We've spent some time on the blog lately talking about product design, but not so much about building design and the built environment. When I gave a lecture on dMASS at Centerbrook Architects and Planners recently, I tried to draw connections between product design and architecture. Buildings and other components of infrastructure are products, but on a different scale. Buildings also have multiple functions, making performance measurement more difficult. The challenges that architects and engineers face in building design force us to think in the most rigorous and creative ways about resource performance. Few things could be more important. Consider:
Buildings tie up a lot of resource mass for decades. Buildings have a much longer life than most products. It's becoming increasingly evident that a sustainable economy is one where resources recirculate. In the future, we will see more mining "above-grade," or extracting and reusing materials from obsolete uses, rather than mining from the earth's crust. We will also have to find ways to harvest a higher yield (more benefit) from every ton of resource each time it's recovered for re-use. Buildings keep loads of resources out of circulation that could otherwise be invested in new, higher-performing uses. For building design, using more recycled and recovered materials is important; so is reduction of the total mass required to get the job done.
A building's design is the primary factor that determines its ongoing resource use. In addition to the mass embodied in buildings, we have to consider ongoing resource use, like that of fuels and water. The LEED program has been important for slowing the growth in fuels and water use, but it isn't enough. We need to keep asking the most fundamental questions about what functions a building is designed to perform and then become much smarter about matching those functions with opportunities for mass reduction, both initially and throughout the life of the building.
Buildings influence how efficiently organizations of people work. They influence behavior by affecting the kinds of activities that can be efficiently conducted within them. And they influence how easy it is to perform different kinds of tasks, to recycle, to communicate, to get jobs done. This in turn influences resource use. So, for example, highly specialized buildings are harder to adapt for re-use, or they may restrict activities or make improving performance over time more difficult. Flexibility, therefore, is an important consideration.
Buildings must last longer than most products. Given the amount of capital and resources invested, buildings are rightfully expected to last. They have to be more resilient than most products, though they are subject to continuous exposure to the elements. This poses a challenge when introducing new materials, techniques, and designs. Architects need to balance innovative, resource-saving strategies with resilience.
In a resource-constrained world, we have to do an ever-better job of designing buildings that reduce required mass, both in the initial design and over the life of the building. Resource savings won't just be found in innovative new materials and products, they will be achieved through a planning process that considers what functions the building needs to serve and designs that deliver those functions most effectively with the least amount of mass possible.