Education for Sustainability

This week AJ Footprint featured a series of views, including mine, on how architectural education should address sustainability. Unfortunately this feature does not appear on the AJ website so I cannot link to it. So here instead is the original text from before the editor’s scalpel was applied to fit it into a reduced space:

Clients often consider sustainability to be an optional feature. It isn’t. Government seems to think that BIM will drive sustainability. It won’t. I believe that teaching sustainability as separate subject matter in universities is nonsense and reinforces these “technological fix” fallacies.

For a sustainable future, I believe that we simply need to teach thinking. INTEGRATED, SUSTAINABLE, DESIGN, THINKING. This is the core of successful buildings: remember Vitruvius. Unfortunately, the complexity of modern buildings exceeds the expertise of any single profession to think through.

We must recognise that all components and systems of construction have a wide range of attributes, which must be managed simultaneously. For simple components cost and embodied carbon are clearly important, but so are attributes such as strength, insulation value, durability and manufacturing toxicity.

No single professional can manage all the attributes of even a simple component, such as a façade panel. Some will be expert in weathering, some in energy and some in deflection. Formulating designs based on a limited range of attributes, such as cost and appearance, is obsolete. We must instead collaborate across professions in order to optimise designs over the gamut of attributes.

In complex systems, including buildings, many other factors come into play, such as spatial organisation and human performance. Whilst concentrating on the environmental impacts of construction, to be sustainable we must focus equally on cost, operational efficiency and social benefits. We need a method to manage all these diverse issues in synchronicity.

If I could redesign education for sustainable construction I would teach all professions an awareness of the gamut of attributes that need to be managed and proficiency in DESIGN. Properly executed, design is the most powerful tool that we have for solving complex, multi-dimensional problems.

I would, however, teach these skills in an interdisciplinary context. I’d challenge professionals to apply their creativity to jointly solving real-life problems. Then they will evolve their own sustainable solutions rather than simply aping received wisdom. They’d also develop a healthy respect for the contribution of their peers.


2 thoughts on “Education for Sustainability

  1. I echo your sentiments, clients do very much see sustainability as an ‘optional extra’ in the design process, and whilst we do offer this option, and present case studies to our clients for both retro fit and new builds we have completed, the take up is very small in the residential market, we do however, where we can, tailor our design/specifications to use sustainable materials and products as standard but these are often bypassed on site for more standard outcomes. Positively though, we have home extension projects where we have delivered energy cost savings in the region of 60%, and thats before feed in tarrifs and the new RHI payments are factored in – yes the running costs of the building actually in some cases have become, or are likely to become, running ‘payments’ as the dwellings generate more money than they cost to run and still it is a difficult sell. (A recent retro fit project design attained band B SAP rating from its original E banding, another as a band A for CO2 – exceeding 100 and originally a band F). I think there is large scale scepticism or difficulty in accepting the figures provided for cost efficiency, and in having to find the capital outlay originally when those payback figures are alien to most in the public and the construction industry. The government seem to have added more uncertainty with continual delays to the RHI payment which further feeds the lack of uptake.

    • Hi Paul, Thanks for your thoughts.
      Your experiences typify the bolt on mentality that I oppose. If we offer our clients ‘sustainable features’ then they are just as likely to reject them as accept them unless we are excellent salespeople. Sustainable development is not sustainable development unless it is inseparably embedded in everything we do and design. Sustainability should be invisible to the client. The buildings we design should just work. If it takes some bolt on to make them work then we got it wrong in the first place. We need to start by changing ourselves.

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