As William McDonough and Michael Braungart so ably pointed out in their book Cradle to Cradle, the problem of sustainability goes way beyond paper versus plastic. Since we have progressed past the days where artisans created tables from scratch (sometimes chopping down the wood for him or herself), every product now contains a vast and interconnected lineage of effort, energy and material. Thus, even analyzing seemingly simple environmental questions is now a tremendously complex mathematical maximization problem, dependent on a variety of variables, including the cost of fuel, the environmental impact of mining, growing and shipping the materials that are used, and the legacy left by materials as they degrade (or fail to do so) in landfills and the like. Books like Industrial Ecology or Design for the Real World serve to demonstrate just how interconnected our global economy has become, and this makes the prospect of dubbing an item "green" all the more difficult. Sure it makes sense to use bamboo rather than wood because it grows so much faster, but if it's shipped from Thailand, the gains may not be worth the cost in freight.
Consequently, young architects or designers looking to promote a "green" or eco-friendly agenda are flummoxed by an overly large toolbox. So many new technologies promise to allow humans to live harmoniously in their environment that it has become difficult to devise a single sensible solution. Instead, architectural contests, such as the 1st Advanced Architecture Contest offered by the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia and showcased in their book Self-Sufficient Housing display a range of paradigm breaking, but widely divergent "solutions" to this problem, that seem far more at ease promoting the visible aspects of sustainability than delving into the deepest layers of our economy to find true efficiencies.
Every page of the book contains propositions and display materials for innovative housing solutions that attempt to tackle this problem. Almost universally, the renderings and conceptions are lovely to the point of fantastic, but the complexity of the underlying architecture warrants more than a page of description. In some sections the accompanying language read clearly and rang of hope, such as "we should stand for a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciably instead of dictatorially." Sadly, however, others were hampered with awkward language, unsupported statements, and the equivalent of buzzword bingo, where I found myself awaiting the next project that deemed itself an "urban parasite" or promised "modular," "passive," "flexible" or "adaptive" surfaces without ever explaining the mechanics behind them.
While the language and the explanations behind many of the products were jarring and awkward, they are not worthy of rebuke. More importantly the difficult verbiage was likely a consequence of the disparate origins of the proposals, coming from 6 continents, a multitude of countries and a total of 529 applicants. The global scale of concern for our environment and the vibrant ideas generated by our youth serve as the book's strongest points and reinforce just how important it has become to the younger generations to hold stewardship over our earth.Since I'm a designer, economist and mathematician currently working on the fluid dynamics of water reclamation, I really wanted to hear about the technology behind the projects. After poring over the tiny explanatory text that accompanied the striking images with squinted eyes, I often found myself unable to discern the precise mechanisms that generated clean water or sustainable energy for each of the developments. Instead, nearly every proposal simply cited water purification, solar energy or the usage of biogas as fuel without getting into the details. The efficiency, however, of new "clean" technology is not a mere detail; it's the crux of their feasibility.
This is not to say that the proposals are not well thought out. While the students often tend to take the functionality of waste reclamation for granted, even while much of the hard science behind it has yet to be fully designed, their efforts are earnest and inspiring. Much like a couture runway in fashion, most of these aren't houses that could be built tomorrow, but instead beacons of what the future could be. Some take that mandate very seriously, like Gaetan Kohler's Prize winning MicroCosm-House, which includes details such as a flowchart of inputs and outputs demonstrating the flows of water, heat, waste and food, all the way through the decomposition cycle and the generation of methane off-gas. While I'm not enough of an ecologist to vouch for the accuracy of the flow chart, I fully appreciate his thoroughness in cataloging the impact of his house from end to end. Kohler's is the sort of holistic thinking that sustainable architecture needs.
While some of the entries seem to use form as ornament, displaying sharp tetrahedral exteriors or inexplicable spheroid shapes, the bulk of the entries choose a form appropriate to their environment. Since power can come from wind, sun or sea, the buildings designed for those ecologies seem to share common traits. Of particular note are the buildings situated near bodies of water. Nearly all of them are shaped like airplane wings to take advantage of prevailing winds and they all use the ambient temperature of the adjacent body of water to regulate their temperature. Further, modularity and scalability occur repeatedly as key concepts. The buildings that seem to work have the most credibility, creating (or claiming to create) their own biome. In an era where fuel prices have entered the stratosphere, the concept of farmed locally achieves critical import.
Conceptually, the projects all seem to have similar mandates: Recycle their own waste, generate energy using geological or geothermal phenomena, allow the size of the envelope to vary according to need, and choose an orientation to maximize the effect of the wind and the sun. Eerily, most of the submissions that claimed self sustainability on the dwelling level had rather large footprints, leading me to ponder whether even modular sustainable architecture could be a workable goal given our exponential population growth. The form factors of the buildings are also diverse, from clusters of tubing reminiscent of the Centre Pompidou to recessed circular arenas evocative of Uncle Owen and Aunt Baru's desert dwelling in Star Wars. The methodologies, however, remain consistent throughout the work. So while, anyone truly wanting to understand sustainability at its core still needs to read the hard sciences, for those of us who are curious to see what possible futures could be imagined for the swelling tide of humanity, Self-Sufficient Housing provides a beautiful and hopeful speculative future.