Re-Defining Sustainability by @fraser_momo
Exploring more meaningful sustainability through materiality
I have had endless conversations – both in practice and education – which reveal an uneasy relationship between architecture and power. Many on both sides of the fence are of the opinion that the architect’s role has been compartmentalised and thus neutered. We have watched the evolution of our role from the back-seat, as technological, financial and political changes have all fundamentally altered how we work. The protect title of ‘professional’ has turned from a symbol of wider obligation to society in to a protectionist ploy to rationalise the continuing high fees we charge for our work. making the architect just another professional in a stagnant pool of professionals-turned-competitors, fighting for a bigger piece of the pie.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the realm of sustainability, an area where we most owe our expertise to society. Despite the dire state sustainability in architecture continues to measure success on ‘rubber stamp’ indicators designed as marketing ploys to ‘clients with a conscience’. Systems such as BREAAM are crayon-tick-box exercises creating a strand of architecture that – through the use of as many plug-in systems as possible – concocts an architectural collage of the banal. The conversation has stalled and will continue to move backward as the profession becomes increasingly complacent with how we measure sustainability. The metrics we use to determine what is sustainable are identical to when they were initially conceived, and this needs to change. In order to deal with the plethora of new challenges our built environment faces we have to diversify our modes of thinking to make a more sustainable future possible.
In order to make this change, architects need to think across disciplines and become more proactive in understanding the economic drivers at play. While we are very interested in the face value of each project, less consideration is given to the financial paradigm we operate in and the metrics involved. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist aims to reframe the way we think about economics, proposing a new set of metrics to which we as architects shouldn’t ignore.
This year I will research how by applying the economical principle in this book, our profession could make large strides toward not only a physically more sustainable architecture, but one of systemic sustainability.
In Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth reminds us that codifying of ‘economic growth’ as a metric did not intend it to map directly to gains in citizen well-being. In fact, economics in the 20th century was a science of human behaviour derived from a deeply flawed portrait of humanity. The dominant model of the “rational economic man” was seen to be self-interested, isolated, and calculating – which possibly says more about the nature of economists than it does about most humans. Economics in this era had “lost the desire to articulate its goals” which allowed the discipline to be captured by a proxy goal: endless growth. Instead, Raworth argues that the real aim of economic activity should be “meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet.” She asserts that, rather than pushing economies to grow for the sake of growth, we need economies that “make us thrive, whether or not they grow”.
The Doughnut Economy
The central image in mainstream economics is the circular flow diagram. It depicts a closed flow of income cycling between households, businesses, banks, government and trade, operating in a social and ecological vacuum. Any representation of energy, materials, the natural world, human society, power (the innate wealth we hold as a planet) is missing from the model. By example, the unpaid work that parents invest into raising their families is ignored even though society would end without the next generation. Like the model of the rational economic man, the circular flow representation of economic activity bears little resemblance to reality.
Thus, Raworth begins by redrawing the economy. She embeds within it the Earth’s systems we currently take for granted and replants the model in society which it has long ignored. In demonstrating how the world depends on the flow of materials and energy she reminds us that we are more than just workers, consumers and owners of capital. By recognising and addressing inconvenient realities, Raworth discovers a breakthrough: a graphic representation of the world we, as architects and citizens, want to create.
The Embedded Economy
The diagram consists of two rings. The inner ring of the doughnut represents a sufficiency of the resources we need to lead a good life: food, clean water, housing, sanitation, energy, education, healthcare, democracy. Anyone living within that ring, in the hole in the middle of the doughnut, is in a state of deprivation. The outer ring of the doughnut consists of the Earth’s environmental limits, beyond which we inflict dangerous levels of climate change, ozone depletion, water pollution, loss of species and other assaults on our unique world. The area between the two rings – the doughnut itself – is the “ecologically safe and socially just space” in which humanity should strive to live. The purpose of economics should be to help us enter that space and stay there.
As well as describing a better world, this model allows us to see, in immediate and comprehensible terms, the state in which we now find ourselves. At the moment we transgress both lines. Billions of people still live in the hole in the middle whilst many others have simultaneously breached the outer boundary. Therefore, it is important for both students and professionals to start questioning the basis from which we build to evolve this conversation. We must stop accepting the methods of the past in the assessment of our futures. We must create relevant metrics for designing sustainably. We must stop add-on sustainable architecture in pop colours. We must stop praising billion pound ‘sustainable’ projects and we must press for a new way of building that keeps us in the nice fluffy centre of the doughnut instead of falling off the edge.