There is definitely a movement towards more sustainable building in this country and around the world, and rightly so. There is only so much energy we can extract, drill, or techno-create and only so much landscape to cultivate. We live in a finite system with finite resources where infinite growth is not scientifically or rationally conceivable. Buildings currently consume the lion’s share of energy in the United States at 48%, checking in ahead of transportation (27%) and manufacturing (25%) (source: US Energy Information Administration). They also swallow up once productive land while leaving a trail of asphalt and turf in its wake. After a typical building is constructed it is hooked up to the power grid to produce electricity, to the water supply to provide potable water, and to the sewer system to carry waste. Gobbling up resources from those utilities to support its needs while never giving anything back. Historically, there is not much longevity for an eco-system or civilization operating under that premise. This is due, in large part, to the design paradigm of one-size-fits-all architecture. A house in Fargo looks and behaves no differently than one in Fort Lauderdale.
The main stumbling block preventing a paradigm shift is that we have no real connection to what it is we are trying to protect. This is because real nature, the one that exists without human intervention, is so far removed from our daily lives. It has been relegated to the outskirts of humanity, bound by wilderness limits set forth by the National Parks Service. However, wouldn’t you be more likely to protect pristine nature if it was part of your daily life and provided for your livelihood? Most likely, yes. Then why have we spent the last few centuries wiping our natural eco-systems for manufactured picturescapes? We seem to favor open space that is a woeful replica of the natural open space that we supplanted. Much like the French Garden (and its response by the English) of the 18th century, we replace wild open space with contrived, organized, and tamed yards. However, if it can provide little more than a pretty view, than what is it really worth?
In Maine Woods, Henry David Thoreau eluded to a necessary connection with nature while climbing Mount Katahdin,
“I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one-that my body might-but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has taken possession of me? Talk of mysteries-Think of our life in nature-daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it-rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?”
We have to be in contact with our surroundings to acquire an intimate knowledge about them and in order to protect them. Only when our built environment behaves like a natural eco-system can we expect to really be in Contact with nature. We are also more likely to protect its livelihood. The natural environment, though, is more than the ubiquitously plopped lake and trees, it is a place that embraces and provides for all life. Not a place we overpower, manipulate, and domesticate, but one we live with in delicate balance. We will need a paradigm shift so that a building becomes a member of the landscape, collecting solar energy from the sun for its electrical needs while sequestering carbon and producing oxygen, harvesting rainwater for potable uses and maintaining and edible forest, and supplying waste water to on-site wetlands. This, as architect William McDonough puts it, provides “a life-support system in harmony with energy flows, human souls, and other living things.” Only after this system exists will we live in Contact with nature, where we will be able to care for it and embrace it. The current systems supporting our lives operate in unconnected clusters must be realigned to perform in harmonized networks. Not a building as a machine, but as a building as a tree.