November 28, 2005

How does better environmental performance make buildings better for people?

"I don't care how much energy you saved [through efficient design, etc.]; if people don't like to be there, you've wasted every bit of it." Howard Brandston, lighting designer, personal communication, 2005.

Higher environmental performance doesn't necessarily make buildings better places for people. But it does make the whole landscape a better place for people. Let's try to untangle the relationship between technological means and ultimate architectural ends.

Architecture is about making beautiful places that make people feel good. Architects use construction technology to achieve this goal. For those obsessed with energy efficient technology, "ecological correctness" can become an end in itself, causing the design team to lose sight of the ultimate goal. Technology serves no other purpose but to be in service of places that people enjoy.

Fundamentally architects must be humanists, but they can only achieve beautiful and comfortable places by knowing and using technology. The architect must also be a technologist.

Technological improvements in buildings accrue benefits perhaps more in the landscape and socioeconomic system than in the experience of the building itself. Through this mechanism, architects can make the total environment better for people, rather than looking narrowly at a building.

The ecological design initiative recognizes that people live in the landscape, not just in buildings, and that outdated building practices of the last century are degrading the landscape. Buildings and cities must also be transformed to have a positive energy future away from fossil fuels. Imagine a Persian carpet as the fabric of human infrastructure spread across the landscape; beautiful patterns. A single architectural project is attached to a thread in one location. That thread and its effects run in several directions throughout the landscape. Replacing the thread has an impact on the whole fabric, not just on the localized pattern alone.

A single building project has a great potential for positive impacts throughout the landscape and fabric of human infrastructure. Ecological design takes advantage of this opportunity to improve our infrastructure to make it more comfortable and beautiful for people.

Higher ecological performance in buildings won't necessarily make buildings better for people, but it will make the whole fabric of human infrastructure better for people. Buildings are the means. The technology and construction practices used to make buildings are the ultimate means.

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