Building for our future

There is a quiet, but widespread movement towards an architecture which treads more lightly on the planet. It is our hope that, after discovering the available alternatives in this series of articles, you will develop a deep dissatisfaction with standard building practices and begin a search for true home, whether you are building the house of your dreams, or by renovating and adapting your existing house.

“Our most basic primordial need is to create our own shelter, and I believe that the energy put into the building of our homes is stored in the walls. It is this energy that then surrounds us. If the process has been a so-called violent one of “come, come time is money, we have a deadline” and the purpose of the structure is not honoured, it must create chaos in our lives. And then we wonder why our society has become so violent.”
—Jill Hogan, McGregor Alternative Technology Centre

According to James Wines of SITE Environmental Design, sustainable architecture basically comes down to three purposes:
to advance the purely selfish motive of survival by a cooperation with nature to build shelter in concert with ecological principles as part of this objective to address the deeper philosophical conflicts of whether we really deserve the luxury of this existence, given our appalling track record of environmental abuse!

If we look at the dwellings of ancient Egypt we find that their architecture was primarily focused on providing a place of worship and honouring of spirit, similarly if we see the success of ancient tribes of the world where each element of nature was identified by its own divine spirit and worshiped with every blessing a gift to be grateful for. Nature was not the foe to be conquered as an unwanted impediment to progress.

It is interesting to observe the deterioration of man’s relationship with nature, both ecologically and agriculturally since the implementation of the major religions. The ancient way of shared responsibility amongst many gods (both male and female) related to the sun, rain, rivers, soil, crops etc was a far more productive theological vision than the despotic all-embracing (male) God created as exclusive rather than inclusive by the dominant religions of today.
As the precession of the equinoxes (which occurs approximately every 26 800 years) took us further and further from the centre of the galaxy, man’s consciousness lost touch with its divinity and the anthropocentric view that man is the centre of the universe and nature is there for man’s convenience, grew at a time of relatively idyllic atmospheric and geological conditions.

The answers are all there now, we can all see why the ancient cultures lived for thousands and thousands of years without the massive destruction that we have engineered in a few decades. It is time for us to take note of the many ways in which we can change our lives and go back to the slow, sacred harmonious ways of living, in touch with the Divine, nature and ourselves. The methods and materials that we use to build our homes and work places are some of them.

I recently read “Living Buildings”, an article by Jason McLennan. It was inspiring and touched my heart. He used the metaphor of a tiny flower living on a very exposed sand dune. He describes this tiny little plant eking out an existence in very harsh conditions. It had evolved perfectly to suit its environment, while at the same time enriching it, retaining soil, providing habitat and storing rainwater as needed. The perfect metaphor for the building of the future.

Living Buildings of the future will:
Harvest all their own water and energy needs on site
Be adapted specifically to site and climate and evolve as conditions change
Operate pollution-free and generate no wastes that aren’t useful for some other process in the building or immediate environment
Promote the health and well-being of all the inhabitants, as a healthy ecosystem does
Be comprised of integrated systems that maximize efficiency and comfort
Improve the health and diversity of the local ecosystem rather than degrade it.
Be beautiful and inspire us to dream

We already have the technology necessary to build these buildings, I know as I am attempting to build one! All we need is the desire and the foresight to accept them.

Eco-industrial Developments
The common perception that economic growth is incompatible with environmental improvement and community enrichment is being shattered by creative, innovative people in communities, governments and industries around the world.

There is a growing “eco” movement, that has also reached us here is South Africa. It is still small as the ethos of doing the “right thing” has yet to be adopted by the majority, but the movement is growing. The BP building and The Green Building in Cape Town are examples of the growing consciousness in the architectural field.

What is the “right thing” and how do we adopt it?
The “right thing” must be to make buildings and systems and businesses pollute, contaminate and deplete less. There is little point in becoming more efficient at the wrong thing!

It must also create community-based living, where people are treated fairly and with respect. This must extend to the natural world, from whence it all comes. It is essential to recognize that our planet is a living breathing entity and not separate from us. Ever noticed how people crave to get out of the cities and into the tranquil peaceful space nature provides for us away from the chaotic, crime-ridden “concrete jungle” we have created?

If we look at the buildings we have created to live, play and work in, they have been more focused on the “machines that run them” than the people that occupy them. Buildings often end up with sealed, tinted windows which allow no fresh air or sunlight in, so that the airconditioning/heating/lighting systems can work properly. No thought is given to the happiness, health or general wellbeing of the people in them.

William McDonaugh compares the elegance and sophistication of a tree to that of a modern high-tech building in eco-effectiveness. A tree produces oxygen, nourishes and restores living systems, engages with the sun in a photosynthetic connection, moisture transpiration, habitation by hundreds of species, transformation of microclimate, distillation of water and production of complex sugars and carbohydrates that sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen and changes with the seasons. Imagine a building like a tree and a city like a forest!

The building of a modern high-tech office block cannot claim to be a healing act in any way. People do not leave feeling refreshed from all the natural light and air, they have received during they day, quite the reverse.

I recently watched the video The Next Industrial Revolution by William McDonough and Partners; it was highly inspirational and encouraging about how to do the “right thing.”

A building that they designed for The Gap in California has an undulating meadow of grasses on the roof. The birds love it; it provides a wonderful habitat for earth creatures absorbs storm water and provides a delightful environment for the inhabitants in the area. A building they designed for Oberlin College in Ohio generates more energy than it needs to operate – in effect paying the energy bill!