Whether or not the powerful agree, MANMADE CLIMATE CHANGE IS THE GREATEST CHALLENGE FACING OUR PLANET. We cannot rely on political or business leaders to effectively address this challenge. But designers can individually make a difference by radically rethinking building materials.
BUILDINGS account for 40% of carbon emissions – half from construction materials and half from building operations. Much progress has been made to reduce resources consumed by building operations, i.e. energy-efficient systems, passive climate-control strategies, water-saving devices, etc.
But much less progress has been made on ECOLOGICALLY-RESPECTFUL BUILDING MATERIALS. Architects habitually specify carbon-intensive materials: concrete (which alone accounts for up to 10% of carbon emissions globally), steel, glass and aluminum. In the name of sustainability, engineers rely on rapidly obsolete technology to reduce building energy, perpetuating a toxic cycle of discarded electronics and building materials.
Globalization has universalized these planet-depleting materials and technologies, erasing differences between buildings in dramatically different climates and cultures. Architects bemoan a reduced role in the building process dominated by developers and standardized building parts. Designers complain that innovation is curtailed by increased complexity and stifled by potential liability. We have become conductors, not composers. Occupants yawn, bored by generic buildings we have multiplied into generic cities. Continuing to specify harmful materials and technologies, architects accelerate the demise of both the planet and our profession.
The future of our planet requires radical rethinking of building materials – substituting carbon-intensive, toxic, or short-lived building materials with cradle-to-cradle environmentally respectful materials. The innovation this requires can resuscitate the design profession. All construction materials and building systems should be challenged and substituted with more sustainable designs.
LOCAL MATERIALS – Start with materials on site, use site features for passive climate strategies, explore all possibilities of materials from nearby, and justify everything sourced from afar.
NON-TOXIC MATERIALS – Understand carbon footprint and toxicity of all materials, use building materials which minimize embodied energy and disruption of the earth, from extraction to demolition and disposal/reuse.
REUSED MATERIALS – Salvage existing materials where possible, design cradle-to-cradle next-use functionality into new materials. (Recycling is better than new, but still requires energy to reformulate into new products).
TIMELESS DESIGN – Research time-tested locally available materials and designs, update them for contemporary functions and aesthetics, favor reliable long-lived building systems, design for long-term use.
EXPERIMENTATION – Discover new sustainable materials, innovate with new or known materials, work with material suppliers to test prototypes, demand innovation from material suppliers.
Truly sustainable design requires resistance against the status quo of the construction and materials industries. Resistance raises questions about the trajectory of globalism, industrialization, digital technology and capitalism, as outlined below. For clarity, “POST-“ is not “ANTI-“. Instead, “POST-“ seeks to build on the strengths of the existing order while addressing its flaws. “POST-“ does not reject current systems but critically selects and improves.
I believe Sustainable Architecture of the Future is:
POST-GLOBAL: Sustainable building products privilege local sources where environmental impact is known and measurable and carbon footprint for transportation is minimized. The best ideas generated globally are tailored to site conditions and materials. Sourcing and manufacturing is distributed (i.e. local), not centralized. Locals live in proximity to material extraction and fabrication, owning the consequences of their environmental impact which facilitates holistic cost/benefit evaluation. Architecture (both material and design) fits its context. Pre-global constraints (e.g. proximity of materials) are selectively re-introduced.
POST-INDUSTRIAL: Enabled by new digital manufacturing tools, mass production in centralized locations -- where materials come from afar and products are shipped globally – is supplemented / replaced by customizable local production. In place of centrally manufactured modular building parts (IGU), portable manufacturing modules utilizing local raw materials and labor generate customized solutions (stick-built windows). Efficiency of production is balanced by efficient (on-site) maintenance and repair (i.e. replacing broken seals or glass on-site rather than at the overseas factory). Product designs are basic enough to be understood by local repairmen in the distant future. Pre-industrial ideas (custom vs. mass production, distributed vs. concentrated fabrication) are selectively re-introduced. Standard unit dimensions developed locally and persisting over time assist manufacturing economies of scale.
POST-DIGITAL: Digital design tools are redirected from the current practice of multiplying off-the-shelf building parts from material suppliers via BIM software. Instead, digital tools are used: (1) to EVALUATE (and therefore minimize) the environmental impact of building designs and materials (from extraction to disposal); and (2) to CUSTOMIZE designs to harness climate, utilize local materials, and anticipate re-use. To operate buildings, digital gadgets with short life-spans are avoided in favor of resilient, long-lasting manual controls (e.g. physical key instead of electronic). Radically basic manual controls are selectively re-introduced.
POST-CAPITALIST: Rate-of-return formulas overweighting short-term events and ignoring long-term consequences are thrown out. Instead, building materials are made to last, breaking the business cycle of planned obsolescence. Product designs are more robust than required for initial sale (i.e. durable enough to avoid tarnishing the manufacturer’s brand) – they are made to last for their anticipated life-span and pre-designed for disposal/re-use. Return on investment is calculated not just for the manufacturer, builder, and initial owner but incorporate larger returns to society over the life of the building – environmental and social costs and benefits are considered along with financial returns.
POST- Architecture can only be practiced in a setting which encourages for experimentation – where failure is allowed. What better setting than the designer’s own home. These are the principals that guide our building project in Brazil.
Acrylic Mirror, NY Times Newsprint
Exhibited at Full Circle Show, Rockland Center for the Arts
The brief for this exhibit called for a circular piece of art inspired by a section cut of a tree felled on the grounds of the art center.
I realized a tree’s cross section cut serves as its obituary – disclosing its age and major life events.
I habitually read obituaries and decided to make a receptacle to house a week’s work of obituaries from my hometown paper, the New York Times. Holes of various sizes were laser-cut into a double layer of acrylic mirror, and the printed obituaries were rolled up and inserted into these holes. There are more holes than obituaries, since many of us do not receive this honor. The act of cutting, rolling and inserting these memorials felt intimate, akin to a religious gesture, like placing a prayer note in a crevice of a wall or at a temple. Reading obituaries provokes self-reflection, hence the use of mirror as the material for this piece.
Our vacuum cleaner broke.
The repairman said it would be cheaper to replace it than to repair it. We took his advice and bought another one -- the path of least resistance.
But it bothered me that discarding the old blue vacuum, useful for 20 years, would condemn it to spend eternity in a landfill.
Its useful life was short. Plastic is forever.
Charlotte Mouquin asked me to make a table centerpiece for a gala dinner for the Pelham Arts Center. The theme was "bloom." So I took apart the vacuum, exploring opportunities to give it a second life by finding another use for its eternal materials. The old blue vacuum blossomed into something new ...
We owe it to our planet to explore new uses for old materials.
Last year, we saved plastic bags for the whole year to use in my annual holiday "trash-to-decorations" exercise. Even though we try to avoid disposable plastics -- like taking reusable bags to the grocery store -- it is astonishing how many plastic bags one household uses in a year. The wreath for the front door is made from grocery bags, the tree was decorated with dry cleaning bags (braided and scrunched), table decorations utilized clear plastic wrap, and the back door wreath was made from department store bags and thermal bubble wrap (from our "cheese of the month club" deliveries). I hope our society can wean ourselves from disposable plastic. In the meantime, I'll keep trying to find a second life for them.
A major strategy for sustainable construction materials is giving a second life to existing materials salvaged from other structures. This limits the environmental impact of construction to the small amount of energy it takes to transport materials to the site and alter them. This avoids filling up landfills with construction debris.
Reusing materials for the Greek Revival project began with a desire for authenticity -- materials with the patina of age are a better match for a historic structure than newly manufactured ones. It was impossible to find stone that matched the locally-quarried red sandstone of the original foundation, but we luckily found some from a demolished structure nearby. When we added insulation to the attic in the historic section of the house, old beadboard from the later addition we demolished was the perfect material to enclose it. Spruce trees we needed to cut on the property were planked and reused as flooring in the basement, The list goes on.
Sustainably-sourced materials are not an aesthetic compromise -- they can enhance the aesthetics of a building.
When I was leaving my career in finance and assembling a portfolio to apply to architecture school, friends suggested I include a self-portrait as art students often do. It didn't make it into the portfolio, but I found time to design this quilt using neckties I would no longer have to wear.
My friend Lauren Antinello generously sewed the quilt using 88 of my old ties. We put it in a frame we found in the attic, and it now proudly hangs in our parlor.
It became yet another exercise in finding new lives for found materials.
Decorating our home for the holidays has become an annual creative challenge. In 2016, I saved waste paper for the whole year ... even though we have unsubscribed to every catalog and mailing list to reduce waste, its impossible to stop the flow of non-profit and alumni publications ... the pile was impressive. I decided to make two collage wreaths using ripped paper. The rest was shredded and put in glass balls for the tree or used to make table centerpieces. Our paper got a second new life on its way to the landfill.
The holiday creative challenge started with attempts to transform found objects into ornaments instead of buying (and then discarding) store-bought decorations. Through the years, I've used chandelier crystals found in a box in the attic left by the prior owner, nails /strings of nail gun blanks, steel scouring pads, insect screens, HVAC ducting (last images below), and old mini-flower pots salvaged from a neighbors barn.
It gets more fun every year, and we've avoided lots of waste. Good for the soul and the planet!