Green Architecture and Sustainability

Dr. Moore: Good morning.  I promise to be neither as entertaining nor as quantitative in what I have to say.  Before I talk about green architecture and sustainability one of the things I really must say is that I'm delighted to be here to talk to your society. In my own view, the making of the built environment is less an artistic process than it is a political one.  And the political process will go on in rooms just like this one with many of the same people who are in this room.  I think it's really important that we address the issues that are before us, those that Dean Taylor and Steve Murdock just talked about.

I've conducted an informal and highly unscientific survey with my students over the past 12 years.  Each semester when I begin teaching a course, I ask students if they believe that humans are a part of nature or if they are something distinct.  And 12 years ago invariably about half the students would say that humans are definitely not a part of nature, but somehow different.  As of this year, for the very first time, not one of my students said that humans are not a part of nature.  Now this is something of an indication, like Steve's statistics, that our attitudes towards the dichotomy between nature and culture are changing.  This is the best news I have to tell you today.

A common assumption is that the sources of our environmental troubles or the source of environmental degradation is generally either industry or transportation.  It's the end of tail pipe syndrome.  Of course, you know now that's really not the case.  Since we've already heard this I'm not going to dwell on it, but as you can see in the images, it really depends on how you slice the data. If you look at the categories of consumption, architecture, of course, is just about half.

4-environmental degradation

What's most alarming is that the amount of greenhouse gas production and the amount of energy consumption that is directly related to architectural production is increasing as all other sectors are decreasing.  Clearly, we have a problem here.  The problem is one of great irony; those of us who take an oath when we get registered to become professionals say that it is our responsibility to uphold the public health, welfare and safety and we are probably now responsible for the largest threat to environmental well being in the United States.

5-linear system 1

I want to show you three kinds of systems that we can historically look backwards on and talk about.  Now, this is what many scholars refer to as a type 1 system, in which we mine resources ‑ in this case it's copper ‑ and then we take that copper and we transport it often long distances and we distribute it around a landscape.  The landscapes that we make often look like the second image there, which are not very dense.

We like to be beside water so that all of those nitrates and phosphates that we put on our lawns go directly into those sources of water.  Then we build things often using technologies like concrete, which is probably the highest greenhouse-emitting process out there.  Then we air condition our buildings because we have forgotten how to make buildings that naturally participate in the energy flows of a particular place. In the process we take all of the stuff that we have left over and we throw it in the dump.  In any typical building construction system almost 40 percent of the mass of the building itself goes into the dump.  Now, this is an alarming number; absolutely an alarming number.

The good part is that there may be an alternative.  Like my young students, we can simply begin to get over our nature/culture divide.  We can begin to think that nature is not something that exists out there maybe in the Hill Country or, no, actually not anymore, maybe Big Bend.  Well, probably not.  Maybe at the bottom of the ocean, someplace there is true nature.  We need to get over this dichotomy.

6-hornsby bend

We can begin to thank places like Hornsby Bend in Austin, which processes the solid waste from human bathrooms into compost (yes, that too is a part of nature). We need to go further and just call nature culture. We can begin to think of cities not just of places where tail pipes emit all of the worst gases that degrades our environment, but we can begin to reformulate or to reframe cities as something that can be itself a functioning ecosystem.

7-linear system 2

Here's our first opportunity to do this.  This is what we generally refer to as a type 2 system. It resembles the first system that you saw entirely, only the idea is that we can begin to recycle some of the waste products to make other products.  This is generally what you all do when you take your recycling materials to the curb.  We can use it ‑ the downgraded, the material that you throw away.

At every one of these processes, we introduce more entropy.  If you remember from your sophomore year physics class, entropy is the transformation of materials into a less usable form.  It means that by the time you get to the end of the process what you have is matter. The first law of thermodynamics is the good news, that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but the second law of thermodynamics or entropy is saying that is to reduce matter from an organized and highly usable state to a disorganized, a chaotic, an unusable state.  That's generally what we have done in the production of our architecture.

We can now recycle some of it.  That's good; that's better, but we can do much better than that.  Even in the projects that my students are doing now we have digital tools which can begin to estimate and predict the consequences of our design decisions.

8-reductions type 2 system

These are images from a project of my students called The Alley Flat Initiative, which interestingly is related to Steve Murdock's statistics because it's for the Latino community of east Austin.  In these small, modest houses we can operate at something like 50 to 65 percent less; they consume 50 to 65 percent less energy than a typical house, not just per square foot, but per person, which is really far more important.  There are other kinds of systems that are available to us.

9-cyclical system 3

Most important, I think, is what I'm going to describe here is a type 3 system.  This is actually the work of a current student of mine, Chris Short, who will present this for his master's thesis.  What Chris has been doing is to develop a system that is really local in its orientation. Let's start on the left. First we have to recognize that all systems have only one source of energy and that's the sun.  If we understand the sun is the singular source of energy we can then look at how much sun shines on the place we inhabit.  If we look at Central Texas, the lines of divide in that slide are actually the distinct ecosystems of Texas.  The second band on your right is the area of the Texas Piney Woods.

Now, what Chris has done is analysis of the available lumber that comes out of the Texas Piney Woods and to look at that as the primary source of constructing a house.  If we add to that the very high-tech systems of harvesting and refining that product, of treating it locally so that it's not transported a long distance, we have zero waste if we cut that lumber with lasers rather than saws.

Third, he's begun to look at a system of designing for disassembly.  The biggest problem that we have, why so much construction material goes to the dump, is that once it's put together in composite systems, you can't get it apart.  You can't tear the foil from the sheetrock or you can't take the plastic from the wood.  So there's nothing that you can really do with it. If you begin to design a system in which discreet layers or discreet sets and distinct materials, you can now design that system in a way that when it's reached its life span, it can  be taken apart and used for something else.  It requires that we begin to reframe all the ways in which we think about architectural production.  Those systems there at the top are a layered wall system and then all of the system have fasteners to hold it together.

Ultimately, what's really most important about the system is if that house is sold, its useful life is given up, these materials do not go to the dump.  In Chris' scheme what happens is that they either go back ‑ each piece of the discrete system goes back and becomes a part of somebody else's house  - or it goes back into production.  In the end there is zero waste. Every piece in the building has a bar code on it.  We know where it is in space and in time. It's part of what I would call an urban ecology.  In other words, it's really a way of understand a building as a system of nutrients, just like the earth or an organic plant has a system of nutrients.


But even if we can agree that all of our systems should be cyclical rather than linear we still have a problem.  In the end it's really a political problem.  The problem is who or what is part of the system.  Now, we tend to describe our systems very closely and very tightly, which is why an inter-disciplinary group like this one is so important.  We tend to be solipsistic, meaning that we tend to only talk to people who speak our language.

11-sustainability models

I want to end with making the distinction between three kinds of systems that we can call sustainable.  Pretty much what we have been doing today is talking about the first, which is an economic system.  It's about moving materials and it's about saving oil consumption.  It's primarily an economic system. There's also an environmental and finally, what I'll refer to as a social system.  Let's briefly look at each of these in turn.

12-economic model

An economic system is really simply, making sure that we have enough stuff.  It's what we'll call a supply-side system.  In other words, if we can make our systems ever more efficient, what we will be able to do is to spread the materials over more people.  That's a good thing.  I think we can all agree that having resource sufficiency is good.  Whole tree forestry is one of those technologies out there that does this by not wasting any of the biomass of the tree.  We use 100 percent of it: bark, roots, limbs, leaves, all of it.  So that's good, we need to be more efficient.

13-environmental model

A second group comes along and says well, we still have a problem. As Steve pointed out, we're getting a whole lot more people than we used to have.  Being efficient is not going to be enough.  So instead of having a supply-side strategy, we're also going to have a demand-side strategy which means that we're going to have to reduce consumption on a per capita basis.  Now how are we going to do that?  How are we going to reduce it?  Well, we're going to have to develop things like restrictive zoning.  This just happens to be a map of Austin, which shows those areas in which you cannot build because of the 100-year high water area.  In other words, we're simply now saying that these are lands that can no longer be built on at all.  We have to restrict consumption of some of the landscape.  You can apply that to building materials, to forests, all kinds of things. So it's necessary then to restrict consumption.

14-social model

There's also a third group, those who propose a social model of sustainability. But their problem is whose demand.  Whose demand are we going to restrict?  Perhaps yours.  No.  I think it should be Steve's.  I think we should restrict his demand.  Perhaps yours.  How are we going to do this?  Some would suggest it's simply the market, as things become more scarce they simply become more expensive. What about water?  It makes the point, I think.  There are some resources that you have to have in order to do very much at all. How as a society do we determine what that level of having is?  I think that that's exactly what Steve Murdock's slides were about.

The good news is that I really don't think we have to decide today which of these models of sustainability each of us is going to subscribe to.  The good news is that there's plenty to do.  I'm quite sure that we can, if we broke up into little groups today we could find ten or 12 or 15 or 5,000 projects that we could go to work on tomorrow morning.  So let's do that.  Thank you very much.

no idea Speaker Steven Moore, Director, Sustainable Design Graduate Program, University of Texas School of Architecture. Photo by member John Gullett.