Term Paper: Future House With Nature

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¶ … sustainability is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" from the Brundtland Declaration of 1987 ( (United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) 1987). It is a definition that contains within itself the implicit idea that the natural environment faces stress and overexploitation and will not be able to meet increasing human demands. In fact, not only can the natural environment not support increasing human demands, it cannot support current human demands. The ecological footprint, a measure of humanity's demand on nature by quantifying how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its waste, of current human populations indicates that the situation is dire (Global Footprint Network 2009). Since the 1970's the earth has been in ecological overshoot; the amount which humans consume in a single year currently takes the Earth one year and five months to regenerate (Global Footprint Network 2009).

The question that immediately arises is, "if we are consuming the planets resources faster than they can regenerate, why then has humanity continued to survive?" The answer is simple, because we have tapped into planetary reserves. Much like a person can spend more money than they earn in a year provided they have savings, we too can consume more than the planet can consume in a single year by tapping into planetary reserves. The gas with which we fuel our cars, the oil that we use to heat our homes, the coal that we burn to generate electricity, and the entire class of energy source known as fossil fuels are the ecological equivalent of tapping into our savings account. However, this pattern of behavior is not sustainable over time -- unless we learn to consume as much as the earth provides within a year, eventually our savings will be depleted. And, as the specter of Climate Change has shown us, we can irreparably damage the planet so that it is unfit for human habitation even before we run out of ecological capital.

As society's awareness of the negative effects that human consumption is having both on the natural environment and also on the long-term viability of humanity has increased, so too has society's interest in finding sustainable solutions. These solutions have been broad ranging, from the rise, for example, of sustainable food systems such as organic, biodynamic, and local farming, to an increasing focus on design as a mechanism for sustainability. This shift of focus onto the fields of design and architecture, which have traditionally been viewed as the domain of the elite, is directly related to increasing recognition that how we consume and why we consume is inextricably linked to the physical structures we have created. Changing those structures, then, is crucial to increasing sustainability.

From the physical layout of cities to the design of individual buildings, architecture and design play an inextricable role in sustainability. There is, after all, a reason why residents of New York City have a carbon footprint that contributes just less than one percent of the nation's total carbon output, despite comprising of only 2.7% of the nation's population of 300 million people (Environment News Service 2007). New Yorker's emit on average only about 1/3rd as much carbon as the rest of the United States (Environment News Service 2007). That reason is not altruism, but rather the result of dense city, with mixed use zoning, apartment styled homes that are not only much smaller than the national average, but also because of their form allow for heat sharing, and an intensive mass transit infrastructure the lowest rate of car ownership in the United States which combined result in overall reduced energy usage (Owen 2004). In other words, it's green by design.

Architecture and design plays a crucial role in impacting sustainability, because they currently play a key role in making our current society so abhorrently unsustainable. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, a non-profit trade organization that promotes sustainability in how buildings are designed, built and operated, states that in the United States alone buildings account for:

72% of electricity consumption,

39% of energy use,

38% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions,

40% of raw materials use,

30% of waste output (136 million tons annually), and 14% of potable water consumption.

Altering our built environment enables society to make great strides towards sustainability, a fact that an increasing number of architects and designers are beginning to recognize.

At the forefront of this sustainability by design movement is William McDonough, an architect, designer, and author of the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. Points out McDonough, our industrial infrastructure are powered by "brutish and artificial sources of energy that are environmentally depleting... that pours waste into the water and smoke into the sky. It attempts to work by its own rules, which are contrary to those of nature (Braungart and McDonough 2002)." If we were, he argues, given the assignment of designing the Industrial Revolution retrospectively the assignment would read, like this:

"Design a system of production that

puts billions of pounds of toxic material into the air, water, and soil every year;

produces some materials so dangerous they will require constant vigilance by future generations;

results in gigantic amounts of waste;

puts valuable materials in holes all over the planet, where they can never be retried;

requires thousands of complex regulations - not to keep people and natural systems safe, but rather to keep them from being poisoned too quickly;

measures productivity by how few people are working;

creates prosperity by digging up or cutting down natural resources and then burying or burning them;

erodes the diversity of species and cultural practices (Braungart and McDonough 2002).

It reads like a nightmarish assignment to create a dystopia. Yet it is an accurate synopsis of our current situation. These negative results aren't because of conscious action but rather as a matter of design. We live in homes that must be heated by fossil fuels, those of us who in wealthy nations live in places where we have to drive, where our homes disengage us from our neighbors, etc., those of us in poorer countries might have to chop and burn wood to heat our homes and cook our food, hurting forests and adding to global climate change, while also lacking adequate health and sanitation facilities. Neither of these ways of being is sustainable. Though old patterns of consumption have made life more comfortable for some of -- for much of humanity's history remaining fed, keeping warm in winter, cool in summer, and travelling were constant struggles that often resulted in death -- many of the world's people lay outside of this domain and as I've already stated, it's pushing us rapidly to environmental collapse. The goal, then is finding a way be as comfortable without having to live in unheated houses or only be able to move as fast and as far as our feet (or horses) can carry us.

The role of design in sustainability was the very question that a recent Exhibit of the Design Museum of London sought to explore. Utilizing the following themes:

Cities, promotes the theory that cities are more sustainable because of their density, so the foot print on the land is smaller. energy and economics,

Food, investigates the lifecycle of food,

Materiality, which examination of new materials used in different ways, and creative citizens, which celebrates the everyday choices that we make as consumers which emphasize quality over quantity and long-term over short-term values;

it seeks to illustrate that design cannot be separated from sustainability and is crucial to creating sustainability and also serves as recognition that an increasing crop of designers and building organizations, like McDonough, have begun to not recognize show that modern sustainability and comfort are not mutually exclusive (Alter, Sustainable Futures Exhibition Asks Can Design Make a Difference? 2010). The sustainability of homes, cities, and human societies are completely dependent on their design. As Cameron Sinclair founder of the non-profit organization Architect for Humanity, an organization founded to develop architectural and design solutions to humanitarian crises and provide pro-bono design services to communities in need, points out "While some in the industry pushed the boundaries of how to build, a new younger group of professionals began to question why we build and who to build for… On a global level 1:7 people live in unplanned settlements, favelas, refugee camps or internally displaced camps. Close to 5 billion people live in inadequate living conditions and have little access to education, health care and adequate sanitation. Almost none of these communities utilize the services of design professionals…there is a desire for well built, sustainable structures (Sinclair 2009). He later added in another interview "The way I look at it is that our buildings are based on sustainable prosperity. When you create structures or spaces that generate jobs, people end up being very… [END OF PREVIEW]

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