Architecture, sustainability and systems thinking

Why is sustainability so important? How about systems thinking?

I think that person who is concerned about sustainability is inevitably also a system thinker. Or let’s put it this way: a person who doesn’t care about sustainability is either non capable to systems thinking or extremely cynic or brilliant to cheat her or his own mind. The person who doesn’t see that there’s pollution, over consumption, land deprivation, over cultivation, global warming, overpopulation, inequality, poverty etc going on on the planet and denies that we have a severe problem, is stupid. Some of the problems are more or less local, but global warming and overconsumption for example are something that will affect us all. Some of us doesn’t care if there’s people suffering on the other side of the planet, but even they should realize that sooner or later these problems will affect us all. The change on Earth is coming for sure, but is it made by us or by the collapsing nature, that’s the question.

The increasing use of nature’s resources and especially the use of fossil fuels have made a huge improve on our standards of living after the industrial revolution in the beginning of 19th century, but now we’re crossing the limits. Sustainable Development is about trying to continue this growth of living quality by being socially fair and without exploiting nature. Even though sustainable development has also its social aspects, I’m considering the environmental issues as the biggest threat for the society, but also as biggest chance to affect on as an architect working in Scandinavia. As architects, we have a huge challenge or better to say opportunity to change the course. In developed countries building sector including materials, transportation, construction, use and maintenance takes about 48% of our energy consumption.

The change towards more sustainable architecture can bee seen in two different categories.In first case we have practical way to act. We have already created the technology to reduce energy needed to warm or cool our buildings for up to 90%. After achieving these savings it’s easy to produce rest of the energy needed with renewable sources like wind or solar power. And even though the decision is always made in the last hand by the client who finances the project, architects have a huge power to affect on that decision with the experience we have as professionals. Energy efficient building materials and products like highly insulated windows are of course still more expensive than regular ones, but there’s always a pay back time for each product. Then it’s up to client for how long pay back time one can afford. Better solutions for all in a long run and wider perspective should be made more attractive choice for single citizen considering primarily his or her own best and economical situation in a short time perspective.

Another practical thing that we can affect is the decisions made in planning process like the orientation of building to take local weather conditions like passive solar energy in to account, to recycle as much as possible, or just to avoid useless square meters, just to name few. In a social aspect we have even more complex issues which are mostly unique and varying depending on the site, surroundings and use of the building.  Air-tightness, high insulation and passive solutions in design are practices for sustainability in building process, but more potential lies in larger scale projects in the field of urban design. In spite of the knowledge we have concerning the global warming and lack of equity we’re still planning our cities and societies in the conditions of private driving. In mid-sized and big cities a well organized public transportation is the only way to insure decent mobility to everyone and to cut down CO2 emissions at the same time. Even bigger issue in the future is that more and more people will live in cities and the biggest growth will take place in developing countries which are already now missing decent infrastructure.

While we are getting aware of ecological issues of Sustainable Development, third world is still lacking the basic social standards of it. Before we can expect any ecological actions from developing countries we have to help them to get on their feet on basic social sectors in society. When people have access to clean water and decent sanitation we can start to think how they could develop in sustainable way without same fossil fuel consumption which we had on our way. While cities are growing the one challenge for architects will be to find out how we can make cities more self-sufficient to avoid transportation of goods as much as possible.

After acknowledging all these social and ecological aspects on which architecture can affect it is shocking to realize that most of our build structure nowadays is formed by economical norms. Secondarily comes functional and aesthetic values. After all this, if there happens to be some money, time and interest left (usually there’s non of them) comes ecological and social ones. And it’s just those social and ecological values which affects most in a big, complex system called build environment.

Money talks. But somehow building shared environment shouldn’t be business activity because making business is too often about minimizing the costs and maximizing the profits. The one who builds should be concerned about the quality of the environment for everyday life instead of making profit out of it. A company leaves the site quickly with its profits but the building remains hopefully (or unfortunately) for hundreds of years. No one cares after 100 years if well designed and built building crossed the budget with 20% at the time it was built. The problem is that one century is too long time for economist to wait for his moneys. And if it is the one with the money who decides, it’s always a short time perspective that matters.

European building regulations says that impacts on environment must be taken in to account in every building process. These regulations are reaching only the minimum level of  actions that could be done. That’s why the second, more important act, to make the change is that we need to change our habits, values and ways of thinking in general. As leaders in building processes we need to act as mental leaders towards this change. There’s always complaining that we’re lacking supply because there isn’t enough demand or opposite and nothing happens, but I think that someone has to make the first move and that architects should be proud of being able to take the charge. My opinion is that sustainability and system thinking should become a guiding issue in the building sector as well as any other sectors in society. I think that’s the only choice we have. Of course there are other qualities in architecture which shouldn’t be underestimated, but seen on the conditions of sustainable systems thinking. This could even be seen as a whole new era in the history of architecture.

Architecture needs a reformation which can be remembered in the future like we remember the raise of modernism and functionalism in the early 20th century. We have all we need to make the change. There has been already increasing signs for better sustainability in the field of architecture, but at the same time there’s still too many offices making superficial and overformal WOW-architecture without any deeper idea for impact on environment or respect for the nature. Reasons for this can be many but I’m sure that we all have the knowledge needed and that we’ve at least heard about global warming, but even still we’re somehow not taking this seriously enough.

And even though ecological aspect is rejecting some visual opportunities in design there’s still endless amount of opportunities left. In other words, an ecological content and architectural qualities can be achieved at the same time. Designing facades and form of the building should only happen on the conditions of ecology. Perhaps the easiest way to change towards sustainability without any economical investments is to change our habits in living and consuming. Even though Sustainable Development is something which tries to go green by maintaining our standards of living at the same time, there’s always reasonable limits for the space needed for living for example. Do we really need to have 50 m2 per person while at the same time we’re paying a huge attention for inventing new technology to reduce the need for heating energy? There has been researches already during last two or three decades that in western countries we have already acchieved living standards needed to have a happy life, and that gaining more doesn’t anymore make us more happier.

There’s something interesting in human behaviorology. Especially in western countries where society is based on continuous econimical growth. For this ideology it’s hard to explain that resources in nature are limited. Not to mention that they should be distributed equally. Another question is do we really have to build new houses instead of renovating or reusing the old ones? The new trend in profession of architecture is to say that it takes so much effort to make old buildings airtight and properly isolated that it’s more sustainable to build new ones. I can agree on this statement but anyway the existing old building stock is so vital in creating identity for our urban environments that it’s too important to replace with new buildings. So in the end even if we manage to make our new buildings environmental-friendly, improving the existing buildings will anyway be even bigger challenge towards sustainability, also because of the fact that building stock is renewing so slowly in developed countries.

Because architects are working as some kind of consults between clients who creates the demand and those who defines the supply, we can try to affect on both. Tax system should be reformed so that unsustainable acting should be charged and gained profit should be channelled to improve the sustainable ones. For example, taxes for private driving should be raised and profits should be given to improve public transportation and sustainable urban planning. Now we have the situation were the price of fossil fuels for example doesn’t reflect its full costs for society in form of pollution. In stead at the moment innocent citizens or even worse future generations are paying for this. So we need to have at least an equal legislation by the governments in environmental issues. Even stricter control, rules and regulations for building sector would be acceptable if they would aim for sustainability.

As a conclusion, I think that it’s positive that we have woken up in front of this huge challenge we’re facing and that there’s a great amount of people working in the field of construction who have been thinking the bigger picture and realized the problem. Sustainable technology is developing constantly and we’re achieving great goals in some individual sectors. The biggest work is still to be done in the field of collective awareness. In this sector we have the biggest potential to achieve sustainability and also biggest ability to affect as architects.

Harness systems thinking

It’s about a time for a third post of the course. I was interested in systems thinking and knew something about it already before the course, but now after the lectures and teamworks the most interesting thing to notice has perhaps been that it’s not always positive to ‘think widely’. I think we’ve found suprisingly many examples of abusing systems thinking during the course. Phenomenons caused by globalization like food production, goods transportation or European Union were widely discussed during the course and mostly with negative attitude. Maybe to be precise the word abusing is the right word to use, because those negative examples of systems thinking has always been man-organized and therefore miss organized.

Systems thinking, or causality is a phenomenon which can be found everywhere in fields of nature, politics, technology, societies etc. It’s a complex bunch of causalities within a certain boundary or group and also ones affecting over group boundaries. In nature even the most complex systems are always in the end striving towards harmony, but in human hands generally speaking the more complex the system gets the more obvious it is that  we aren’t able to use systems thinking as a tool for our benefits – at least in a long term perspective.

I think that in theoretical level we’ve became really talented in researching and analyzing even complex systems, but at the same time we have a lot to learn in managing and creating complex man made systems where we are the driving force in stead of the nature.

I find European Union as an interesting example of man-made complex systems in many ways. I believe, unlike those who claims that bigger countries only want’s to increase their power, that the purpose is to create more stable, equal and wealthy Europe. In some cases it has also been successful to have high hierarchy governance and results have been positive when dealing in a continental scale instead of national. At the same time there’s many things which would be better and more effective to deal in a local level. Once again it is about finding a right balance between national and international decision making. It’s also about the fact that as hierarchy in a system grows it need more power and effort to maintain it.

Same phenomenon can be seen in a national level in Finland as well. Financial and political power is focusing increasingly to our capital Helsinki, small communities are forced to join with bigger ones and so on. There’s already several signs that we’ve reached the conservation face   in globalization.

blunting the pyramids

One way to categorize systems is to divide them into systems with high hierarchy (hh) and ones with low hierarchy (lh). One example of this kind of division could be urban societies contra primitive rural living. As you can assume systems with high hierarchy has several layers or stakeholders. For hh systems it’s typical to have high level of specialization, which means that every unit i. e. person in a system has a special role in supporting a system. For example in urban society people are specialized for a profession to earn their living. There’s some basic goods or services which every unit needs to survive, but instead of producing all them by themselves like in primitive rural societies, it’s more effective to specialize for producing one of them and then trade it to cover rest you need to have. This particular phenomenon gave birth to high cultures in human history but it has its negative sides as well. Because of their hierarchy i. e. complexity it takes lot of resources to keep them rolling. This makes that some systems in some point are growing over the breaking point because not only managing a system comes harder when it expands but it also simply gets more causalities as boundaries are growing. Already in general level the probability for some unbalancing loop to emerge grows.

Also Elinor Olstrom states in ‘Beyond markets and states: Polycentric governance of complex economic systems’ that a research has shown that police systems in larger cities works worse, than ones in smaller cities. In larger systems, information takes longer to reach the working level. That’s also what we think leaks in finnish food production. We think that in this issue as well as in many others it’s good to reduce the hierarchy and  go back in time, maybe not as far as 5000 years but somewhere there in between…

Architects vs. normal people

Today I watched vol. 2 and vol. 3 from Stewart Brand’s documentary series How buildings learn. I agree totally with Brand that there’s a problem that some architects are sometimes planning buildings mostly for themselves as well as for architectural reviews or other architects (vol. 3 Built for change). As a result you will get buildings which are indeed unique and has always something special but which also at the same time can be so extra unordinary that they are lacking the fundamental idea of a building that it’s built for a need. For example is it more important for a roof to look good or to be waterproof. Or is it good to have wide open glass facade if then the building gets overheated during sunny days.

To earn some compassion for the profession once so appreciated I started to think the diagram of different layers by Brand we saw on a lecture yesterday. Sometimes if you’re not aware of these complex systems forming a building you may not be able to realize what is so great in a building. In addition what is sometimes common to modern architecture and modern art is that it doesn’t open to you at once. Instead it takes time to understand the piece of art.

Architecture as well as music or art is always a reflection of its time. Modern arts were born at same time with modern society were freedom of choice was one of the fundamental ideas. Before that we had to basically built according to same strict norms for 2000 years. Compared to that the modern architecture is still evolving. And now even if you would have to make a waterproof roof you’d still have an endless amount of choices for your design…


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