March 13, 2006 Sustainability, Technology Comments (0) 1190

Image: Convent Avenue south of 145th Street, Manhattan, last Saturday. By Felicity Rich.

Sustainability is the hot word in architectural circles, even being added to the architectural curricular guidelines at the behest of the AIA. Is it just six syllables for “green,” or an updating of Vitruvian firmitas? I think it means something about recycling and not polluting, about a building that tries to do more than just suck petroleum and spew carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately, like “green,” sustainability has become a buzzword, which means it has become a fashion, which means it has become a huckster’s tool to sell stuff. You can buy “green” and you can buy “organic” and you can buy “shade grown” and “fair trade”, so why not buy “sustainable?”

Because “sustainable” is about not buying. It is about NOT buying.

What makes our modern style of living unsustainable is how much crap we buy and throw away. Landfills, non-renewable energy sources, Styrofoam cups and Ipod batteries that last less than a year are all good examples of non-sustainable. Buildings got into this game in the postwar era, although there were pioneers building fiberglass houses way back in the 1920s. In the 1950s the buzzword was “planned obsolescence” as people realized they were buying impermanent, unfixable, throwaway consumer items. The trend has continued since, turning once “durable” goods into throwaways.

A key concept in sustainability is “embodied energy.” This means that a certain amount of coal, gas, oil, sweat and smarts went into the design and fabrication of a thing. If you throw it out, you trash that coal, gas, oil, sweat and smarts. If you fix it, you take advantage of that embodied energy and thus use less NEW energy.

Preservation is inherently sustainable and new buildings, no matter how green their materials, no matter how organic their design and no matter how responsible they are for their runoff and exhaust, are inherently less sustainable. When done right, with minimal intervention, preservation captures embodied energy.

But often it isn’t. The embodied energy of structure – walls and supports – is preserved, but the place is gutted, contributing its share to the landfills and then all sorts of short term disposable replacements – like vinyl windows – are put in.

These will be taken out in less than a generation. Replacement windows are called that because you have to replace them so often. They are the CDs and Ipods of the building industry – a brilliant business model because the demand is never satisfied – they keep failing and they can’t be fixed. Suck that petroleum. Fill that land.

Real sustainability needs to reverse a trend at least three generations old. Build things that can be fixed? What about those corporations who need us to snap up the latest trend? Ah, but the most elegant answer is obvious: sell sustainability.

How? How can you sell the antithesis of selling?

You can, thanks to the continued alienation of labor and commodities in the internet age. Why buy a physical product when you can buy a concept? Why burden yourself with a thing when you can have what is so much more valuable – a lifestyle? Why be a producer or consumer when you can be a consultant? Produce ideas, consume ideas – turn fashion and fashionability into a non-physical concept. You can still buy it – you just don’t get anything except the knowledge that you are more fashionable than others.

That is a sustainable business model. You can see our version of this at

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