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A Sudden Cessation of Stupidity

By: Jerry Yudelson, PE, LEED® AP - Monday, November 27, 2006
Source: Yudelson Associates

Founded in 1937 by inventor Edwin Land, Polaroid Corporation embodied American ingenuity for many decades.  Land is famously reported to have said, "Every creative act results from a sudden cessation of stupidity."  I love this phrase and have certainly seen it at work in my own life on many occasions.  In terms of the green building movement, it seems particularly apt.

For many decades, it’s fair to characterize building design and construction as an exercise in collective stupidity.  The objective often has been to build space that could be thrown away in a few decades, as long as it was cheap today.  The objective appeared to be to see how much energy and water buildings could consume, without regard to the consequences.  The objective was to see how much construction and demolition waste could be thrown away cheaply, without consequence.  The objective might have been to conduct an uncontrolled experiment in how well people function when deprived of fresh air, daylight and views of the outdoors.  Perhaps some school architects and administrators thought they should try to see if kids taught in windowless, poorly-ventilated cheap buildings employing toxic materials, could grow up without brain damage or asthma.

Our current impasse results from the doctrine of wasteful, cheap, throwaway buildings with mammoth unintended consequences for society and the environment.  Now, we are engaged in a race against time to reverse five decades of damaging trends, based on a linear, "throwaway" economic model and an unlimited supply of cheap energy.  In this respect, perhaps we can now characterize the green building movement properly as "a sudden cessation of stupidity."  Certainly the 13,000-plus attendees at the U.S. Green Building Council’s 2006 Greenbuild conference in Denver earlier this month, along with the nearly 500 exhibitors at the trade show, are leading the way in envisioning a new future for building design, construction and operations.

Greenbuild 2006 showcased many examples of the "sudden initiation of innovation."  A new partnership with Autodesk, purveyors of the reigning design tool, AutoCAD, will allow the USGBC to offer design tools that help engineers and architects estimate energy consumption from design sketches; accessible new tools for greening affordable housing were introduced; we’re seeing a massive worldwide awakening to the climate change implications of greenhouse gas emissions (3 percent growth of carbon emissions in 2005, to almost 8 billion tons, according to the Earth Policy Institute), with the world’s forty largest cities now targeted by the Clinton Foundation for carbon emissions reductions; new partnerships between ASHRAE and AIA, midwifed by USGBC, to bring the key building design professions together on energy reduction strategies; and the list goes on, and on, and on.

This is the most exciting time to be in the building industry, in terms of innovation, in many decades, if not ever.  We are collectively beginning to cease stupidity and seek wisdom.  New products, methods, tools and visions are collectively changing the building industry within this decade, more than it changed in the thirty-year period from 1970 through 2000.

We are redefining what it takes for people to be healthy, productive and comfortable in the built environment; we are inventing new tools and finding out how to make older tools (daylighting, operable windows and natural ventilation) work in a more demanding economic and social environment; we are making our buildings energy-efficient without sacrificing fresh air, comfort or health; we are inventing new tools that allow us finally to see in 3-D what has always been viewed in 2-D and to see the results of our efforts (in terms of energy use and thermal comfort) early enough in the design process to make useful changes; and we are learning how to do all of this within conventional building budgets and schedules, proving that we can have champagne on a beer budget, if we are willing to try new approaches in an intelligent manner.

But as architect and visionary William McDonough often says, our objective is not to be "less bad," in terms of the environmental, societal and economic effects of our buildings and urban settlements, but to be "positively good," even "restorative." It’s one thing to stop being stupid, another to seek out and practice real wisdom. Looks like we’re on the way!

Jerry Yudelson is Senior Editor at IGreenBuild. He can be reached at Visit his website to see his blog and newsletter,

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