Sustainable Architecture

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According to an article in the journal ‘Der Spiegel’, Americans are working on the colonisation of Mars, they invest billions of Dollars into this future vision. Should these plans one day become a reality, we would have the possibility to escape our planet as soon as everything here is consumed and destroyed, so we would not have to worry about protecting Mother Earth.

These goals show that our expanding, researching spirit scientifically explores; and thereby perception of our environment is extended far into macro‐ and micro‐ cosmic space. Only the technical implementation of specific enterprises in their rapid movement show, if the effects of those developing research plans will be positive or negative for environment in the longer term. If something turns out as being harmful, solutions are often pushed off to be solved in the future, then using the same instruments that brought us into this situation in the first place. Based on scientific research and by almost boundless means, technologies get released and unleashed.

Unlimited expansion and growth? Could ‘sustainability’ be of help? ‘Sustainability’ is an image that society creates between technique, nature and religion. There are different approaches to define ‘sustainability’ as a term, one of the best known concepts is the theoretical conclusion of a so‐called ‚Triple bottom line’: ‘sustainability’ comes from overlapping or connecting the spheres of life: ‘sociology’, ‘ecology’ and ‘economy’. The overlap‐zones are thereby defined as ‘bearable’, ‘viable and equitable’, as well as ‘fit for the future’. This idealized model represents a devout wish: to create a harmonizing awareness towards the interaction with our environment through slogans. This seems to be used as a kind of societal atonement or as a marketing strategy of industry lobbies. Unfortunately, important aspects are left behind; the angle is deliberately put too narrow. Let’s look at a simplified vivid, spatial analogy of an onion with the human being in its centre:

In order to protect ourselves against the environment we surround ourselves with certain, historically grown layers that stagger up around us just like onion shells. They are of essential value for our survival and quality of life. But as a mass phenomenon they possibly could have a destructive impact. The outermost shell, in which we subdue the earth and protect us against nature, is TECHNIQUE and CONSTRUCTION. The next shell that surrounds us is our SOCIETY and our SOCIAL CONTEXT. A further, immediate shell is CLOTHING, VESTMENT. The most private, the closest to a person, is the shell of EATING, DRINKING and handling of ILLNESS. Removing all these shells leads directly to the SELF.

Considering the background of this picture, the question arises if the wrongly used slogan of ‘sustainability’ is not rather missing the actual goal and alienates the core of our existence?

What exactly are the conditions for ‘sustainable’ construction, social ‘sustainability’, ‘sustainable’ clothing, nutrition and health within the current dialogue? How does this correlate with our built environment? Can buildings be ‘sustainable’? And if so, is it because they are durable? Is it enough to put one stone on the next to create a work of durability? Is it therefore already sustainable?

For example: Are the Egyptian Pyramids sustainable because they still exist and withstand decay over thousands of years? Although the Pyramids physically exist to this day, they have been broken open on the surface to use their robbed building material for others, at that time possibly more important buildings. They have remained on their place because of their enormous mass, raw, but as a symbol for a bygone culture. The society that created those buildings does not exist anymore; also the knowledge about their construction is gone. So aren’t the Pyramids silent witnesses of an erosion of a specific society, long‐lasting misunderstood symbols of a foregone culture?

Is the cathedral of St. Stephan sustainable, because it continually is renovated and maintained with the same natural material again and again? Is this maintenance not more likely a question of societal sustainability? Would the cathedral not soon be gone if there were no clergy or society to care for it?

Following this argument, radioactive waste resulting from nuclear power plants would be of uttermost sustainability: A product which will still occupy our thoughts and our lives even in thousands of years. This radioactive waste can never be removed. We have been able to reduce deforestation for energy production in the last few decades, but now we need an army of experts to store this radioactive waste as safely as possible for the next thousands of years, without having any benefit. In the beginning there was this good idea of producing clean energy, but today the consequence of this technique has brought us into a precarious situation.

Similar to that, the consequences of today’s information technologies could lead us into a self‐built trap. IT and the WorldWideWeb have brought us enormous possibilities but at the same time they ended our previously known and precious privacy. The consequences cannot be predicted yet, we are still quite in the beginning of this all, so it is not clear which direction this development will take. The only thing we can say without a doubt is that up to now, we have managed to increase the number of wars worldwide and decrease the number of democracies.

We should find a way to leave this eye‐catching slogan of ‘sustainability’ often misunderstood as durability or resistance. A way leading to integrity of thinking, to a critical attitude without previous setting of standards, but includes everything, questions everything and establishes creative space, which needs to be modifiable and able to be adjusted to our requirements constantly.

We are talking of sustainable construction and living, yet we stuff our houses with children’s toys made of plastic, always needing the latest mobile phone and a huge wardrobe with cheap, stylish, toxic clothes. We must ask ourselves what we really need or what we really want to own – this maybe is the essential process leading to a world where a reasonable interaction with our nature becomes reality.

Instead of determining a regulated standard consumption for cars, we should think about the following question: How useful is a car in general and what alternatives do we have? The German word for car ‐ ‘AUTO’ ‐ makes us believe that everybody could do anything he likes with this AUTO on his own. But that is a false conclusion because it takes a whole network to run and use a car. From the beginning on, this name was a marketing‐trick to talk people into cars. Besides, the so‐called ‘car for everyone’ – the VOLKSWAGEN – is an invention of the Third Reich ‐ as we know, their goal was to develop their economy as the basis for expansion and warmongering.

Instead of thinking about how much heat energy per square meter we use in our internal living space, we should ask ourselves how many square meters we need at all. In the Sixties we consumed much more heat energy per square meter than today. What we forget is that in the 60ties these internal living spaces were built with a comparatively low effort. Today, the personal need of internal living space has increased more than threefold! So in total the per‐capita‐need has actually increased although the consumption per square meter on a technical scale has decreased. It is not enough to determine the CO2 emissions per household through regulatory and limits, only to then redeem us again.

To award additional expenses for marketing slogans as ‘sustainable construction’, ‘ecological construction’ and ‘green building’, laws and regulations are formulated, corresponding to the latest in research and technique. Certification‐seals are offered, for example the American LEED, the German ‘DGNB’, the Swiss quality label ‘Minergie’, Great Britain’s ‘BREEAM’ and the Japanese ‘CASBEE’. But all these Certification‐seals have local differences; each country creates its own system of classification for ecological construction. All these Systems are then summarized with the term ‘green building’, but they are not comparable and verifiable among each other. Is this really a forward‐thinking achievement? Or is the result of all these different certifications a thick and confusing fog which shows little details but covers up the view for the entirety, which then disappears behind the backdrops? These different evaluation criteria turn awarded medals into industry‐badges, as they have nothing to do with the actual goal of minimizing the CO2 footprint in construction in a holistic way. It is not enough to formulate and reward single achievements in single disciplines, we have to consider all aspects and think about finding viable solutions for our goals.

Isn’t it, that this progress of new Certification‐Ideas for ‘green building’ ‐ concepts and eye‐catching ‘sustainability’, in reality only serves us as consumers? Isn’t this all just for the sake of economic growth, which needs us consumers as a base? Also calls for „smart cities“, which are to be heard everywhere these days, aim for a mislead, especially in those situations where no solution is found yet. Gregor Gysi recently properly stated: “We have been demanding affordable housing, more teachers and a better supply for years. Now, this is finally being discussed!” Gysi talks about the discussions around the refugee‐debate and about the absurdity, that the poorest of all people now remind us of our wealth, how we should use it reasonably and redistribute it in a fair way.

At the same time supposedly new things like e‐cars are sold, connected to the message: Help us save our world! Once again the decision for a better world is passed on to the consumer. E‐cars and E‐bikes. Ecological fair clothing, genetically unmodified tomatoes, biological cotton and pharmaceutical products, toxin‐free building materials. Everything wrapped into clean conscience in a beautiful way. But what price must be paid? Who can afford to drive electrically‐clean, to dress fair, eat organic and only stay in toxin‐free‐built rooms?

And which sense does it make to sell “sustainability” in that kind of way? Aren’t these new techniques a hindrance to true progress, only a further development of what is for consumption purposes? Could a society reach real “sustainability” if its foundation is based on growing economy? We only move within the limits of our economy, but we have to think further, be critical!

This thought asks for something we do not love to do: thinking far beyond our next generation. But we have to free ourselves from our POPECOLOGY…

Sustainability has become a fashionable term; today’s politics, advertising and production industries cannot be imagined without it. It is a marketing‐term; it is marketing, content and demand. But to whom is this demand directed? To the legislator, the states, politicians, to society, science and research? And are they then taking responsibility for implementation?

Why is it that we consumers have to decide whether to have toxic or tolerable materials, fuel‐consuming cars or E‐cars, contaminated textiles or cloth that come from transparent, acceptably produced and fairly traded; or whether to buy genetically modified or organic food? In daily life the consumer has to decide, steered by marketing and ecological conditions. This influence navigates people into a thinking of intellectual poverty; there is an intentional suggestion of a cozy world of consumption that has something for everyone. The aim is to push unreflectively consuming people into isolation and separation, to increase consumption in general. The sole individual consumes the most: single‐apartments, cars, equipment for communication, entertainment, food and drinks, everything separated. It is the highest level of mechanization to have people using everything individually and for them to constantly need new stuff to be able to interact with their environment. The human being as a single individual turns into the most profitable consumer, the most steerable citizen: a Cyborg. Quite possibly, Europe’s future then will look like dictatorships around the world already do: Those that have enough money live separated from others in enclaves, gated and guarded; someday maybe also on Mars.

Communication takes place in digital media; what seems to be a place of getting‐together but in reality it is isolation, because real companionship is hindered. Do we really want the technical shell to block our way out? What did Beethoven’s symphony and Schiller’s ode want to say with “all humans become brothers”? What does that mean in consideration of the fact that we build fences around Europe today, watching the gap between rich and poor people getting bigger and bigger? Would today’s Beethoven desire a ‘single‐consumerbeing’ instead of ‘brotherhood’? Do we see that as a sentimental daydream ‐ as art is often misunderstood – or do we wish to take a claim from it?

Isn’t it that we nowadays are first and foremost busy to build, keep and develop their own economical, social and cultural identity? The aim is to live as long and comfortably as possible. Everybody prioritises themselves. It seems, no one feels responsible to clear the fog of negative consequences that our usage of technical possibilities has brought over us. What we fear most is to lose already achieved goals and to give up what is familiar to us. Instead of using imaginary ‘sustainability’ to just further develop our economic growth, we have to find a way to free ourselves from the role model of a Cyborg, to get into an active interaction between the elements. The solution is not transferable, it cannot be seen as a gift of God and it cannot be pushed off to authorities and their political ‘dream wandering’. Everybody must start with themselves. There must be early warning systems against negative developments of existing terminologies: this must be part of children’s upbringing and education. So we can create awareness of what has to be done and also of the fact that every single person must make their contribution to find solutions.

Instead of waiting for bad consequences resulting from scientific research and its technical implementation, we must constantly newly invent, work on and defend the ‘guardian function’ of independent and original thinking.

Georg Driendl

Georg and Andrea Driendl
2nd April 2016, Conversations for Change Conference 2016 

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