Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Long Life, Low Energy, Loose Fit

This architectural mantra of the late '70's was an early definition of sustainability. Integrate flexibility and adaptability to future unknown uses; provide long span, high-load capacity structures, allow freedom of internal configuration within a passive envelope approach. This passive solar approach was one of form and orientation, much like the historical homes and structures that have evolved in different countries and cultures as a response to climate. Sustainability as defined by the Bruntland Commission in 1987: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." A site called Original Green goes into other attributes of "true sustainability", which emphasizes the sustainability of place and the notion of flexibility as the grounds for being sustainable.

This is fundamentally different than the "green" approach as codified by building codes and standards; the presupposition being that it relies on machines to reduce energy consumption. The LEED standards, in particular, are a system of counting up "green" points for certain products and systems that take into account the energy to produce and transport these products. There are points for site location and rehabilitation of existing structures, but again, a formula that may or may not generate good results.

This approach is being studied extensively by the building industry.There's a demonstration project by NASA that will take the extreme measure of an operating facility to see what the "green building" approach can be capable of. The National Audubon Society has built a prototype nature center structure in Los Angeles, and plans to build a thousand urban facilities around the country by 2020.

While the building industry is examining technological methods for energy conservation and reuse which has become the de facto code and LEED approach to the problem of consumption and energy use, there remains a more fundamental path towards sustainable habitation of the land. That has to do with the actual regenerative natural systems that we find in undisturbed ecosystems, which we're beginning to investigate more deeply. This approach is known as biomimicry in many fields, but in architecture it means adapting the strategies and structures of nature and using organic processes to develop and support habitable structures. The Biomimicry Institute in Missoula, Montana is promoting this approach, and has a network of resources and case studies.

In the meantime, as the photo above shows (click to read about collecting rainwater through a "skin"), there are all kinds of creative design experiments going on in form generation that are exploring these more nuanced approaches to sustainability that get to building form as a functioning biological system that integrates with the local site characteristics and consumes very little energy and water. While they're not scientific per se, they open many new possibilities that leave the code-generated "green" structures way behind their exploration of process.

A firm that is taking this process seriously by integrating management change of the design process is DLR Group. Exhibiting leadership in the adoption of the AIA's 2030 Plan addressing global challenges in the built environment, they are adapting their firm's core values to address all aspects of sustainable practice. Part of this approach involves pushing the envelope on digital communications and design technologies in order to manage the massive amounts of data needed to solve complex and knowledge-based design solutions.

The proliferation and power of technology tools, used in concert with building information modeling and other modeling platforms, are crucial to pushing the boundaries of sustainable design. Today, 3-D models created in BIM tools can collect information and accurately analyze the built environment to validate design ideas. Powerful analysis engines such as IES-VE, GBS, and Ecotect energy modeling software can quickly produce meaningful results including energy analysis, daylighting and lighting studies, utility costs, code analysis, and life cycle cost studies.