Sustainability is a system, not a product line.

Architecture / Culture / Editorial / Open Source

Sustainable Products versus Sustainable Systems.

If you spoke with the average person, and yes that may occasionally include an architect, mention of sustainable buildings will evoke a row of solar panels, a low-water toilet, geothermal cooling, or clever fluorescent bulbs, because much of what we understand as “green” architecture has to do with technological product innovation. These products are meant to achieve old-fashioned levels of energy and water supply, with less damage, waste and depletion of natural resources. In other words, “sustainability” conjures the idea of designing physical products that mimic the everyday, in individual settings; none of these cliches are directed toward systemic change or cultural comprehension of communal ecology.

Sustainable building does take an “emergency rescue” approach to our natural resources for a very good reason. These resources are in total crisis: air quality, water supply, waste management, energy resources…maintaining the integrity of the earth below the building. Our own Carl Turner’s “Floating House” (forthcoming release)—a model designed with PVs and water collection systems among other product parameters–is a promising example of a green home. It's not just utilizing ecology tech, but poses an inherent challenge to modes of land use and flood prevention strategies. The designs don’t just meet an arbitrary mandate but are a provocative alternative. It is certainly the culmination of a career in sustainable disruption to the housing market; Turner also won a competition for designs to revitalize the city of Brixton, signifying his interest in not just products but systems. But more on that in a bit.


Carl Turner's winning entry “Grow:Brixton“: a collaborative initiative to create a shared retail-residential environment with green spaces.

Currently, the only meaningful barometer of sustainable practice in the US is the LEED certification, which understands new building design and construction according to all of those environmental elements. The system they use to engender sustainable design is based on point-based rankings. Most of us, and this time I mean architects almost exclusively, view LEED as a quantitative platform for engendering sustainable practice through thoughtfully designed buildings. 


The Grand Rapids Art Museum. First LEED Gold Museum, in one of the “greenest” cities in America.

But as has been suggested, most vocally by Frank Gehry, LEED can be seen as a reward system that spites architecture. The master of Titanium–which is possibly the most unsustainable building material on Earth–makes two important arguments in contradistinction to the so-called virtues of LEED: 1) that it is as important to educate and empower architects to think about sustainability with design solutions that actually look great, otherwise it's not really architecture (it's a tech development) and 2) that merely starting a non for profit organization with a reward system isn’t enough; we need a political mandate to staunch the environmental catastrophe ahead of us.

It's important to note that Gehry and LEED don't necessarily have to disagree. The LEED certification and its points system are but one of the many tools in the US Green Building Association’s tool box. Their stated mission includes initiatives not just to certify studios and their projects, but to educate and systematize sustainable practice across all communities, and not just with architects.

Systematization is a form of engagement, and engagement can absolutely be designed. But system sustainability also happens to be the least exploited avenue of architectural practice, and most misunderstood. If the focus has been on physical product development, it has been at the expense of teaching a more long-term vision in the systematization of environmentalism; the metaphorical architecture ecosystem necessary to improve the literal Earth’s ecosystem.

Systematic sustainability implies more than just physical product development and building practice, but most crucially, systematic sustainability has social and economic implications, at a cellular level that can evolve society into organically thinking about the environment, rather than using it as a political cross to bear. On the social realm, sustainability implies an educational system that can help develop a community through the creation of equal opportunity. This is about empowering everyone in society to make environmentally sustainable decisions without thinking of a future spent on bike-operated generators. 

In the economic realm, this means promoting financial growth, on top of individually lowering energy bills. It means funding research and development. At the national level, Holland has been an oft-cited exemplar of heterogeneous ecological systems. Henk Ovink, partner at Rebuild by Design, one of New York state’s post-Sandy rebuild effort, has been cited widely in discussions about Dutch water systems. Foremost, the community learned to work with water, rather than “resisting it,” per Ovink. From The New York Times:

Dutch battles against water led his country to develop a communal society. To this day, Water Boards, which date to the Middle Ages, are a feature of every region, and they guide long-term infrastructural planning. American individualism, on the other hand, has yielded a system in which each municipality has a great deal of autonomy, making regional cooperation difficult.

Business ethics mitigate social and economic progress, but what if sustainability were treated in the socioeconomic matrix, rather than as some arbitrary political cause? The case has certainly already been made in the venture sector where the intersection of environmental innovation and economic opportunity has proven commercial lucrative, but land policies and natural resource management have to be engendered through practice, not sold in smartphone apps. These hard-fought environmental causes have to find meaning beyond profit; socially, infrastructurally, systemically. Organizations like the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure and proposals laid out by other non-profit academic and government associations are important in fomenting the discussion, to be sure. However the most meaningful change needs to imply community involvement and imperative.

How do you do that?
First, sustainable practices cannot be economically segregated. There needs to be a way to integrate sustainable systems across socioeconomic borders. This kind of access can happen via open internet tools. Take for example, The Digital Justice Coalition in Detroit. Rather than develop sustainable design to think self-sufficiently (e.g. the radio powers itself), we need to think about integrated sustainability (e.g. the radio signal operates on a mesh network powered by the many).

Sustainability inside the home has to also be a shared practice. This can be done if companies offered the same Open Source platforms for their services that tech communications companies have (re: API), to improve overall quality of the industry. Rather than profiting off competitive pricing and usurious regulation reforms, the major utilities companies would benefit from giving local providers and clients the opportunity to build better delivery systems. Perhaps those telltale solar panels don’t make sense in places where Winter is over 6 months long, but if anyone can resolve a more efficient way to come up with alternative energy, it is those who live the 20-hour long nights every year. Local sourcing is crucial to sustainability.

Second, an equitable system of sustainability with full communal integration also  to be durable and viable. The work of environmental practice cannot be short-lived, because a system isn’t defined just by its breadth but by its relevance. Will this last through time? The system designer, be it an architect or developer, has to design against time, embed an educational component, make the system self-operational.

Finally, systematic sustainability is light. By building the system to work with local resources and universal templates, it should not have to be encumbered by regional bureaucracy or corporate provisions. Rebuild by Design, previously mentioned, works because it has the flexibility of a competition with the urgency of a regional infrastructure crisis—the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. While systematic change obviously can’t depend on emergencies, sustainability programs are better served with this urgency in mind.


Rebuild by Design at Asbury Park. (image from RBD website)

Sustainable homes can be beautiful and efficient. This is achieved when instead of being the result of cost-savings, or product innovation, the house is viewed inside a generative system; one whose future generations of habitants can make better, even more efficient, even more beautiful. With such a critical future ahead for Earth, perhaps these open systems of sustainability will be driven by the most basic virtue of design: necessity.