What is sustainable architecture? Sustainable design seems to be talked about alot, although is rarely questioned as to exactly what the term means. We are currently in a resource boom (or end of), time of relative wealth and continual pursuit of newer and better technologies. Although as technologies continually advance at unprecedented rates they become superseded faster and faster. It becomes cheaper and cheaper, more acquirable and more replaceable, its lifespan is shortened and its overall value decreased (one only has to recall how many phones they've had in the past few years and how they seem to continually break easier and easier and become cheaper and cheaper).
This notion of superseding and value are extremely important, for it suggests that while technology has allowed architecture to become more sustainable and affordable, it has also devalued architecture through use of cheap materials and reduction of design due to costs. To get a green star or LEED certified building all one needs do is go through the checklist; a formula for successful 'sustainable architecture', it requires little design ability and is increasingly easier to obtain. It values technology; solar panels, water recycling and the highest point scorer being good insulation. Although does this mean the design is truly sustainable? I question technology based sustainable design and ask if technology is so rapidly advancing, what becomes of solar panels 20 years from now? Well designed buildings should last many decades to many hundred years. This means that current housing designs are being pitched and sold as sustainable design through simply adding solar panels, glazed windows and insulation, and this may not in fact be a truly long-term sustainable solutions.
A prime example of a building marketed and designed around technology being the environmental Centre at Ballymena Borough Council (Click link) costing 10 million pounds boasting state of the art solar panels, biomass boiler and reed bed filtration system. Only 13 years later many solar panels are turned off, the centre is no longer used frequently, barely attracting public visitors and the building is now heated by a gas boiler; not its originally sustainable biomass boiler. So why is this? Aidan Donnelly from Ballymena Council stated "the council was left behind as green technology advanced". The technology is out of date and is no longer sustainable to use, all in only 13 years; a sustainable centre no longer sustainable? quite ironic if you ask me. Although this precedent was not simply used to bash ageing technology but used to learn from our past mistakes so we don't repeat them into the future.
So what are we to do? We need to use technology in order to be sustainable, but at the same time cannot allow design to simply rely upon technology to be sustainable, quite a paradox. In order to investigate I simultaneously looked at both the past and present. For the truly sustainable buildings are ones which have been designed in the far past and remained standing and publicly valid well into the present, and will remain so well into the future. These are buildings built with consideration to material, design and respect. Churches are prime examples of this with heavy sustainable materials lasting centuries while its design integrity is high enough that the public consider the architecture worth keeping and maintaining (While some would argue this is due to religious reasons many churches are re-purposed and valued due to their architectural integrity). Though we don't necessarily have to build church -like buildings throughout the world to be sustainable, we simply need to study and identify how church-like qualities may be embodied in the everyday vernacular architecture of housing design. Perhaps consider brick instead of cheap render, articulated window frames, ornate detailing which adds value and design interest to a building. Some of these very basic features can be seen throughout housing designs common throughout Melbourne such as old Victorian homes, often exhibiting Victorian iron lace details above the front porch, pin-tucked brickwork, detailed ridge work or parapets. These houses are highly desired aesthetically as well as the property market often being retained with interior renovations and extensions preserving the façade. Would somebody consider retaining a poorly made rendered façade with little design integrity? Probably not, and this illustrates how important architectural design can be in creating truly sustainable designs which are built for the present but last well into the future, remain prized, valued and respected.
For these reasons it is important to remember the past to create a truly sustainable future. Embracing the dictum of quality over quantity; for as time moves forward and technologies become ever cheaper it will be of no surprise that buildings will continue to develop shorter and shorter lifespans as corners are cut to make building cheaper and cheaper. Perhaps instead of cutting costs on design in order to build large double story homes or developments we could invest in high quality smaller homes, allowing for quality extensions to be made when funds are available; a forward thinking long-term approach to housing.
So while sustainable technologies such as solar panels, water tanks and solar heating should be used within architectural design, it is of my opinion that it should never remain the focus of design. Considered a temporary element within the design easily replaceable every decade or so, with the main focus remaining on durable materials, passive solar and ventilative planning and beautifully respected design, so that houses may escape the wrecking ball for a truly sustainable amount of time.