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Living in Anticipation of Extinction

Apr 22, 2010

by Catherine Calvert, VIA’s Director of Community Architecture

I’m starting to get an uneasy feeling. It’s not a new feeling, but one that’s been nagging at me for some time, and has only been heightened since the basic failure of anything substantial to be accomplished at the climate talks in Copenhagen back in December. 

As a part of a firm that spends a lot of time practicing and thinking about sustainable design, it’s been easy to feel that our good work will make a difference toward efforts to change the course of our planet’s climatic transformation. To quote the US Green Building Council, “As the built environment accounts for 40 percent of global carbon emissions, the green building movement has an unprecedented opportunity to make a major contribution to new global carbon reduction targets. [We need to] understand how we can work together to show that green building represents one of the most direct, immediate and cost-effective opportunities to help tackle climate change.”

But it’s not enough. Bill McDonough was so correct in his 2002 groundbreaking book Cradle to Cradle, when he said “being less bad is no good.” Making slightly better choices under the banner of green building only has the potential to slow down the pace at which our climate is changing, but is highly unlikely to prevent it.

It’s kind of ironic that people refer to “destruction of the planet” as the result of our untamed use of energy and resources to feed our voracious consumption habit. Let’s be clear about one thing: the planet will be fine. The planet has been around for 4.5 billion years and has assembled and disassembled its continental masses, submerged itself in oceans before belching up new mountain ranges, covered itself in ice sheets for 4 or 5 times, created habitat for all kinds of species imaginable, then got tired of each of those and nurtured something new.

The planet is really good at rearranging its furniture and maybe even enjoys the process. It’s all of us who live here, humans and animals and plants, who are in trouble. In a hundred or a thousand years, it’s likely that the planet will just be thoroughly fed up, and we won’t be welcome here any more.

In recent weeks, I’ve started to think about what it really will mean to anticipate climate change while we’re waiting for extinction. Sustainable design is good, but we need to make a fundamental shift to adaptive design. Real changes will affect the ways that humans will have to adapt our lifestyles and our buildings in order to survive. A recent article in GreenSource has an excellent summary of some of the building design strategies that we can use now in order to prepare for the future:

  • Incorporate passive survivability into buildings by designing buildings that will maintain livable conditions in the event of power outages.
  • Raise the cooling design temperature when modeling buildings and sizing mechanical equipment.
  • Reduce solar gain and therefore reliance on mechanical cooling mechanisms.
  • Design buildings for storm resistance.
  • Build on higher ground to resist flood damage.
  • Increase stormwater capacity using strategies such as constructed wetlands rather than elaborate civil works.
  • Specify materials that can survive wetting and resist mold growth.
  • Avoid development in the driest areas.
  • Plumb buildings for graywater separation.
  • Plant drought-resistant native plants.
  • Avoid development in fire-prone areas, which are expanding.
  • Follow fire-safe design and construction practices.

To GreenSource’s list I would add the following in terms of lifestyle:

  • Grow your own food if possible, or buy from farmers in your community
  • Nurture compact communities that reduce the need to travel long distances to meet basic needs
  • Treat resources as precious – water, energy, raw materials
  • Get creative in making things for yourself – food, clothing, shelter
  • Conserve the embodied energy in things we already have
  • Generate your own power if feasible, or live in an area where locally produced district energy is available
  • Unplug yourself from consumerism

It’s certainly possible that those who dispute the idea of global warming might be correct, but then again they might not be. If these strategies could help us survive just a little longer, then why not adopt them?

One Comment

  1. Excellent thoughts. Not only will your points help us survive a little longer, they will help us survive “better”. They support quality over quantity. Perhaps the most sustainable service we can provide as designers is quality design. Designs that are steeped in resilience, thoughtfulness, and care can help us to wake up (as a society) and overcome the “quantity” mindset and thus recognize the satisfaction that a “quality” built environment can provide.