The Politics of Sustainability

by Christina Noble, AIA , LEED AP
Originally published in AssociateNews, National News Publication for the American Institute of Architects, February 2008

Southland Industries Sustainable Office

This month’s theme for AssociateNews is the buzzword ‘Sustainability’.  Consumers are becoming increasingly seduced by the many ways to be ‘green’ – Walmart now offers organic produce, NBC dedicates an entire week of programming to going green, and Al Gore wins both the Nobel Peace Prize and an Academy Award for his documentation of sustainable issues in the movie An Inconvenient Truth.  In the building industry, the AIA has adopted a proposal to reduce the building industry’s carbon emissions by 2030, cities are requiring LEED certification for governmental building projects, and savvy developers are realizing the financial benefits of incorporating energy-efficient technologies into their built projects.

While increased interest in preserving our environment is exciting and encouraging, the terms ‘Sustainability’ and ‘green’ have become ubiquitous and their value debased from over-use.  As a result, we can easily overlook the significance of the political shift towards environmental activism as we mindlessly complete sustainability checklists such as LEED.  What if we stop for a moment and consider how radical some of the specific LEED points can be?  These points and checklists are more than feel-good buzzwords tossed about on network television – they encode design constraints with real effects on real people.   These checklists of endless numbers, although seemingly uninspiring and non-political in their quantification of environmental phenomena can in fact incite political shifts through a re-focusing of architects and their clients on specific qualities of design.

Take for example the points regarding access to natural light and views.  To achieve these points, LEED 2.2-NC requires that natural daylight reach seventy five percent of building spaces and demands access to views for ninety percent.  Upon first glance, both of these points sound like a no-brainer.  Who wouldn’t want to spend forty hours per week in an office building incorporating the warmth of the sun and featuring windows overlooking the downtown skyline?  However, the innocent-seeming figures of ninety and seventy-five percent actually represent a significant shift and commitment on the part of a corporate client hoping to achieve these specific points.  Many traditional corporate offices mimic their hierarchical business structures in built form – private offices dominate the natural light and views accorded by the building perimeter while their staff remains within the building center amongst an uninteresting vista of green-tinted fluorescent light and cubicles.  When a corporate client decides to achieve these points, they are committing to a new conceptualization of their business structure.  The politics of their built interior shift when corporate execs release their previously held access to the building perimeter to all employees, not just those at the top of the business structure.

When considering the opportunities afforded by sustainable design, we need to understand that the implications of LEED points are more than technical requirements; they are design requirements that have architectural significance and cultural consequences.  By understanding and communicating the importance of sustainability beyond its use as a buzzword or marketing slogan, we retain its value and its power to inspire significant change in our built environment.  The implications of sustainability are greater than increased efficiency and lower operating costs – they afford opportunities to reconsider what quality of spaces we choose to inhabit and the messages we want to convey in terms of how our spaces reflect ourselves and our values.

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