When it comes to environmental sustainability, architects are part of the problem.
The most sustainable building is the one that isn’t built.
So what to do about this?
Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, faced a similar issue head-on almost ten years ago. Being a for profit company, and highly ethical, they took out a full page ad in the New York Times. The headline was “Don’t Buy This Jacket”, in the body of the ad was a description of the environmental impact of their high end jacket. They concluded:
“There is much to be done and plenty for us all to do… Don’t buy what you don’t need. Think twice before you buy anything …. Join us … to reimagine a world where we take only what nature can replace.”Sinek, Simon. The Infinite Game (p. 152). Penguin Books Ltd.
Patagonia recognised that they too were part of the problem. They are constantly seeking to be better and to make better products. They are not perfect, but they do not shirk their responsibilities to the planet or to the people that work for them, including in their supply chains.
How might architects, ”reimagine a world where we take only what nature can replace.” It’s challenging right? It suggests that we build in timber, but it turns out that geopolymer based concrete has significantly less embodied carbon than Cross Laminated Timber (the binding resins have significant embodied carbon). Similarly, the carbon embodied in a new build may not be recouped in the operational savings for decades. It’s complex, but we can always do better and won’t if we don’t start.
Architects should borrow from Patagonia. We need to be more mindful of the work we do. To rephrase Patagonia,
We need to not build what is not needed. Think twice about what is being built. Reimagine how we build.
…The outcome to every architectural brief may not be a building.
…Do not pull down what can be retained.
…Build as little as possible.
…Consider what materials are used in the building (low embodied carbon, sustainable resource, durable, etc.)
…Importantly, consider what isn’t needed in the building.
…The building’s operation must tread lightly on the earth.