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conflicting agendas w/in sustainability

An essay by Kirsten Gram-Hanssen and Jesper Ole Jensen in Sustainable Architectures (edited by Simon Guy and Steven Moore) succinctly bullet points four concepts within the sustainable design (not development) community. I find two of these to be conflicting in regard to the widespread acceptance of sustainable design:
1. “Green buildings as energy-saving devices: after the oil crisis in 1973, strong efforts were made to develop building technologies to improve energy performance, as well as regulations for implementing these technologies.”
2. “Ecological alternatives emerging from the grassroots: as a radical critique of modern society, a number of alternative and green rural settlements grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, emphasising community, self-sufficiency, alternative technologies, lifestyle and spirituality.“

There are certain specific and extremely valid points held by the second example. But while alternative community and lifestyle models may hold allure for a small segment of society, it attaches a stigma to sustainable ‘green’ design. The critiques that must be answered by mainstream design, though, include: indoor air quality; recylced product content; manufacturing processes; construction waste. The most pressing of these issues, in my opinion, is indoor air quality.

In the push to achieve more efficient and energy-saving buildings following the oil crisis in 1973, many designers and manufacturers began to specify and create tightly sealed buildings with high insulation values. Typical building construction up to that point was ‘leaky’ – a certain amount of infiltration, or exchange of air from outdoor to indoor, was accepted and accounted for in building design. This was the manner in which fresh air was introduced to the interior of the building. This is still the case in typical home construction. Many new buildings, though, have reduced infiltration values, resulting in buildup of stale air and specific airborne chemicals. These chemicals are introduced to the air by furniture, carpet, paint, and just about every manufactured product. The manufacturing process for nearly all modern products is infused with chemicals that offgas (they become airborne) for a continued period of time. With less fresh air, these chemicals build up in the air and cause allergic reactions (in addition to any unknown affects – there have been very few studies on the extended effects of these chemicals on human health).

There is a growing movement of people concerned with and affected by airborne chemicals. Another essay in this book, ”Safe houses and green architecture“ by Jim Wasley, addresses this phenomenon. But at this point the public understanding of this health concern is minimal, and desire to remedy it is small – especially in comparison to the benefits of the chemical emitting products. The products are generally cheaper, easier to obtain, and easier to replace than similar, yet healthier, products. Think of a plastic desk instead of a wood desk, or chemical cleaners instead of household cleaning solutions. The ability to keep a product clean is often at issue, and makes plastics, for instance, more appealing. But at what cost?

Modern green buildings must address these issues while simultaneously being energy saving. Buildings must be energy efficient and healthy simultaneously – one is worthless without the other, or we will merely substitute one problem for another.

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