Last week I made my annual mecca to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Convention, held this year in San Francisco. This is my favorite conference every year because it reinforces my decision (or rather calling) at the age of 14 to become an architect. This year was particularly special because I was inducted into the AIA College of Fellows, along with three of my friends who are also preservation architects. In fact, of the 112 inductees, a large portion were architects who mentioned preservation or adaptive use in their statements – it was large enough that everyone was commenting on it. It made me think that possibly being a preservation architect is no longer on the edge of architecture but has become more mainstream. And that’s a good thing.
Sustainability Isn’t Separate or Special Anymore
One of the best things I noticed about the convention was that there was no longer a “sustainable” track or theme. Instead, it was now an integral component of the convention and most of the talks. And starting this year architects need to get sustainable design (SD) credits as part of our continuing education requirements. So I focused on going to sessions that would allow me to complete these new SD requirements.
Can We Live More Like a Redwood Forest Than a Ragweed?
The opening keynote on Thursday (April 30th) was presented by Peter Head, a principal at Arup.
Peter works in Asia evaluating and developing megacities in China. On the surface that would seem an incredibly unsustainable action, but I must say his discussion of the social and cultural issues, both ours and theirs, made me think about sustainable development in the “developing” world in a whole new light. His underlying concern was whether our planet can actually sustain 10 billion people when the way we have been living and our use of non-renewable resources is in essence shrinking our planet, which is a closed system.
He presented his ideas for developing a new ecological economics model to move us out of denial and into action, with real change happening by 2050. We need to reduce CO2 by 50-80% by 2050,we must reduce our ecological footprint to 1.5 hectares/person (those of us in the US on average have an ecological footprint five to six times that amount), and we must increase human development significantly. The western world has created the current bind we find ourselves in and we have an ethical responsibility to assist the developing world in making better decisions than we did.
One thing that became very clear was that the development and urbanization of countries like China and India will and must be allowed to happen, but how we work with them to let it happen and manage the impacts will show where our moral compass lies. In listening to him describe the dire changes that are happening to the world, I couldn’t help but think that maybe our preservation mantra of "the greenest building is the one that's already been built" was just maybe a bit naïve in terms of the impact it can ultimately have when the creation of new megacities could potentially so outstrip all of our current cities. It was rather frightening to think about this. But we can't stop this urbanization, nor do we have the right to. If we let megacities develop in the way that we developed our cities, there will be a five degree Celsius rise in temperature by 2100 which will mean the end of civilization.
The current stimulus package in the US represents 5% of our GDP. China has one that represents 7% of theirs. All we actually need is 2% of the world’s GDP each year to effectively change our dependency on nonrenewable resources – but can we implement this? We have to decrease our Greenhouse Gas emissions by 2050 and can’t do that just by focusing on carbon and energy. It will require integrated planning resource management and compact mixed use development. He even suggested ways to urbanize and green the suburbs, such as using all that acreage to start growing food, turning attached garages into greenhouses and using cul-de-sacs to park community electric vehicles. Acting like the compact redwood forest rather than the roaming, uncontrollable ragweed.
Self-Cleaning Concrete and Straw Bale Construction
The inspiration of Peter Head's talk was followed by sessions much more practical -- and even mundane. But it is how we implement these needed changes that Peter discussed that will allow us to reform our world. I attended a session on photocatalytic concrete (self-cleaning concrete) which seemed like a wonder material until we heard that it is four to six times the cost of regular concrete. The catalysts inserted into the concrete keep soot, mold, etc from sticking to the surface and reflect sunlight - factors which reduce the need for maintenance (and the products associated with that) and even can reduce air pollution.
I never quite understood what straw bale construction was so this seemed like the right time to attend a session that clarified that. Straw bale can be a basic building material and is primarily an agricultural waste product from local crops such as rice, wheat, barley and rye. Using it reduces carbon emissions by avoiding the impacts that would be caused by creating new materials (precast concrete, glass curtain wall, etc) or using less renewable resources such as wood. It has a high insulation value, is rapidly renewable and even has an interesting cultural and historic background - first used in Nebraska in the early 1900s. Straw bale can be structural, a veneer, a finish or all of the above. It can have a 2-hour fire rating and is no more insect prone than drywall if it is detailed properly. It's probably closest to adobe in its sustainable construction and positive impacts.
The one thing that is continually occurring to me as I attend conferences and read the latest technical information is that our creativity in developing new products, or revisiting old ones, really knows no bounds. Now if only the political will could keep up.