Tuesday July 5th 2011


Sustainability: A renewed look at locality in architecture

Red Box at Night
Creative Commons License Photo credit: Jeremy Levine Design

Sustainability has never reached the point where it became so imminent as it is nowadays and at the same time so unperfected in the architectural discussion. We are on the eve of an architectural revolution where situational design parameters are no longer used as a design tool to “catch” the genius loci of a place or to resolve the design in the context, but will be driven from a sustainable necessity and local opportunities.

In an interview with the Dutch TV program “EenVandaag”, top economist Jeremy Rifkin states that the survival of the human race depends on the question; How are we going to deal with energy? According to Rifkin we are on the eve of a third industrial revolution, an era where fossil fuel is obsolete but the technique to create sustainable energy is available. So far no news. The interview gets interesting when he unfolds his view on “buildings as small power plants” and the way we should distribute energy. In his vision a lot depends on modern techniques which should be implemented in our buildings. Techniques to create energy from the sun, wind, earth warmth, tidal waves and domestic waste. On top of that we should also, according to Rifkin, renew our way of distribution of this “home created” energy. Energy can be stored as hydrogen energy and shared at peaks and lows throughout a intrigued network similar to the internet. Decentralised instead of centralised energy distribution. The question is; how can we as architects implement these techniques in our design process?

Generic and specific energy resources
Taking the statement “building as a power plant” as a starting point and re-evaluating the available techniques we are evidently given an opportunity. By reviewing these different techniques and energy resources we can clearly divide two main categories; “generic” techniques such as solar panels, wind turbines etcetera which can work at almost every location with almost every program. And location or program related techniques such as earth warmth, tidal wave, hydrogen energy and waste energy, the location or program “specific” techniques. An office uses a different waste policy then a family home, subsequently the process of using this waste as an energy source should also be approached differently in the design as such. Not on every location by lack of space or together with every program we can store hydrogen energy due to its explosive character, take a dense residential urban situation for example.

Check your resources
Before one design sketch is made a study of these specific local use, storage and distribution of alternative energy should be studied and checked on feasibility. Location analyses which are traditionally done by architects to come up with an appropriate building height, suitable entrance and façade materials etcetera should be complimented with a study on energy recourses. Specific energy recourses which should work for the specific location and the specific program or building type. Architects should not distinguish alternative energy recourses as a parameter or technical requirement from their design approach but must see these energies as a more fixed part of the ‘design-equation’, a specific and generic design variable.

The future is now
Buildings needn’t be the most energy guzzling sector in the industrialised world, responsible for close to 40% of the energy consumption and a large part of the CO2 emissions in modern society. In fact, the energy used in our buildings for heating, cooling, ventilation and hot water can be cut by 75% globally, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). We need visionary architects enabling the whole-hearted and implement the use of these technologies into their design strategy. Not only new buildings should be constructed to be energy efficient enough to turn the structure into a net zero energy building. But even better, a plus energy home that supplies more energy than it requires, the home as a small power plant. Make money on clever energy use. It’s possible. We are beyond awareness. It just takes a new design method and a renewed look at the local opportunities.

This article was originally posted on the Green Blog under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.