by , 12/29/06

Columbia University Avery Hall, GSAPP, Greening the Ivory Tower, Greening Columbia

Buildings consume 40% of the world’s energy every year.

Buildings generate almost half of the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming.

40% of landfill currently comes from construction waste.

Clearly, the building industry has a huge impact on the state of our environment. Because of this influence, architects have a moral and social responsibility to learn about and concern themselves with issues of energy and environmentally sustainable building. After all, architecture is supposed to serve the greater good of society… isn’t it?

For those of you who don’t know, I’m not only publisher of Inhabitat, but I’m also a grad student studying architecture at Columbia University in New York City. I recently published a little manifesto about sustainability in design schools on Archinect, and I’d like to republish it here on Inhabitat, since its so relevant to what we talk about here. I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please comment!

construction waste

GREENING THE IVORY TOWER – Sustainability in Design Schools

Green building has been getting increasing amounts of media attention recently, as well as a lot of hype from developers and even real-estate agents. Environmentally-focused government and corporate organizations are becoming more commonplace, from the USGBC and Sustainable Building Coalition, to the LEED program and even an Eco-broker certification program. With this increasing presence in business and real estate, what is academia doing to address concerns about sustainability? Is there a similar green movement going on in the academic world? While I can’t speak for any other schools, my experiences at Columbia University have given me the impression that academia is behind the curve on this issue.

There was an especially telling moment at the beginning of last semester when we had the studio lottery to pick our critics for housing studios. After all the critics had given their presentations (exploring issues ranging from geographic mapping to pre-fabrication) one student in the auditorium stood up and asked what the studios were doing to address concerns about the environment. This question was met by a long silence, during which you could have heard a pin drop. The 8 critics exchanged glances, humming and hawing a bit before finally coming up with a variety of answers, each dismissing the issue of sustainability as an afterthought. Each answer was slightly different, but the general impression given was that while they all thought sustainability “is an important issue,” none considered it a weighty enough topic around which to focus one’s conceptual research and design.

I’m not quite sure why there is such reticence within the academic community to discuss green building. My hypothesis is that most academics think the subject matter is too pedestrian, too “engineery,” or too “building-systems” for the lofty debates of post-modern ivory-tower architecture. Case in point: the main place where sustainable architecture is discussed at Columbia is in the building systems classes – and these classes are all taught by engineers.

Nautilus Earthship House
An “Earthship” House

Perhaps this reluctance to engage the issue can be attributed to the fact that many of the faculty members lived through the energy crisis of the seventies and the corresponding green building movement of that era. Maybe they don’t want to think about anything that reminds them of sod houses, “Earthships” or any of the other ill-fated crunchy attempts at sustainable building that are still associated with green architecture today. The fact that the environmental movement is still seen as an activist “cause” (rather than innovation or simply good design) probably doesn’t help its case. Living in an era of postmodern subjectivism, contemporary architects tend to shy away from anything that smacks of moralizing. While I would agree that architects need to carefully consider our opinions and beliefs and not make simplistic normative judgments – at the end of the day, designers need to have opinions. Good designers are those who are brave enough to take a stand on issues and postulate ways in which the future might be improved through design.

One concern I frequently hear from academics is that the green building movement is an over-hyped trend with little conceptual or theoretical basis in which to root serious discussion. As recently as 2001, Peter Eisenman was quoted as saying:

“To talk to me about sustainability is like talking to me about giving birth. Am I against giving birth? No. But would I like to spend my time doing it? Not really. I‘d rather go to a baseball game.”


This quote, from an excellent Metropolis article by Christopher Hawthorne, illustrates architectural academia’s dismissive attitude towards green architecture. In essence, Eisenman equates sustainability with pain. (Lets not even get into the weird gender implications of the comment…) What could possibly be so painful about having to address real world problems? The design world often acknowledges that constraints foster creativity, and that the groundbreaking design work is frequently born out of limited budgets and tight spaces. Real-world constraints force designers to be focused, resourceful and inventive – qualities necessary in fostering innovation. This rule applies as much to the constraint of sustainability as to economic or spatial constraints. Therefore I would argue that the constraint of “sustainability” should ultimately foster creativity and will make architecture better – not worse. Sustainability should be embraced as a design challenge, not shunned as just one more boring / mundane thing to worry about.

Norman Foster's Berlin Library
Norman Foster’s Green Berlin Library

Whatever the reason behind it, the negative academic perception of “green design” needs to change. Sustainability is not merely a trend or a buzzword – and it is not going to go away any time soon. As I hope people are beginning to realize, with movies like An Inconvenient Truth achieving commercial success, sustainability is a very real and very urgent issue that will dramatically impact all of our lives in the next ten years. It is also not something in which we can choose whether or not to engage. All architecture deals with the issue of sustainability – either implicitly or explicitly. If we choose to ignore the issue, than we are choosing to be complicit in environmental degradation. As architects, and vanguards of culture – we should be leading this issue, not falling behind.

One of the few factors that could possibly could help mitigate global warming (if its not already too late, as scientists like James Lovelock claim), would be academics and starchitects joining forces with the building industry to produce better, cleaner, greener buildings. This movement is clearly already happening in the mainstream world of business, but it should be the cutting-edge academics and brand-name architects who are driving this change – not being dragged from behind kicking and screaming.

Despite the misconceptions and stereotypes – it is simply not true that “sustainable design” has to be boring, crunchy, or techy. There is already a significant amount of evocative avant garde ‘sustainable” architecture out there, from the likes of Shigeru Ban, Steven Holl, MVRDV, Renzo Piano and Norman Foster – despite the fact that none of these architects seem eager to claim the mantle of “sustainability” for themselves (fear of being stigmatized perhaps?). If more architects were engaged in sustainable design, there is no question that we would see more innovative and inspiring green building in the U.S.

Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid Development
Steven Holl’s eco-friendly “Linked Hybrid Housing Development”

Green architecture is thoughtful architecture, and thoughtfulness is crucial to good architecture. Good architecture is born out of vision, passion and social conscience. It is not about producing fancy algorithms or random blobby shapes in Maya. Blobitecture is all surface and no substance, and architecture is ultimately not about surface; it’s about the experience and impact of three-dimensional space. If one’s work deals primarily in surface, aesthetics and symbolism, then one is an artist instead of an architect. Sustainable design – at its best – comes from thinking deeply and rigorously about how humans use, occupy and function in a space over time, and in turn how spaces impact urban fabric, society and culture. To approach architecture in a more superficial way is lazy and shortsighted. Academia should never fall into the trap of superficiality. Academia needs to remain at the vanguard of society – continually pushing culture forward – and the path to the future is green.

Global Emergency Teach-In, February 20th 2006, Architecture 2030, 2010 Imperative

Regarding the issue of sustainability at the GSAPP; there are a lot of things we could do to push schools in the right direction. For starters, we could bring sustainability into the studios, Additionally, I would encourage all design schools to take part in a teach-in event that is taking place this February 20th, called the 2010 Imperative. Organized by Architecture 2030, this Global Emergency Teach-In is an event sponsored by the AIA, the USGBC, and Metropolis Magazine, among others, which will address global warming and climate change through an interactive web-cast broadcast live from New York, reaching more than 500,000 students, faculty, deans and practicing professionals in the architectural world. All design schools are being asked to substitute the Teach-in for classes on February 20th, 2007, from Noon to 3:30pm EST. I think this is a great opportunity for design schools to step up to the plate and begin to seriously engage these issues.

+ Global Emergency Teach-In

What are your thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from Columbia students and students at other universities, as well as teachers and professionals.

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  1. doug coleman August 25, 2009 at 1:03 am

    Discovered your blog when I began following Michael Reynolds on Twitter…saw that he is following you and so I followed the link and here I am.

    I am interested in the earthship concept and think Michael deserves much more recognition for 30 years of refining sustainable energy/eco-friendly homes. An architect friend replied to me when I asked her about earthships, “Looks alot like Paolo Saleri’s ARcosanti”, and dismissed the subject. Here’s he troubling question: are architects dismissing earthships because they offer no income opportunity? I mean, they have been built all over the world and they work! Why not more rrecognition?



  2. eco_tom January 26, 2007 at 11:19 pm

    Eisenman is incapable of designing green- it would require intelligence. As for painful, just review his architorture over the years. He’s the textbook example of how the arrogant and talentless windbag can generate “controversy” and get attention from the pseudo-intellects who think they know what Design is about. The only way they can behave is in a sneering, condescending manner because there is no way of validating opinion except to trash everything else. Eisenman will jump on the bandwagon in a few years and claim he has “always” been green.

  3. James K January 9, 2007 at 2:26 am

    Higher education is an industry, a very big business indeed. Universities compete vigorously for student customers to fill their classes and pay their tuitions and fees. Most businesses figure that if their money machine isn’t broken then it doesn’t need fixing. As long as the big schools continue to have plenty of customers for the same old crippling products then it’s not likely their product offerings will change much.
    As Sandra Earley’s newly revised edition of “Ecological Design And Building Schools” reveals, there are only a handful of universities in North America that offer architecture professional degree programs that are truly focused on ecological design. Carnegie Mellon University, U. of Oregon and U. of British Columbia being perhaps the most prominent. None of the Ivy League schools do. Most schools are content to continue to make students pay to learn the unsustainable architectural principles and practices of the past. For principles and practices tailered to a sustainable future you have to go elsewhere.
    I’m reminded of something the longshoreman philosopher Eric Hofer said…”In a time of change, it is the learners who inherit the future, the learned find themselves equipped to live only in a world that no longer exists.”

  4. mike January 2, 2007 at 5:20 pm

    look people- you are obviously in the ‘elite’ schools because you possess talent and a drive for ‘sucess’… but architecture is a creative discipline and ‘elites’ didn’t become ‘elites’ by being creative.

    rather than complain that stodgy institutions are stodgy, why not take your talent and money and walk. go to schools that seek so inspire and teach rather than deflate and indoctrinate. i know… if you don’t go to the ‘elite’ school you won’t be able to pay your loans back. sad. but -is the answer to suffer and stifle in backwards mediocrity?

    i say no. there are now many schools (some even ‘elite’) that really get it. Check out Oregon, U British Columbia, etc..or find a mentor. There is a whole generation of talent now retired, or slowing down that would love to pass on thier lifetime of knowledge and experience before its too late. That generation actually remembers some really crutial stuff that has been nearly blasted away by the jetwash of modernism.

    things are changing quick. and if you trade a useful education in sustainable design for an ‘elite’ degree in dismissiveness. that sounds like a bad deal. And as the need for green design keeps accelerating…it seems poised to become a worse deal every day. good luck.

    here are the first three protections in the student bill of rights at San Francisco Institute of Architecture: shouldn’t every school be seeking this? see the full doc. at
    1) Every student has the right to freely explore his or her creative potential without academic barriers or the distraction of capricious judgments of others.

    2) Every student has the right to experience a comprehensive, real-world education, one that gives full attention to philosophy and practice; aesthetics and construction; visionary creativity and basic engineering; history and futurism; media, CADD, and business management … all that’s required to become a fully competent architect.

    3) Every student has the right to an education that is delivered respectfully, efficiently, and at reasonable cost.

  5. karline January 1, 2007 at 10:42 pm

    I agree with Simon. It is only a matter of time. All the pioneers involved in creating and fighting for sustainable design, blogs, internet magazines, architecture, apparrel, materials, energy, cars, whatever are just the ones that are awake at the moment. There will be a wide and rude awakening. It is inevitable and the work that is being done now and has been done in the past will lay the foundation. A group of Danish/Chinese architects just won an architectural award I think in Venice for a project creating an eco city in China to help trouble shoot and solve the major potential environmental crisis that they will have as the city grows in the near future by the millions. Called Co-evolution. There will be from now on a need for green design. No way is it just a trend. I do worry that it is not going fast enough.

  6. Simon January 1, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    For those of us who study architecture at schools that actually do consider principles of sustainability to be integral to good design, it is not hard to feel isolated from the mainstream. Although I study on the relative island that is Eugene, Oregon, my impression is that, even at the “elite” architecture schools, the issue of environmental responsibility in design is gaining support, but I wonder if the impetus behind that is genuine or if it is simply a current acceptable style. The culture of sustainable design at the University of Oregon (among others) has been ingrained in the program for decades. It is certainly about time that the big-name schools start to take these principles seriously, and it is also worth noting that some of our ivory towers already do.

  7. Joe O'blivion December 31, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    What is written here is not a manifesto. A manifesto is in the form of a series of imperatives or prescriptions. Look at “Programs and Manifestoes of Modern Architecture,” edited by Conrad Ulrichs.

    However, I agree with your general sentiment. While many colleges and universities are actively engaged in issues of sustainability (Harvard, the New School), many share Eisenman’s distaste. There is a pre-occupation with form to the exclusion of all else (including human inhabitation). Don’t get me wrong, I am a form lover. What a dull art this would be without it. But there are ways to bridge both worlds. And it is imperative that students have not only appearance but performance as significant elements of their education. Simply put, unless we educate people about the problem and what can be done to resolve it, the problem will persist.

  8. Jill December 31, 2006 at 4:01 am

    Hey Mike-

    I appreciate your comments, and I don’t have any ill will towards earthships. I’ve seen pictures of many lovely ones, and despite the fact that we may all have different tastes, no one can argue that earthships are the epitome of creative, resourceful, DIY spirit. “Ill-fated” was definitely a bad choice of words here and I apologize…

    I admit that I was simply trying to figure why academia has such a negative stereotype of green building, and was picking on earthships as an example of the “crunchy” stereotype that I think puts many academics and architects off from green building. While I see nothing wrong with earthships, I think that the fact that green design has long been associated with a hippy aesthetic has been something that has prevented the green movement from saturating mainstream American culture, and this is unfortunate, as sustainability is ultimately not about style or aesthetics, but about thoughtful, functional design. Finally we are starting to see a wider range of styles and markets going “green”, and I believe this is the sign of a positive turning point in American culture. So, please forgive me for picking on Earthships — I was simply using them as an example to make my point. With any luck, this point will be moot in the future, and green building will be about functionality rather than style, and will come in enough different styles to suit any taste.


  9. Piper Kujac December 31, 2006 at 3:58 am

    Great article Jill!! I am appalled, if not offended, that the ‘upper echelon’ ivy league schools seem especially reluctant to address global issues in not just architecture, but ALL fields of study. I believe we are at a turning point however, and definitely students need to demand that professors stay up to date and keep educating themselves on the quickly evolving fields (and our quickly deteriorating planet). A few schools are adopting electives in sustainable design- that’s a start, but honestly I don’t see why there are separate classes for being responsible for the environment we live in. Each class should cover this as an underlying, if not top priority. In architecture, I understand that students should study spatial concepts and design history and theory before thinking about energy efficiency, etc.- but then again, this is exactly why so many buildings, even some by starchitects, have ‘tacked on’ mechanical rooms, like hideously apparent afterthoughts… I would hope that core classes would come full circle to where we are today and where we are headed. After all, Kevin Lynch’s ‘paths, edges, nodes, boundaries, districts, and landmarks’ will be more difficult to appreciate when they are under water.

  10. Bob Funk December 30, 2006 at 10:45 pm

    In response to Andrew’s comment – Starting with trades’ people would seem like the logical way to go. However having been in the construction trade all my life I found that the average good tradesman has not been getting enough credit for their efforts over the last 25 or more years and have never really been listened to by anyone. It has not been until recently that they have received much attention in light of the latest building boom and trade shortage. They are end users much like the consumer that is stuck with all the packaging created and designed by manufacturers who’s motives are to entice people to buy thier products and profit with glitzy displays.

    We need people like Al Gore who wrote an Inconvenient Truth or Morgan Spurlock (Supersize me) or perhaps Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) to take advantage of their successful access to media. Perhaps we could all get these icons of truth together and explain to the public what is going on out there. We have an incredible network of Television, Internet, Radio and Public School systems to use as vehicles that can reveal the issues we are faced with. Why not let the public decide ? Hollywood has been known to control, manipulate and influence the public in positive (and unfortunately in some negative ways as well) We can focus on following the positive. Sustainability is a choice, so is happiness! Why not start there ? America (and Canada) are free countries, lets take advantage of this !

    Bob Funk
    British Columbia,

  11. mike December 30, 2006 at 8:19 pm

    While I generally agree with you …and deeply resonate with your statement: “Green architecture is thoughtful architecture, and thoughtfulness is crucial to good architecture. Good architecture is born out of vision, passion and social conscience”

    Why then, do you take issue with “Earthships”? You deride this thoughtful, passionate socially conscious architecture as ‘crunchy’ and ‘ill-fated’.

    ‘Crunchy’ i will grant you. (personally, i prefer to describe them as ‘organic’ or ‘biophillic’…but i guess i can’t argue with crunchy. i mean, it is an earthship).

    I have lived in one of these delightful recycled houses for more than five years. And while not perfect, ‘ill-fated’ it most certainly is not. I thrive in my earthship with its great natural light and elegant, yet simple and affordable design. i have no bills yet i have ample electricity, heat, water, greenhouse foods, hot water and effective natural systems to recycle the ‘waste’ (while building the aquafer and topsoil). Through my earthship, i also feel a strong connection to nature and her cycles: the changing seasons, the sun’s path across the sky, the wind, the rain, the snow…it’s all connected.
    this is ill fated? bah. humbug.

    take a drive around the asteroid belts of mc mansions sprouting 30, 40 50 miles from our urban cores….or take a walk through the celebrated lifeless ‘modern’ street scape completely deviod of anything natural or human scale…

    …and then come up to my earthship where i will pick you a banana ripining on the tree in my kitchen (i have a good crop this winter (considering im growing a tropical fruit 8500 ft up in the rockies without help of any electricity chemicals or groundwater.). There are many ill-fated things in our culture. But, earthships, my dear Jill, are not one of them.

    p.s. …no, i don’t work for the earthship folks. just sticking up for my ‘crunchy ill-fated’ way of life. think of me next time you pay your utility bills. I’ll think of you next time I don’t.

  12. Meredith December 30, 2006 at 4:37 pm

    I definitely think we have to start bringing green design out of lofty intellectual spheres onto the Main St. I just opened a green design store in NH where I am trying to show people green design looks like good design- nothing weird – that simple decisions about what you would buy anyways, can make a difference. I think the author is right that so many people associate sustainablity with earth ships and other more “crunchy” design aethetics. It is not always easy to help people understand the importance of living the sustainable lifestyle, but I believe we all have to make the effort to do this, whether you are an architect, shop keeper or consumer. just looking at how common organic food has become in the last 10 years gives me hope that green architecture and interior design can, and is becoming more a part of the norm.

  13. barry lehrman December 30, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    more discussion of Jill’s post here on archinect:

  14. Amy K December 30, 2006 at 3:58 pm

    Thanks for this article, Jill. As a RISD student, I’m continuously baffled that sustainability is not a consideration in every design class. Any field that involves energy and materials consumption should be addressing sustainability in a big way.

  15. Daniella December 30, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    Hah, I just stumbled upon your blog a couple days ago and went back to discover that the dominant image was of Avery. I’m an undergraduate architecture major at CU, and I think it’s about time that professors force their students to consider sustainability in-studio (moreso at GSAPP than in CC, since a B.A. in architecture doesn’t exactly give anyone much leverage in the architecture community). Anyway, wonderful blog — I’ll be checking in regularly.


  16. Andrew Netherton December 30, 2006 at 12:14 am

    Where is the proper place to “teach” sustainability? Is it really with the architects of the world, or should we start with tradespeople, or consumers? Tough call. It’s probably a combination of teaching everyone, and then working to have each person’s sustainability measures mesh nicely with the next person’s. After all, have a green architect give you super-insulated walls if the HVAC contractor just goes ahead an installs a standard air conditioner because a smaller one properly sized for the house would be too expensive. Similarily, it does no good to put all showers on levels above the lowest level to permit drainwater heat recovery if the plumber roughs in the drains in such a way as to preclude that option.

    Promoting sustainability is what I am trying to focus my career on. Coming from product design engineering, it’s not going to be easy, but hopefully I’ll make inroads with LEED-accreditation.

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