Human beings are remarkable at figuring things out. Put a problem in front of us – especially one with a solution that will make us wealthier and/or more comfortable – and we’ll come up with all kinds of solutions for that problem.
Nothing triggers our collective desire to problem-solve like being told, “No, you can’t.”
The fact that we hate being told “No” is not necessarily a bad thing. Centuries of civil disobedience leading to political reform demonstrate the positive side of trying to turn a “No” into a “Yes.”
But what if it’s the earth’s ecosystem that is saying “No”?
As a designer and builder, I am constantly trying to make things possible for my clients. I am in the business of saying, “Yes.” As a sustainable designer and builder though, my attention should be firmly focused on whether or not the planet is saying “No.” And when I hear the “No” answer, I should respect it.
Every time we undertake an activity that creates polluting by-products, we should hear the implied “No” coming from the environment. Every time we gobble up resources at a rate we know outstrips the rate of re-generation, we should hear the “No.” Every time we let our desires be fulfilled at the expense of following generations, we should hear the “No.”
The building industry is in an awkward state these days. We have the ability to deliver levels of comfort inside buildings that were unthinkable a century ago. But we deliver that level of comfort at a remarkably high cost to the environment. There seems to be a general awakening to the fact that what we’re doing is not sustainable, that we contravene an enormous number of “No” answers from the planet in doing so.
Designers and builders addressing this problem are in a real bind. We’re trying to deliver in a sustainable way levels of performance that are based on unsustainable practices. Nobody wants the planet to tell them that they can’t have a home with a perfectly stable, year-round temperature of 20C. So a growing green building industry is setting about to give us the comfort levels we expect at a reduced impact on the environment.
I think that, despite all our best efforts, the planet is still going to say “No” to our current expectations of home comfort. I’m sure there is a level of sustainable energy we can make available, some mix of solar, wind, water and thermal energy that can be generated and used without widespread environmental destruction. I’m equally sure there are materials we can use to build that are renewable and reasonably harvested.
But as sure as I am of these two cornerstones of sustainable building, I’m equally certain that in order to heed the planet’s non-negotiable request for sustainability we are going to have to accept different standards of comfort. A truly sustainable building powered by truly sustainable energy will not always be the same temperature. We don’t need to freeze in the winter or swelter in the summer, but we do need to expect to be colder in the cold season and warmer in the warm season. We do need to expect to participate –physically – in the gathering of resources (water, food, fuel) and recycling of wastes. We will need to perform maintenance, live in smaller spaces, and be dependent on weather cycles.
Our ancestors accepted these parameters because they did not have the means to exceed them. We have the means to exceed, and we’ve been doing so. A move towards any kind of real sustainability has to be led by a choice to accept a life that is a bit less comfortable and requires a bit more effort. We’re clever enough to figure out ways to minimize our discomfort and effort, but only excessive amounts of energy and resources can support our current lifestyles.
As a designer and builder, I strive to achieve the highest levels of creature comfort with the lowest environmental impacts. I could build a willing client an entirely sustainable home right now, as long as they are willing to hear the planet when it says “No” and live within those means. Sooner or later, we will all become that client as we cease to be able to afford or access the energy that allows us to go beyond what the planet agrees with. But how many of us are willing to make that choice in advance of being forced to do so?