The Ethics of Sustainability

Two years ago, Architecture magazine did a survey in the summer of ’09 that was published in their October 2009 issue. To a surprise to many on both sides of the aisle, the survey showed that fewer than half (46.4 percent to be exact) of the architects surveyed felt that sustainability was vital to preserving resources and prevent further global warming, and that this was more a discussion or debate, as both sides have questions about the validity of the data being presented as gospel from the other side of the argument. The editorial and the related articles did go on to note that the architects most successful completing green projects consistently was that they made the case of cost savings to the owner.

Fast forward two years: During the New Orleans Convention, We attended a class called “the Ethics of Sustainability”, and it appears that the debate ontinues. This seminar was presented by 3 professionals that were advocating making sustainability part of the canon of the AIA. By doing this, we – as a profession – would have the opportunity to reprimand any member who was responsible for a building that was deemed less than sustainable. I have to tell you that it is the first seminar I’d been to where I thought the participants might consider piling the chairs in the middle of the room to light on fire. To say that there was concern would be an understatement. The chilling response from the presenter was, “We are just the messengers; there are several people (apparently not in this room) who feel this proposal is too soft.”

The responses and retorts in the room expressed feelings of frustration sourced in the economy and the rapidly changing rules of which architects are judged and the costs of projects are built on. At the front line, architects are defending designs and costs of designs, which are based on rules that have the USGBC in court defending. The current case is discussing allegations of defrauding those involved in building projects via the LEED system and its claims of cost and efficiency.

From a very practical and pragmatic client viewpoint, I talked with David Browning (the vice president and Chief Sustainability Officer at El Centro College in Dallas, Texas) after this seminar. As a typical consumer of Architectural design, he had some interesting insights. His community college has just completed $500 million dollars of campus buildings throughout the Dallas Metroplex. The most expensive building to maintain (per square foot) is their one platinum LEED building. He also noted that one of their campuses is locked in by freeways, with no hope of getting bikes to the campus (short of transporting it by car), and yet they have bike racks and showers for bicyclists. Not because it was the right thing to do, but because it got the project points. On the other hand, he invited me to consider the “what if” scenario his team is considering for their urban windmill farm that they are proving out in Dallas (http://www.vimeo.com/dcccd ).

Mr. Browning noted to me as we finished our conversation that he was preparing for talk in September at the national conference for community college business officers titled “Is sustainability sustainable?” In that presentation he will be noting both good and bad impacts from the LEED rating system. His point will be that it appears to him and several of his colleagues that “Sustainability has many good points; it’s usually, in the end, the right thing to do. But when it’s tied to proven failed political agendas like socialism, communism and the redistribution of wealth, it will only cause Sustainability to fail aswell.” Jumping back to the 2009 editorial, they quote Thomas Freidman (author of The World is Flat).

Ironically, Mr. Freidman was the key note speaker in New Orleans (now the author of Hot, Flat and Crowded). In the article he notes that American companies and architects are missing the biggest business opportunity out there. His driving point was that even if there was debate over the climate issue (the “Hot” from his book title), there is no doubt that the economy is more “Flat”, in that American workers are more directly competing with world workers for jobs. Further, those workers are pushing for “American lifestyles”, which is resulting in “Manhattans” popping up from Dubai to China which – in his estimation – will require 6 earths worth of resources to build (the “Crowded” from his book title). Supporting Mr. Freidman’s comments, Architecture Magazine also carried an article by Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson’s wrote an article “Shaky Foundation”, which notes that we – as a nation – are dangerously low in the R&D tank. In New Orleans, Mr. Freidman noted that Americans must be willing to invest in things like infrastructure, education, immigration and the environment. By taking ownership of our actions and sacrificing in order to achieve our higher goals, we can ensure our country will be a truly exceptional place to live for generations to come.

To get on the road to an optimistic future, we have to consider how we got to the marsh we seem to be standing in. Today and in our current events memory, we see increasing irresponsibility from Enron to Political Pork, and we seem content in our frustration as we subscribe to levels of “group-speak” that ensure that we can’t talk to one another because the pundit you listen to doesn’t agree with mine. We need get away from reacting out of fear and control or a “not my table” attitude and approach the world with a sense of wonder and a search for its inherent design.

Freidman’s next book title is That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We Find Our Way Back (due out this September). The title is a sad testimony that we don’t seem to be considering his warnings from his previous two books. If we don’t take in all 3 components (the environment, the open economy and the people) into consideration, arguing about the “The Ethics of Sustainability” will be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

America used to be “the shining light of freedom”, and the source of innovation. Now it seems we only get off the coach if there is a consumption opportunity for us. In the mean time the rest of the world seems to be dusting off our spirit of innovation and work ethic and running circles around our la-Z-boy. We need to get back on the road. If we string together the thoughts above from New Orleans, Freidman and Dickenson’s comments and our current economic and environmental climate, we architects (read that problem solvers, solution finders, around-the-corner lookers) can roll up our sleeves, get together with manufacturers and work on new R&D, get together with Cities & States and help them see the detriments that we see coming up. We can talk to clients and schools and businesses and note that we must as a country, as a culture, and a world consider not just the problems, but the opportunities.

Mr. Browning likes the idea of Sustainability (he is their Chief Sustainability Officer), but not the paid for points system. Mr. Friedman thinks we are missing the opportunity of a life time in terms of manufacturing, and Ms. Evitts Dickinson says we aren’t going to be ready with green products when the Green legislation got passed. How do we take all three concerns and make something wonderful? How do we “wow” the world? In our schooling, we all learned similar tenets: Design for the right

solution, protect people, protect plants and animals and protect the overall environment. In doing that, we should be our own best Devil’s advocates. Let’s not accept our first conclusion and let’s look for opportunities to help the environment without having to penalize our clients. If you will, there would be no need for LEED if we were already coming up with great solutions on our own. We should be driving the bus, not being drug by it.

If we accept we are problem solvers at heart, then here is a doosie: filter what has been suggested as green but is really snake oil, develop solutions that don’t necessary add to the cost of the building, or can be mass produced and brought to the world market as soon as possible, and – for goodness sake – don’t put a shower in just because it wins points!