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  EO - May 14, 2011  
  The Architectural Review May 2011

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Response to: "Architecture in 2030: A Reason to be Cheerful" May 4th 2011 By Bill Millard

Bill Caplan Says:
May 16th, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Bill Millard’s “surprising amount of optimism”, in light of his observation that “Crises in energy, the environment, and economics are converging,” is indeed encouraging. However, while Edward Mazria noted “Today’s architects have not only the knowledge about what needs doing but the power to do it,” they sorely lack the applied knowledge to accomplish these ends. It will take more than “stroke of a designer’s pen.”

Teaching sound environmental design technique in the US is conspicuously deficient,especially at our architecture schools. Failure to understand the fundamentals leads to frequent misuse of sustainable design software and eco-practice. Few architects or interns examine energy analysis programs “under the hood”, thereby forgoing the ability to recognize erroneous or misleading results. The same can be said for the installer/suppliers that most architects depend on to analyze and recommend design practice and technology for reduction of CO2 and other noxious emissions. Deceptive manufacturers’ eco-technology product specifications exacerbate this effect, rarely providing data in forms suitable for intelligent analysis. Some academics teaching sustainability have never used the software beyond prepackaged tutorials. Many have never applied such technology in the field. This leaves the knowledge base to practicing engineers, who work primarily for large firms or on large-scale projects. However, big firms do not design the bulk of our built environment.

The layman’s tools provided by NREL and point based systems such as LEED,
although significant steps in the right direction, are often counterproductive to real sustainable design. While the more sophisticated tools provided by NREL provide true analytic capability to those technically trained, the user friendly versions, relied on by many consumers and small to mid-size firms, provide simplified results from minimal input and generic assumptions that may or may not be representative of site, building and technology conditions. In short, they over-simplify with potentially detrimental results. The same applies to the uninformed application of energy analysis programs such as Ecotect or Sketchup/OpenStudio alone, or as input to EnergyPlus.

We are in the formative period of an interesting time. Undoubtedly, we can turn the tide of carbon and noxious gas pollution as Mazria so well stated, “provided architects make the fundamentals of sustainable design and construction the norm.” Key here are the fundamentals. We must awake from a fantasy that generates colorful 3D energy distribution graphics, as well as carbon and cost savings data, without a full understand of their accuracy, relevance and the variables used to calculate them. This is no longer rocket science. We are fortunate to have new applied technologies that are totally accessible to those willing to learn both the fundamentals and structure behind the software. It is essential for schools and architecture firms to address this in depth. It is important too, for designers addressing these issues to get under the hood rather than relying on pushbutton graphics. Let us not delude ourselves: plugging values in wysiwyg software can provide a feel good “stroke of the designer’s pen”, but may not result in substantive gain. It may generate short term saving, especially with taxpayers’ supporting incentives, but over time the financial and carbon benefits may indeed prove to be negative. Our architectural institutions need a wakeup call; otherwise the selling of feel good sustainability may become Mazria’s “norm."

The path to more sustainable design is through "relevant" sustainable design. The path to relevant sustainable design begins with architectural form emerging from a site's environmental vectors, sense of place, and use. Parametric design as a process tool offers phenomenal promise. It affords the opportunity to incorporate sustainable technology and eco-practice as one with the building envelope - harvesting, conserving and generating energy in a substantive way. This benefits the client, the public and the planet. Let us use parametric design to create form with relevant substance; perhaps we can call the result "parametricism".

We know the problem, understand what needs to be done and have the power to get it done. There should be a “surprising amount of optimism."

Bill Millard's Report from the Field is available at

Bill Caplan, Assoc. AIA
Managing Member
ShortList_0 Design Group LLC