Saturday, April 7, 2012

Architecture & Sustainability: A Living Building

Technology ushered in a revolution in architecture at the turn of the twentieth century.  I believe that there is also a revolution currently taking place in architecture coinciding with the turn of the twenty-first century.  We are rediscovering our connection with the physical world in which we live.  This post explores the connection of architecture and sustainability.  In A Machine for Living we learned that the "revolution" of modern architecture was not completely detached from the architecture of the previous centuries.  Likewise, the  "revolution" of sustainable architecture is not completely detached from the modern architecture of the twentieth century, yet it also incorporates some of the lessons that all architecture of the era seemed to ignore.  Allow me to explain.

The modern architecture that was born with the industrial revolution was dubbed "International Style" architecture.  The label referred to the fact that the architecture was intended to dominate the landscape.  These "machines" used industrial rather than indigenous materials and could be erected anywhere.  This tenet of an architecture disconnect from "place" was abdicated by later generations of architects. Architects of the Sarasota School, such as Paul Rudolph, embraced the environment in which their projects resided.  A good example of this is his Umbrella House, designed in 1953.  This house is constructed of indigenous materials and is designed with shading and ventilation features to address the Florida sunshine.  Another example is the Stahl House in L.A., designed by Pierre Koenig , in 1954.  The house becomes part of the bluff and is designed to unfold into the surroundings, taking advantage of the moderate climate.

Stahl House
Umbrella House

So modern architecture evolved to become more sensitive to regional variations,  At the same time, however, technology allowed architects to overcome nature by mechanizing comfort.  Heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems within our buildings meant that the architect no longer had to worry about site orientation, or placement and orientation of windows.  Floor elevations and ceiling heights no longer had to consider air currents.  Architects found themselves "free" and could concentrate on form.  The architect became an artist and happily gave over the new techtonics to the engineers, who could simply take the architect's sculpture and make it comfortable.

Pennzoil Plaza
By the time I was in architecture school in the mid-1980s this new methodology was well established.  I had studios every quarter where we sketched, built models, and inked axonometrics of highly developed buildings.  We were evaluated on criteria such as:  form to idea, form to place, and form to form.  That should tell you a little about the emphasis.  During our third year, in the engineering department, we were required to take one course addressing building systems - heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and electrical.  It was in no way connected to anything we were learning across campus, in the architecture department.  I once researched and presented a paper on Philip Johnson's Pennzoil Plaza in Houston, completed in 1976.  My focus was, big surprise, on the sculptural form of the tower and the rising plaza that connected them.  The building, in the middle of a large city in the south, is completely clad in windows, on all sides.  The resources required to build and maintain a building such as this never even entered my mind.  I was living in Reagan's America.

To put it simply, this method of design and construction is not sustainable. Architects have slowly begun to recognize this fact and now there is a revolution under way, a desire to work with nature rather than trying to dominate it. Programs such as LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, have helped refocused the profession on sustainable design. Some programs go even farther, such as the Living Building Challenge.  To achieve certification under this program, buildings must generate their own energy, use no outside water, and be constructed of sustainably harvested materials, with  no harmful chemicals.

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living
The Omega Center for Sustainable Living was among the first projects in the nation to achieve both LEED platinum and Living Building certifications.  It was designed by BNIM Architects and completed in 2009 on a rural site in Rhinebeck, NY.  It is site sensitive, carbon neutral and host a myriad of sustainable features: solar collection, geothermal heating, passive cooling, rainwater collection, green roofs, rapidly renewable materials, and the list goes on.  All of this and yet the form is still skillfully sculpted.

While the connection of sustainability to architecture has made periodic inroads over the past half century, it has only recently become mainstream.  With architects more environmentally conscience and clients better educated our architecture is destined to become better and more sustainable.  This is not enough however.  Our buildings also need to be designed to with better connections to the inhabitants.  We'll explore this physical connection between architecture and biomechanics in the next post...Newton Rules.

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