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.