An Ethos of Sustainable Design

March 25, 2007 · by James P. Cramer

The leading international network of climate scientists recently released their fourth (1990, 1996, 2001, and 2007) assessment report on the future of climate. The climate change report acknowledges, unequivocally, human-impacted global warming. It states, with 90 percent certainty, that humankind is the primary cause of the increase in global temperatures, with the built environment being the single most significant contributor to carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

The leading international network of climate scientists recently released their fourth (1990, 1996, 2001, and 2007) assessment report on the future of climate. The climate change report acknowledges, unequivocally, human-impacted global warming. It states, with 90 percent certainty, that humankind is the primary cause of the increase in global temperatures, with the built environment being the single most significant contributor to carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

The first segment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report was released shortly after we read the latest survey from the AIA called the Business of Architecture. The professional association states that just slightly more than one-third of architectural firms responding to their latest survey have designed a green or sustainable project. And, while some may think it too harsh to lump architects and designers together with oil and coal companies as "green liabilities", evidence of the short supply of environmental innovation continues to mount. What has happened to the white hat profession? Have not architects always been the good guys on environmental issues?

Many in the design professions have ignored the warning signs despite the efforts of leading voices in the profession and the increasing number of large and specialized progressive firms. Apparently, those slow to respond - rather than lead - have been waiting for more proof or for their clients to take the initiative. Perhaps they've been waiting for the marketplace to address issues of energy and sustainability.

We have found that "A" level firms, those considered best-practice models, are almost all leaders in sustainability initiatives. These firms have wisely included sustainability in their core value statements. These values are not hollow; the firms practice what they preach. Yet, despite all the good work, when considered together, responses to climate change by the design professions has been woefully inadequate. We have failed, so far, in the face of climate change.

Human building has increased the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The result: a perceptible warming of the planet and its subsequent environmental degradation. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased from a pre-industrial value of approximately 280 parts per million to 379 parts per million in 2005. Global temperatures have risen about 1.4 degrees since the late 19th century; eleven of the twelve warmest years on record have occurred since 1995. Mountain glaciers and snow cover have declined in most parts of the world. Ice sheets are breaking up. Sea levels have risen some six-to-nine inches in the 20th Century. The quality of ocean habitats are degrading and the pH of seawater is such that acidity levels are beginning to imperil corals and plankton; the very foundations of life in the sea. The intensity of storms of all kinds is increasing, dramatically. And, just as pertinent to address are all the other environmental issues we witness around us every day. Many readers of DesignIntelligence, for instance, are fly-fishing enthusiasts; several of you are in Patagonia this month. The stories you tell about litter and polluted streams are reason enough to take immediate green action.

In the past, even in the face of environmental crises, the voice of the design professions on issues of sustainability has been mixed and muffled. Yet today, it is indisputable that the built environment - which produces more than 41 percent of the global carbon emissions - is largely responsible for the climate change we are now witnessing. We face a sobering reality. We have had opportunities. And we've watched, up-close, the formation of the US Green Building Council and AIA's Committee on the Environment. These organizations work passionately, around the clock, on arguments and motivational communications to goad the architectural profession, and others, into positions of signal difference, to be on the vanguard of solution providers to save the environment. For the last five years, the Design Futures Council has hosted the Leadership Summit on Sustainable Design and its delegates have authored the Nantucket Principals and the Sante Fe Priorities, spelling out action priorities for design firms and their clients. DFC Senior Fellows Sandra Mendler, Ed Mazria, Bob Berkebile, Ray Anderson, Cecil Steward, William McDonough, Harrison Fraker, Nigel Dancey, Janine Benyus, David Gottfried, Al Gore, and so many others have been passionate, outspoken advocates for real - immediate - change. We are fortunate to have these heroes. They inspire us. Yet we have so very far to go.

In their February 2 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that warming and its harmful consequences "could be substantially blunted by proper action." Their report does not portend the Apocalypse. Nevertheless, there is urgency; the way forward requires architects and designers to behave in significantly different ways than in the past. No one can point to any remaining uncertainties as justification for inaction. We need to adapt. Every firm should be committed to developing innovative design solutions and energetic leadership behaviors that will make a difference. It is clearly now a design ethos and this ethos includes actions toward the 2010 Agenda; the Nantucket Principles; the Santa Fe Priorities; the 2030 Challenge; and other like-minded global environmental-action initiatives. Massive opportunities exist before this daunting agenda. To address this, we can no longer afford to fail.

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