I long ago accepted the fact that book stores are a dangerous place for me. More specifically, these troves of literary treats are dangerous for my wallet. Recognizing that I rarely emerge empty handed, I’ve learned to quicken my pace past Barnes & Noble or avert my eyes from a nearby red Borders logo. However, my resolve waned ever so slightly the other weekend as I was out running errands and I soon found myself walking out of Kramerbooks & Afterwords carrying, among other goodies, The New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s book, " Building Up and Tearing Down.”
I was only a few pages into Goldberger's introduction before I found food for thought. Asking whether an increased public interest in architecture creates unrealistic expectations of the impact of the profession on our daily lives, Goldberger notes: “Architecture does not cure cancer, and it does not put bread on the table. It is not justice in the courtroom, or peace on the battlefield. If there is anything the critic needs to be mindful of today, it is that architecture does not solve all of our problems. It does not sustain life.”
Say what? I strongly disagree. Having returned from Greenbuild less than a week before reading Goldberger's introduction, my head was awash with the life-impacting possibilities of sustainable design and construction. While in Phoenix, I met with an array of architects, manufacturers, and builders about their latest products and projects that, among a host of other environmental benefits, improved indoor air quality, diverted waste from landfills or found new uses for old materials, or reduced a structure’s burden on the national energy grid and water supply. Certainly that has to count for something in the larger context of architecture’s impact.
What’s more, while sustainable architecture may not have the ability to resuscitate a physical heartbeat, it’s increasingly mentioned as the source of a much-needed jump-start to the nation's economic pulse, as seen in the recent survey from USGBC and Booz Allen Hamilton highlighted in this month’s newsletter. Other recent studies concur, whether noting that green retrofits could create a $10-15 billion dollar market by 2014 or reporting that investment in a smart water grid could swell to $16.3 billion dollars (making the current $530 million market look like a mere trickle). And this doesn’t take into consideration developments that may ripple out from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change commencing in Copenhagen next week. We’ll have to wait a bit longer to see how those discussions effect the built environment going forward, but even before the meetings begin, the Royal Institute of British Architects, Australian Institute of Architects, Architecture Canada, and the Commonwealth Association of Architects have joined forces to produce a call for action that spotlights the role of architecture and the built environment in reducing climate change.
Now, lest I be accused of wearing rose-colored glasses, I recognize that as much as the sustainable initiatives underway contribute to a better quality of life, there also remains a significant amount of environmentally insensitive work underway in architecture and construction. Despite developments like Perkins+Will’s precautionary materials list or attempts from companies like UL Environments to regulate green product standards, both highlighted here this month, greenwashing remains an issue. And despite the numerous reports on the economic impact of green jobs and green business, there still are clients, developers and architects who believe sustainability costs too much money, time, and/or effort. Not to mention that we’re now in the final push of that time of year when the general public’s focus is more often centered on consumption rather than conservation.
Nonetheless, I prefer to remain on the positive end of the discussion and take inspiration from the sustainable innovations that abound both at Greenbuild and beyond. After all, while Goldberger notes that architecture does not sustain life, he also writes that “it can make the already sustained life much more meaningful, much more pleasurable, and it is the critic’s job, in a way, to observe and encourage and support that process.” Next week I’ll be attending EcoBuild America in Washington, DC, where I’ll be moderating the Smart and Sustainable Theater in the exhibit hall, and I’m quite looking forward to hearing what the speakers have to say. If you’ll be there as well, I invite you to swing by and say hello. However, if I’m not around the theater when you pass through, you’ll know where to find me: Chances are I’m in the Ecobuild bookstore.