Is there more to architecture than sustainability?

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

I think it’s time to stop treating sustainability in architecture like it’s the precocious child that needs to be singled out and lavished with constant attention for fear it will shrivel up and die.

We don’t single out many other performance attributes of buildings for special consideration – for example, structural integrity, economic efficiency, or user safety – but we keep treating sustainability as if it should be in the special needs class.

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Consider the first para of the Barangaroo Delivery Authority’s description of Barangaroo South:

Setting new standards in sustainability, Barangaroo South will be a true mixed use precinct consisting of commercial office buildings, residential apartments, international hotel, shops, cafes and restaurants, waterfront promenade and cultural facilities

Sustainability is extremely important so it’s a good thing the project will set new standards on this score. But quite frankly we should be able to take that for granted, in the same way we assume buildings won’t collapse or let the rain in or make the occupants sick or send the owners broke.

Astonishingly, there’s no mention of the architectural or urban design qualities of Barangaroo South in the blurb. And while it’s pleasing there’ll be a mix of uses, that’s very basic information – it tells us nothing about how this place will work. It could almost as easily be a description of Melbourne’s lamentable Docklands redevelopment.

The design and civic qualities of a one-off site like this should be the key driver. With 7.5 Ha on Sydney Harbour, Barangaroo South is one of the world’s great redevelopment opportunities and warrants exceptional activities and outstanding architecture. It’s not Bennelong Point but it’s still an outstanding site – and Barangaroo was the (long-suffering) wife of Bennelong.

Rather than give sustainability sole billing, I’d like to see the Authority focus on how the architecture and urban design will contribute to making Sydney a better and more interesting place. I’d like to see some very special activities in the precinct rather the usual suspects (and I’m not thinking “casino”!). I’d like to see something with a sense of place, that’s unique to Sydney.

Treating sustainability as something out of the ordinary is deeply entrenched in the design industry. For example, the Australian Institute of Architects has been running a Sustainability Award (under various names) as one of a number of awards since 1993. That’s almost 20 years, virtually a generation.

That’s time enough, I think, to acknowledge that architects should treat sustainability as a given, not something unusual or, worse, optional. I know the Institute is seeking to recognise outstanding work, but this is the only performance-related award it offers – the rest all relate to descriptive categories like type of use, age or location of the building.

If the Institute had multiple performance-related awards my concerns might well be misplaced. But it doesn’t. Interestingly, an Access Award was instigated in 1994 but was dropped in 1999, hopefully because providing access for handicapped users had become the industry default by then.

Now it’s time to “regularise” the idea of sustainability in architecture. It’s time to make it normal rather than treat it as an unusual, difficult and exceptional achievement. The facts are it’s not hard and it’s not a wonder. It should be treated as “a given”, just like we take it for granted buildings won’t fall down.

It doesn’t follow that making sustainability unremarkable means it would lose importance. It should be one of the key criteria on which all buildings are evaluated – the idea that there is a separate, small category of ‘sustainable’ buildings and another (very large) one with all the other buildings needs to be jettisoned.

Consider this: excepting two buildings that won awards in the Sustainable Architecture category, 36 buildings won an award in the NSW Institute of Architect’s 2011 Awards. However sustainability was cited as a serious reason for the Jury’s decision in only 5 of those 36 cases. That could suggest sustainability is implicitly seen as the exception, not the rule.

Making sustainability routine also doesn’t mean architects shouldn’t capitalise on it as a means of creating a building’s visual character. Climate control has been a key definer of the way buildings look since well before anyone thought there was such a thing as an ‘architect’. You’ve only got to look at buildings as diverse as the traditional Queenslander, the much-maligned Le Corbusier’s use of brise soleil, or RMIT’s new Design Hub, to see how the quest for energy efficiency has shaped the appearance of buildings.

As for Barangaroo South, if that rendering is accurate, all I can say is: “underwhelming”. I know the nation’s financial centre believes it needs large floorplate buildings in the CBD to be competitive, but the city of the Sydney Opera House can surely do better than what looks a little like a throwback to Kenzo Tange ‘metabolism’.  It’s like Sydneysiders have been fooled into thinking architecture can’t be both sustainable and great.

Architecture can be both. It’s time to stop treating sustainability as something extra-ordinary and put the architecture back in architecture!

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5 thoughts on “Is there more to architecture than sustainability?

  1. Manley Garry

    Here’s an idea: do nothing with Barangaroo.
    Let it sit there as a blank spot. Let it make the shovers and pushers sweat over it’s intangible availability. Let the metaphor of the big slab of concrete remind everyone of how all ‘building’ projects (will) end up, after all the money’s been made and the careless and heedless have gone home, wallets stuffed.

    It’s reclaimed land, so with such idiotic terminology, it should remain there as a Sacred Capitalist Site.

  2. Holden Back

    There are regulations in place in this area – the BCA Section J covers commercial buildings – which mandate minimum thermal performance, sealing, ventilation, energy use and access for maintenance of any building regardless of its claims to ‘sustainability’. Whether these standards are high enough or even appropriate to all Australian climate zones is another question.

    Most of the buildings touting their ‘sustainability’ are at the upper end of the cost scale, and the feature of ‘sustainability’ is part of a marketing campaign for their owners- typically large institutions- who wish to be seen as part of the solution, not the problem. Almost of necessity these building have to wear their ‘sustainability’ on their sleeves with double skins, tricky natural ventilation systems and other ‘objectifiables’ often working against the basic floor plans and orientation.

    A bad nett effect of this phenomenon is that ‘sustainability’ is seen as something that creates expensive buildings, or which can be stripped from a project should it be necessary. So from the point of view of the general market, looking at these buildings ‘sustainability’ is unsustainable (in the old sense) as it adds a cost premium, for systems which are unfamiliar and experimental, and frequently end up not working or being pushed out of use by systems with which the building users are familiar.

    It might also be worth thinking about ‘sustainability’ in a broader urban context of suitability to adaptive re-use, appropriate location of functions to a demographic base, and to be really retro, pleasure in use.

  3. LJG..............

    Sad thing is after noticing my friend’s nice new architecturally designed flats turn into sweatboxes every time the thermometer gets over 30 degrees I don’t think people have quite got the message.
    Or remembered the message, my 1920’s brick flat (top floor) only got hot after a couple of days of 40 degrees and I was fine with a fan during the day and open windows at night.
    People accept having continual air conditioning in Melbourne as normal now. I find it bizarre – not to mention expensive.

  4. Bill Parker

    It would be useful if we had a definition of sustainability and better still a post occupancy criterion that set some rules. The fact that a building may win an “award” is fine but if the process is just promotional greenwash then we go nowhere.

    Predicted energy/water consumption? Post occupancy energy/water consumption?

    None of this should get in the way of architectural beauty.

  5. Stephen Rowley

    Yes yes yes. This.

    I’m tired of seeing rubbish buildings waved through because of half-baked sustainability mumbo jumbo (the RMIT building you wrote about is a classic example); and I’m just as tired of seeing sustainability treated as some kind of novelty feature. You’re right – by making a fuss of it we’re actually making it less important.

    We should see it as a given, and stop accepting compromises to other aspects of design because they’ve said they’ll provide an environmental performance that should be a) mandated (anyone at DPCD listening on this?); or b) its own reward anyway.

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