Being good in buildings

50% of material resources taken from nature are building-related. Over 50% of national waste production comes from the building sector. 40% of the energy consumption in Europe is building-related (Anink, Boonstra and Mak, 1996: 8).

As if this weren't enough, 40 to 50 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions are also produced by the built environment. Given the enormous impact of the built environment upon the natural one, architects cannot avoid for much longer repositioning themselves in relation to their own material production. Within environmentalism, the decisions and actions architects take matter again. Even if most of those in the building industry are still unaware of it, choices as to siting, building configuration, construction methods and materials have environmental, and thus ethical, consequences. Contractors, developers and architects tend to gain awareness of this as legislation interrupts established practice, or, more rarely, as the market demands a change. The

3. 'Through sample drillings in rock, Arctic ice and soil, it has been established that the carbon-dioxide content in the air never rose above 280 parts per million during the last twelve million years. By 1958 it had risen to 315 parts; to 340 parts by 1988, and to 350 in 1993. This is the result of burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and the diminishing of tropical rainforests which absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide as well as producing oxygen' (Papanek, 1995: 22; italics original).

widespread lack of environmental awareness within the building industry presents the architectural profession with the possibility of providing leadership, and recovering some of the moral authority lost during the past thirty years. Within this industry, successful architects have the highest profiles as 'actors in the world'; their decisions are 'exemplary', and can influence clients, contractors and fellow professionals alike.

In order to gain this position of influence, architects need first to educate themselves in order to educate others. The education of clients, however, even if ethically driven, is rarely effective if ethically framed. The priority for most clients is economic. Happily, the economic benefits of 'doing the right thing' are increasingly persuasive:

We are on the verge of a revolution in buildings design. Strategies and materials are at hand that can be integrated into modern buildings that consume much less energy to operate, pollute far less, are much more reliable and livable, and cost no more to construct than buildings based on contemporary practice (Balcomb, 1998: 33).

Again, the ambiguous relation between altruism and self-interest is apparent in this dialogue between architect and client, and no doubt between the architect and him or herself. As more environmental architecture goes up, the client can increasingly be persuaded that although a higher initial capital cost may be incurred through commissioning a 'green building', this cost will be paid back again and again in lower running costs. The environmentally ethical argument is put to one side, but does it matter how the client arrives at 'the good' if the results are the same?

The architect's other arena for ethical action is in the design and specification of the building itself. Here, too, motives are mixed. Architects engage with environmental design for a number of reasons, none of which is necessarily explicitly ethical. In a class of architects on the postgraduate Environment and Energy Programme at the Architectural Association in 1998, the range of reasons for choosing the course was more remarkable for its variety than its altruism. One member of this international group thought environmental design would provide him with a methodology that would help with design decisions. Another had worked in an office that had already adopted environmental design, and wanted to acquire greater expertise in it. Another, from India, saw passive cooling techniques as a way of promoting the vernacular solutions of her own country over and against universalizing mechanical services. Another wanted to re-establish the traditional relation between architecture and nature, but in a modern idiom. Another wanted to escape an over-emphasis on the conceptual in architecture, and reground his own work in the material. Another was fascinated by the advanced technology now available within environmental design: photovoltaic panels, smart materials and computer-operated building management systems (BMS). The closest any of the group came to an overtly ethical agenda was one student concerned about the future of over-exploited natural resources.

Architects on a graduate programme are, of course, freer to be frank than architects in practice, where the rhetoric becomes distinctly more moralistic in tone:

the developed world - with its disproportionate ownership of wealth, control of technology and influence over the means of production -bears an inescapable responsibility to make its own economies and cities sustainable... (Rogers, 1997: 174).

Victor Papanek in The Green Imperative (1995), goes further, adopting a biblical ring to his exhortations:

When our designs are succinct statements of purpose, easy to understand, use, maintain and repair, long-lasting, recyclable and benign to the environment, we inform.

If we design with harmony and balance in mind, working for the good of the weaker members of our society, we reform.

Being willing to face the consequences of our design interventions, and accepting our social and moral responsibilities, we give form (Papanek, 1995: 53).

Such direct appeals to our better nature alienate as many as they win over. Who are they to tell us? Who are they to prescribe and proscribe? What legitimates them as moral arbiters besides self-appointment? The simplicity of the exhortations annoys rather than inspires, leaving many with the suspicion that the qualifications and complexities of the debate have been swept to one side.

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