Architecture & Consumption

Architecture is like an extension of the earth. It is rooted firmly on the ground, and envelopes the movement and gathering of people in a safe space. However, as Peter Buchanan makes a point of indicating in Ten Shades of Green, architecture today deviates from its natural grace and is focused on utilitarianism. He strives to convey that architecture “has been reduced to little more than energy-guzzling packaging”. In place of natural shelter that early humans once found in caves, buildings are now shielding us from the outside in artificially lit and air-conditioned spaces. But why contain us in such well-controlled boxes, when we can harness the sun and wind to achieve the same goals of temperature control and light exposure? Our ill-grown dependency on nonrenewable refined energies that run our well-conditioned structures is a doomed countdown of resources.

Naturally, a first question to ask in analyzing our energy problem might be “Where is our energy coming from?” As noted in Energy and the Environment fossil fuels “supply about 85% of the fuel energy used in the United States”. In terms of the world’s use of fuel, our statistic is a bad example to use as a basis for comparison. However looking at that number critically because it belongs to those of us living in the US gives us an idea of our dependency on nonrenewable forms of energy like coal or oil. Alternatively, clean sources of renewable energy have become more and more popular as a prompt of design. One design project for Las Vegas, Nevada involves giant   white metal flowers that creates an oasis-like “Senscity Paradise”.  Simultaneously shading the park below while utilizing the power of the sun and wind, it is a perfect example of a modern design alternative to fossil fuel dependency. The landscape and energy conservation project, as detailed by Behnisch and Transsolar, “combines elements of a typical theme park, including a toy gallery, theater, auditoria, and restaurants with extensive public gardens, exhibition spaces, and a series of playgrounds.” Linked below is a brief article and pictures of the topic.

Perhaps one of the drivers that helped dig us so deep into dependency is the fact that we use so much fuel. Another statistic by the same reading declares that a citizen in a developing country uses less than one barrel of oil per year while a citizen from an industrialized country uses 20-60 barrels in the same time. This discrepancy is large and rather unpleasant to realize. Every time we leave the room with the light on, or turn up the air conditioning on a hot day, there is a cost. The cost of industrialized convenience and ignorance of use is a price that is made more visible every day.

Concerning where all this energy is funneled into daily use, architecture is a large player of consumption. Not only does Buchanan note that “construction and operation of buildings are responsible for nearly half the energy consumed by developed countries” he also lists that “artificial lighting is a “building’s biggest consumer of energy” (with the second largest being air conditioning in summertime). This vast effort to construct and control such an ambitious amount of energy is unnecessary. It is far less wise to focus on what structure can be placed in any environment than how architecture reacts to its surroundings -like the oasis in the desert of Las Vegas. Our approach to structure should follow certain solutions as described by Ten Shades of Green: meaning less day-time artificial lighting employed by deep set building plans (with few windows) and better ventilation and material designs (that can rely on the environment for most air support).

Tweaking our system starts by recognizing fault and the need for change. Clean renewable energy and buildings that breath in fresh air and indulge in sunshine, these are goals we can strive for. Thus as Buchanan puts it “green buildings are the inevitable, inescapable future of architecture.” If we want the Earth to be home to our future generations, then it is our responsibility to consume only what we need and leave behind a hospitable and welcoming environment.

Peter Buchanan, Ten Shades of Green, “Green Culture and the Evolution of Architecture”
Behnisch Architekten and Transsolar Climate Engineering, Ecology Design Synergy
Robert A. Ristinen and Jack J. Kraushaar, Energy and the Environment, Ch. 1

Disconnected From the System

    Perhaps it can be said that the source of man-made environmental problems began with our “disconnect from nature”, as noted in Cradle to Cradle. Within the last couple hundred years, man has risen “above” nature with advanced industry, technology, and insatiable consumption of resources. Building structures and urban development wall off the wild tangles and beauty of nature – keeping it at a safe distance. However, as declared in all three readings from this past week, we are part of the system; we are part of nature. And as members of ecology, we must do our part to support the sustainability (and even growth) of the system -like the ants.

    According to Cradle to Cradle, people should strive to emulate ants, and with good reason. In many ways they are not so different from us. They are social creatures that populate nearly every climate on earth, farm food in the form of a white fungus, and build vast structures (or tunnels) for their homes. Although, then again, they differ from us in many respects: they play a critical ecological role in aerating soil; their homes and venom are entirely biodegradable. But, the important lesson to derive from studying ants and other species around the globe is (as pronounced in “A Manual for Ecological Design”) we are responsible for the “cycling of nutrients” that we use. On that note, I very much concur with a point made by Ken Yeang, that our earth is a “closed materials system with finite mass”. Our current unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels is just one example that ignores this principle. Instead of considering the earth as an abundant storage of resources to use and abuse, we should see it as the nonlinear set of interconnected complex and diverse systems that it is.

    If we are willing to embrace the fact that we must protect the delicate networks and diversity that allow us to live so comfortably on this planet, there are immediate steps we must take to prevent our reinforcing loop of destruction. So, what are the “leverage points” (as Donella Meadows described in Thinking in Systems), the sweet-spot points of solution in an unnacceptable and unsustainable system? Well, sometimes what is needed is to take a step back from the problem to look at the bigger picture. In the brilliant words from Cradle to Cradle , we are encouraged to “expand design considerations and recognize distant effects”, because in the end “we’re all downstream”. If the system itself is wrong, then reducing it’s negative impacts does not make it right. What may be necessary in our quandary, is to rethink the system with the vision of a win-win situation between humans and the environment.

    Only stubborness will lead people to believe that they cannot thrive with nature as our partner. We cannot survive without the planet we evolved to learn and love. To balance our feedback loop, we can start by eradicating (not reducing) pollution. Like the cherry tree example from Cradle to Cradle, it’s blossoms fall in hopes of producing a seedling while the rest become detritus. Yet, this waste is never wasted because the blossoms return into the healthy food and nutrients cycle of its ecosystem. Everything is connected, just as we are connected inherently to nature.



Braungart, Michael and William McDonough. Cradle to Cradle. New York: North Point Press, 2002. Web.


Meadows, Donella. Thinking in Systems: a primer. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2008. Web.


Yeang, Ken. “A Manual for Ecological Design.”  n.d. 5 September 2013.