Sustainable Building is our Duty

‘A better environment begins with the architect – that’s if we are to believe the stream of new architecture books on the subject of sustainable building.’ Allard Jolles reviews Sustainable architecture and urbanism, Solar energy in architecture and urban planning and Groundscrapers and subscrapers.

A better environment begins with the architect – that’s if we are to believe the stream of new architecture books on the subject of sustainable building. But there is an important first step of course: sustainable urban development. And that’s not just about pedestrianised neighbourhoods, rain-friendly surfaces and floating gardens. More important is that a plan can accommodate the unforeseen fifty years down the road. High-density development is important too, and the environmental advantages are beyond dispute. Not only does it preserve green space, but it also saves many metres of cables, sewage pipes and asphalt.

The Past

When did all the trouble start? With the industrial revolution of course. It is well known that fossil fuels, formed by the earth over millions of years, are being emitted into the atmosphere for the past few centuries (1750 is taken as the turning point). The consequences are many: the greenhouse effect, rising sea level and climate change are often explained by it. Cities have changed as a result too. The industrial revolution gave us factory complexes surrounded by housing estates and as a reaction, around 1900, the garden-city movement. Urban industrialisation was greeted with tremendous optimism. Even in the 1960s, all signs of what we now call environmental pollution – smoke-belching chimneys, filthy steam and diesel trains and other structures spewing dark clouds – were seen as symbols of a healthy, happy future.

Graph from 1980 illustrating the relationship between the density of world cities and fuel consumption


The future looks a lot less healthy now. The time when fossil fuels can no longer be exploited commercially is rapidly approaching. The disciplines of urban design and architecture therefore have to take that into account now. An urban plan designed to last one hundred years can no longer be dependent on the use of fossil fuels. And the lifespan of new buildings is supposed to be fifty years at least. So make sure that new buildings can function without service installations as much as possible (ING House is a recent good example). It’s even better if buildings are designed to actually generate energy (negative emission), as architect Ken Yeang shows. The book by Richards on Hamzah & Yeang (‘eco-tech’, as the style is called) features some highly energy-efficient ‘groundscrapers’, with grass roofs and suchlike of course. But that’s only ‘make-up’ compared to what it’s really about. A toilet that flushes with rainwater is more symbolic than genuinely useful. Solar panels and natural air-conditioning systems are much more effective. Expensive? That is relative. Photovoltaic solar panels are significantly cheaper than the stone cladding so often used on high-rise buildings.

Glazed roof of swimming pool in Bad Elster (Germany) designed by Behnisch & Partner


And what are other architects doing? It is striking that the books by Herzog and Gauzin-Müller feature many examples (even petrol stations can be built in an energy-efficiently way!), but none of them are Dutch. The only Dutch schemes that get a mention are the ‘eco housing’ on the former Municipal Water Board site in Amsterdam and the ‘kalender warehouses’ by Loof and Van Stigt. According to the ever-inspiring Australian professor of urban design Peter Droege, Dutch architecture is in a phase he terms Late Fossilism. Droege has reclassified the architecture styles of past and present with the suffix Fossilism. So we get Prefossilism, Postfossilism and Protofossilism. Amusing, though there’s some truth to it. Droege classifies the current generation of ‘Superdutch Architects’ under Neo-Fossilism. This is a style of architecture that categorically refuses to acknowledge the issue of energy consumption, preferring instead an ‘endearing stage-set fakery designed to deliver delusions by blurring a brutally obvious reality’. Is Droege thinking here about those poor trees in the Hanover Expo Pavilion by MVRDV? Finally, what is striking is the feel of these books on sustainable building. Aside from the illegibly hip book by Hamzah & Yeang, they feel like old-fashioned schoolbooks. And that’s understandable, since ‘slick’ and ‘glossy’ are not exactly appropriate adjectives for ‘information’ or ‘education’. But there’s nothing wrong with that, because the books discussed here are certainly educational. A better environment begins by reading essential literature aimed mainly at those who think they can shirk their responsibility in the area of energy-efficient design.