The impact of human consumption on the global environment gave rise to some alarming headlines in 2011: In the United States, a continental heat wave registered above 105 degrees, and large swaths of Texas spent much of the summer on fire. In the Amazon, the transformation of rainforest into pasture was up almost 1,000% over the 2010 rate, marking an abrupt halt to several years of decline. Some experts are suggesting that humans currently consume resources at a rate 1.5 times above the planet’s capacity to sustainably replace them. Meanwhile, the global population is poised to reach 7 billion soon.
To help bend the consumption curve to a sustainable level, architects and designers must lead a global effort to redefine architecture’s value proposition as it relates to human health and comfort. Where the 20th century offered machine-powered, cheap, and fast, the 21st must reintroduce the values of the natural, relatively more expensive—at least in terms of capital costs—and slow. Taking a cue from the Slow Food movement, which successfully created a widely recognized global consumer culture around the value of unprocessed and local foods, architects and designers must promote the superior value of "slow" designs that turn the machines off and instead offer the comfort that comes from being in touch with the environment in ways that enhance the quality of individual experience and wellness.
For the most part, architects and designers have been enthusiastic proponents of measures to reduce impacts of development on the environment, but we have been less forthcoming about the possibility that consumer expectations about building performance may also need to change. To illustrate this, let’s look at my own lifestyle choices: I live in a place where I can ride a bike or take a subway to work every day; in return for a modest increase in my monthly utility bill, I participate in a program to use wind energy to power my home; and in cold weather, I put on a sweater before I turn up the heat. But when the weather gets hot, I am still tempted—never mind the consequences—to turn on the air conditioner, and often do. In other words, I enthusiastically embrace changes in my habits that do not challenge my current expectations about my personal thermal comfort. Where I perceive my comfort may be compromised, I accept business as usual.
Thermal comfort is exemplary of the larger problem, because many people in advanced industrial societies have become reliant on machines to manage when, where, and how they feel comfortable. The availability of plentiful energy and mechanical solutions means that for consumers who can afford it, the answer to the problem of thermal comfort can always be the same: 72˚ F and 55% relative humidity, whatever the weather outside.
The impact of this approach to thermal comfort on the environment is significant. According to The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA Annual Energy Review, 2008), the average American household produces approximately 9 tons of carbon dioxide emissions from heating, cooling, lighting and air conditioning; our offices, factories and transportation systems produce still more (the total emission per American household in 2004 was 59 tons). When we consider that annual household carbon emissions for the rest of world are approximately 9 tons for all uses combined, we start to see that our current way of life relies on a carbon binge . While Americans are extreme in their taste for mechanical solutions to comfort, the broader truth is that the rest of the developed world is not very far behind.
A case could be made that the popularity of the Slow Food movement is a reflection of its ability to deliver the most valuable product in the world: better health and wellness, in this case through better nutrition. The consumer dynamics that have increasingly made Slow Food commonplace, even in a global recession, may do the same for building design. As new buildings increasingly deliver on the promise of connectivity to local climate and ecology, they will be perceived as creators of health and wellness, even when the heat or air conditioning is off. This will change occupant expectations, which in turn will change consumer and client expectations. In the best case, slow architecture can become a charismatic global consumer phenomenon. Whether or not slow design becomes a recognized phenomenon, designers and design firms that align with the broad goals of a movement of this kind may find the place where economic growth and sustainability can coexist.
Design professionals have powerful tools to help rededicate architecture to connecting people with their environments in ways that change the baseline of comfort expectations. The following six values for future construction can help start the conversation about how buildings can respond to a resource-constrained consumer environment.
As every sunbather understands, to benefit from the sun’s life-giving heat, one merely has to follow it. Applied to architecture, this means orienting buildings to optimize solar exposure. In addition to providing heat, sunlight entering a room helps us maintain a connection to the outside world through the perception of the time of day, the indirect perception of the sky, and the color of the light. These connections contribute powerfully to a broader sense of place and well-being.
The flip side of solar energy is that the heat energy it provides in winter is in many cases a nuisance in summer. Fortunately, there is a very simple, low-tech solution that is experiencing a resurgence: the solar shade. Only a couple of generations ago, the act of adjusting the shading was a daily link to the movement of sun across the sky. As important, it empowered people to create their own micro-climates. Furthermore, pergolas and awnings allow people to occupy exterior space in comfort; this creates a virtuous cycle in which the pleasures of sitting outside lead to increased acclimatization and desire to have a greater contact with the natural climate in a broader range of situations.
Like the feel of the sun on our skin, the smell and feel of fresh air is one of the fundamental pleasures of being alive. Architects and designers broadly agree that natural ventilation and operable windows are a good thing, but even today—years after the advent of green building rating systems such as LEED—too many of our buildings do not provide natural ventilation. By creating access to unconditioned outside air, architects and designers can foster enhanced wellness, which, in turn, can shift consumer expectations about first-costs for new construction.
Readjusting to the natural rhythms of sunlight, temperature, and humidity requires that we change our personal attitudes about clothing and hygiene. If this sounds radical, try visiting any developed country where public buildings are heated slightly less in winter and cooled slightly less in summer. The difference to someone who is not accustomed will be noticeable—but only at first. We add or remove a layer of clothing as appropriate, button or unbutton our collars, and our bodies do the rest. Soon, we start to discover the more subtle pleasures of living in better harmony with the seasons: Temperature changes from inside to out and back in again are less extreme, reducing the time it takes for our bodies to adjust. Our lungs feel healthier when we breathe air that is similar inside and outside.
Water is at once one of the most pressing conservation challenges in the world today and one of the most difficult to make perceptible to building users. Our experience of water within architecture is often limited to the subset of spaces that have plumbing fixtures; where water is not functionally needed, it is generally removed. Yet the water cycle is one of the most fundamentally important ecological cycles on the planet; where there is no water, there is very little life. A responsible slow architecture movement will prioritize creating an enhanced awareness of local hydrological cycles through the use of point-of-contact water-use reduction systems like low flow-fixtures, landscapes to manage stormwater ("parks not pipes" systems), rain collection and reuse systems, and, where possible, onsite wastewater treatment. Most significantly, our architecture should strive to make these systems transparent to building occupants.
Finally, what place is not enhanced by the presence of living plants and animals? Rachel Carson sparked a movement when she made her contemporaries aware of the potential of a world without birds: the awfulness was self-evident, and people acted. Can we all agree that our cities and towns be better still with even more birds, trees, and other living things? The benefits to living things of maintaining and enhancing regional biomass will help enrich our own well-being and sense of place.
In addition to new construction, many of these rules can be easily applied in existing buildings, and some can be used to change individual habits in order to make all of our built spaces more sustainable. They won’t eliminate our need for machines, but if designers help encourage their widespread adoption, we can help set the stage for a broader consumer shift that can help balance the amount we consume and the amount the planet has to give.
Michael Bardin, AIA, LEED AP is a senior project designer in the New York office of Perkins+WIll. Bardin’s expertise is campus planning and school design, with a focus on the links among design, community wellness, and sustainability.