance. Design has always been a team sport; when we bring ecological and human impacts into the picture, it becomes even more so.
Signals of better team thinking have been emerging–faster than before-at every scale, from Manhattan’s eco-friendly Bank of America Tower to a biodegradable Sun Chips bag. Still, there’s nothing new in creating brand-new things that offer incremental improvements; we’ve been working that for years. Instead, we sit on the edge of a strange new opportunity to design, engineer, and plan for a wholesale remaking of an infrastructure we’ve already built.
Technology can help you design for radically lower impact, but it can’t pick your battles.
While walking through Toronto recently, I passed a fading poster in a window, mapping–in agonizing detail–the Athabasca tar sands, an England-sized “gigaproject” so politically and economically entrenched that it has the momentum of a natural disaster. It’s hard to see this in perspective. Some of our best “solutions” only chip away at the problems generated by this level of resource extraction. Being human, we gravitate towards those things that are bright and shiny (new technology, pretty digital renderings) or which we can control directly (light bulbs, backyard vegetable gardens). It’s hard to know where we can have the greatest impact because the big picture is invisible, unfathomable. The result? Well-intentioned obsessions with rounding errors.
The handful of net-zero architectural masterworks are there to teach us to replicate them, not to act as talismans to give us the false sense that we’re doing just fine. A high-profile, high-efficiency NYC high-rise is interesting, but it’s the Green Jobs/Green NY bill just passed by the state senate that has the leverage to address the region’s emissions–by taking on the existing building stock.
You know that we’re in a wicked hurry. When we focus our attention on the narrow band of human projects that constitute magazine-quality “design,” we trick ourselves into thinking that problems can be solved with point solutions, or that design is a panacea. Our aesthetic blinders may filter out the bad planning and the extractive industry. But for every bright, shiny new thing we have thousands of uncelebrated existing buildings where most of the inefficiencies–and opportunities–lie. Building out needs to be replaced by building in. The future doesn’t need to win awards or look pretty in magazines. It requires countless elegant solutions to functional needs.
Dawn co-authored WorldChanging: A User’s Guide to the 21st Century, won a Royal Society of Arts (UK) fellowship, and was a Metropolis NEXT Generation runner-up. She holds an industrial design degree from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MBA in Sustainable Business from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute.