Sustainability: the concept of meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Sustainable design: design that seeks to avoid depletion of energy, water, and raw material resources; prevent environmental degradation caused by facility and infrastructure development over their life cycle; and create environments that are livable, comfortable, and safe and that promote productivity.
The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, Joseph Demkin, AIA, 14th edition.
The need for sustainability is not new: its roots begin with the earliest gatherings of humans. Every gathering and civilization has experienced a bell curve of consumption where on the downward side of the curve, drastic measures to reduce consumption are needed, while searching for resources to begins a new cycle upward. In the beginning of civilization this was done through conquest or relocation, when the global environment was, for generations, seemingly endless in resources, using up one area and then moving to a new one restarted a new upward cycle of consumption.
Today this same bell curve can be overlaid onto our current social system, showing that we are again on the downward side of consumption of environmental resources needed to maintain the status quo. As we are confronted with diminishing environmental resources, that cannot be replenished by moving on or by conquest of new territory, a change in our experience of life is in one way or another, going to occur.
A new Culture of sustainability is reshaping our daily lives
One hundred years ago the internal combustion engine alleviated the crisis of over consumption of our food supply by service animals, in effect, replacing the energy source of the ox that pulled the cart, and so by reallocating the food supply to people instead of service animals. Today and into the future, we find ourselves in a similar but different situation with our existing energy and natural resources. Today, life sustaining solutions of a global magnitude will be found in support of human consumption, so that the next generation can exist and meet their own needs, with resources that nourish rather than subjugate their lives to a depleted resource environment.
We have come a long way from the time when social sustainability was experienced in the paradigm shift from small hunting and gathering groups to sustainable cultural groups farming the land, and forming diverse communities.
The meanings of the words; Sustainability, Environment, Consumption, Culture, Diversity, Community, have existed consistently since the very beginning our social evolution.
They exist as the context we form our existence in thinking, feeling and willing out of, as nourishments, needed to survive.
Even though the word, sustainability, has today become almost a cliché, its meaning must be respected in terms of its realistic impact on human life and future survival outside the face value critique of the simplified view; that, ‘sustainability is nothing more than capitalism seeking political correctness’ - as, James Steele, points out in his book, Sustainable Architecture – Principles, Paradigms and Case Studies. Today the heart of the argument requires a focus on human coexistence with the elementals of our environment, as a permeant co-inhabitant, not a transient using nature as a disposable resource.
‘Resident versus Inhabitant’
In the book, 'Ecological Literacy', David Orr, speaks of ‘resident versus inhabitant’. A resident is a temporary occupant, looking to gratify immediate needs of survival, and not interested in permanent roots. The inhabitant, in contrast, ‘dwells,’ in an intimate, organic, and mutually nurturing relationship with a place. Good inhabitance is an art requiring detailed knowledge of a place, a capacity for sustainable consumption and a sense of care and desire to put down roots.
In this context the art of good inhabitance is one of the first steps in realizing sustainability. When individuals experience themselves connected to and responsible for a place, an outlook to future stability becomes critical to their continued existence.
We know that if nature were removed from Earth, humans would have to leave also. Humans cannot survive without nature. Though if humans were to disappear, nature would continue to exist in the potential of our returning.
As William McDonough and Michael Braungart, in the book Cradle-to-Cradle, point out: “Nature doesn’t have a existence problem, People do…”
Consumption of nature and companionship with nature is of the same root nature.
Many scientists contend that the Earth will rebalance itself as needed, over time, to adjust to the over consumption of humans, with or without humans as part of that rebalancing.
Only if a new relationship can be found in the way life is lived in companionship with nature now, can we continue to coexist and inhabit the Earth as we know it.
From individuals, communities, states, and countries globally—a worldwide movement towards an openness to new forms of companionship with nature is emerging as an initial restarting of the bell curve of our future sustainability on Earth.
Though it must be noted that sustainability of human existence does not mean keeping things just like it is or was. It means adapting as needed, in whatever new forms are needed to a continue a quality human existence into the future.
Nature will exist into the future as a continuation of what has been set in motion through earth evolution, Humans will not, if not sustained by and adaptive to nature.
Cultural diversity gathering into social unity
The saying; ‘Mankind cannot live by bread alone, just as mankind cannot live by the word of God alone’ identifies the physical paradox of Earth life, which requires us to use our physical resources to create food to survive. In this physical form of Earth life, we will always be physically hungry. It is the reason we are here.
The architect Louis Kahn once said: “It is my feeling that living things and non-living things are dichotomous … But I feel that if all humans were to disappear, the sun would still shine and the rain still fall. We need Nature; But Nature does not need us.” (Or does it?)
These issues go to the heart of us. In this unique environment of the Pacific Northwest, (as it can also be said of any place globally), inhabitants, put down roots and take on the responsibilities of sustaining what is loved and needed in nourishing a sense of place coexisting with the elementals of nature, to ensure their own and future generations existence.
Living through years of high disposable consumption, gas shortages, terrorist threats and attacks, market crashes, and life before and after the internet, life can be experienced in opportunities to observe and make coarse corrections in seeing what lives behind these realities.
As an architectural firm carrying these thoughts into our work, we find ourselves in a positive position of contributing new designs clothed in new life style opportunities for social change, in anticipating optimistically, that the world as we know it will change … for the better, if the good in life seen and we build on and moving on with it. There is truth in the saying ‘There is good in everything’, it is a person’s responsibility to, sometimes for a long time, persist in finding it.
In all that has happened through history, we can see that change is ongoing and can be scientifically represented by bell curves, graphs and studied foresight.
Today the most enlightening factor of our existence is that we can truly see ourselves interconnect globally not just regionally or nationally.
Are we Transient Residents passing through Earth life, or Inhabitants responsible for Earth life?
We debate global warming; on one side we have the attitude to wait and see what happens and then if needed do our best to move on to higher ground.
On the other side we see ourselves inhabitants, protecting our collective companionship with nature in a sense of place worth saving, in a coexisting interdependence. Thought it may be true that coexisting with nature and elementals, will sustain and nourish us all, it will probably not be as we know it to be today.
So what can an individual do? How can an individual find their own home, while keeping the concept of inhabitant rather than temporary transient in light of a changing environmental and social equilibrium?
As an architectural firm we had the great opportunity to explore and live into this question of environmental and social responsibility, in creating an inner-city living environment that addressed a new social housing concept of shared social amenities. This idea was brought to the firm in the foresight of the Developer, Scott Engler of Heartwood Builders Inc. of Seattle.
To this end, a design process was begun by gathering diverse professionals of like mind, into a qualitative planning and collective design experience of a new ‘urban place’ comprised of 11 houses on an iner-urban, four-lot parcel. Each dwelling unit is approximately 750 square feet. The site, itself a room, was designed as an extension of each house where each dwelling was conceived as a room within the entire house site. Shared areas include an indoor and outdoor fireplace gathering areas, community center room, space for Flex-Cars, recycling station, underground parking and storage facilities.
The planned development departs from the limitations of building the biggest single-family house possible on the smallest lot attainable. Where typical gridded streets set houses in rows with garages taking up most of their fronts, flanked by unknown neighbors living around you, this development envisions a shared existence among autonomous individuals.
Because of an economy of scale, higher quality materials could be secured to support a longer sustainable site and building life cycle cost. With more money allocated to the shared amenities, qualities of these shared spaces, are higher than in any single dwelling could address.
Physically, this project includes the following Higher Quality Systems, and Building Elements, in what we call an “Eco-Home building specification”
- Built Green 5-star rating from the Master Builders Association of Washington
- LEED Gold rating from the City of Seattle
- Eco (Green) roofs with plantings incorporating garden roof decks
- Rain water recovery
- Low flow plumbing devices and dual flush toilets.
- Solar panel installation options
- Low to no maintenance exteriors of the residences
- Pervious surfaces designed for detention of storm water runoff
- Radiant heated concrete floors
- Heat Recovery Ventilators
- Concrete ICF (insulated concrete forms) for wall, floor and roof construction.
- 750 sq. ft. residential floor plans
- Recycled and reclaimed materials
- Nontoxic, low VOC paints and adhesives
- Sustainable wood products, i.e. Bamboo cabinets, wall panels and floors
- Drought tolerant, low maintenance landscaping that needs no irrigation
Making social and environmental connections to future generations coexisting within a sustainable consciousness, that speaks not only to the design and use of materials, but also to the values within the family, community, and environment, coexisting with nature, set the design goal of the project.
In designing this site as a community of individuals, known to each other, a sense of site biography develops that forms a continuing history through time coexisting with a natural environment supported and nourished by those living there.
As the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright put it: “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature, it will never fail you.”
In the collaborate sense of this saying by FLW, the saying; ‘Mankind cannot live by bread alone, just as mankind cannot live by the word of God alone’, reminds us that just as nature ‘will never fail us’ we have a responsibility to God to ‘never fail nature’
To this end, sustainability not only speaks to physical reality, but rises up the unmeasurable values, of humans, coexisting in an experience of being alive on physical Earth, helping all sentient life on Earth, more than hindering or destroying it.