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Isn’t it Time for a Slow Building Revolution?


By: Jerry Yudelson, PE, LEED AP, Yudelson Associates - Monday, April 9, 2007
Source: Yudelson & Associates

Think of the sustainable design revolution similar to the slow food movement which began in Italy as a way to combat the American fast food invasion, the use of hundreds of chemicals in processed foods, and the lack of harmony and community in the basic cultural process of eating. The Slow Food movement aims to preserve the cultural nature of local cuisines, along with associated food plants and seeds, domestic animals, and farming within an ecoregion. It brings people together around the simple act of eating. How many people want to go to Italy or Japan and eat at a McDonald’s instead of trying out the local restaurants?

Think about it: you want dinner. It takes just about as much time to go out to a restaurant, eat and come home, as it would to prepare a delicious meal from scratch, with less calories and greater nutrional value. In the same way, an integrated design process takes more time at the beginning of a project, creating a vision, exploring alternatives, creating consensus, then proceeding with detailed design. But in the end, you typically wind up with a better building, with greater value and fewer energy calories used. Isn’t it possible to bring people together in a more creative way around the simple act of creating a building, using a different process, than turning everything over to a star architect and hoping for the best.

Just like the slow food movement, the "slow building" revolution focuses on creating designs that are appropriate for a given bioregion, taking into account climate, natural resources, local economies, indigenous building styles and cultural values. It is opposed to the widespread internationalization of buildings, in the post-modern era, to the point where you can’t tell what climate or country a building is from, because all office buildings look (and function) more or less alike. The slow building revolution looks to slow down the design process so that there is time to consider a sustainble design approach that takes more into account than just budget and schedule.

The slow building revolution looks for local and regional materials, sustainably harvested products and non-toxic finishes. It aims to maximize the use of available solar resources at a building site, to recycle and re-use rainwater and to use earth energies for heating and cooling. The slow building revolution recognizes that natural ventilation and abundant daylighting are desirable building measures for Seattle and Portland, but won’t work in Miami, where the abundant sunlight and high humidity dictate different design approaches. Solar power systems and abundant shading are more appropriate for the Arizona desert than on the rocky coast of Maine, where the cold winter weather argues for "earth sheltering" buildings and letting the sun reflect off the snow in winter and into a building.

This type of whole systems thinking is just the opposite of the one size fits all design you might get from a typical architecture or engineering firm, particularly those that are commercially successful. The pressure to grow, to put more people to work, to satisfy every client demand, is very strong and often in conflict with a firm’s basic commitment to green design principles. Having worked in the world of commercial architecture and engineering for the past decade, I can tell you that these pressures are very strong and very real, and that many firms still don’t encourage clients to incorporate green building measures into projects, even when they know they should.

The slow building movement looks at reducing the environment impact of buildings and restoring habitat not as another "check box" for a development project, but as an essential element in maintaining the long-term sustainability of our modern urban culture. It looks at toxic chemicals as something to get out and keep out of a building, not use just because they are cheap. It looks to buy local materials, salvaged materials and recycled-content materials not because they give "LEED points" to a project, but because investing in the local economy is an intelligent and vital element of sustainble design.

Isn’t it time we had a "slow building revolution?" What do you think?


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