Bob Berkebile, FAIA, a principal of BNIM Architects, is one of Kansas City’s leading architects and a major proponent of sustainable design. He is the founding chair of the American Institute of Architect’s Committee on the Environment, where I have worked closely with him for over a year.
Robert: Why are architects and other design professionals changing their views about their responsibility to the built environment and to the natural environment?
Bob: We are waking up to our failure to recognize that our buildings and communities are part of nature. Rather than working with nature, we’ve been setting ourselves and our built environment apart; we’ve been blind to the devastating impact our choices have had on the natural environment. As a result, the global environment has become so degraded that, given current trends, there is some question as to whether it can continue to support human life over the long term.
So at this point, we need to go beyond diminishing the impact of each design decision and begin to consider how we can restore the environment with each design decision.
We’re rediscovering that we can create buildings and neighborhoods that respond to their environment, just as a living system would. Indigenous people have used this approach for centuries. If our designs are informed by and embrace the climate, solar exposure, earth, water, and landscape, the resulting buildings and neighborhoods will be responsive and dynamic living systems.
Today we can combine the best of new technology – such as super insulation, smart glazing, and efficient lighting – with time-honored techniques, like daylighting, thermal mass, radiant energy. Doing so not only conserves energy and other resources; it also promotes health and well-being. It feels good!
Robert: So it’s not sustainable design, it’s restorative design?
Bob: Yes, and if we’re going to restore, we must design to improve biodiversity. We need to shrink our urban footprint and return land to natural habitat.
We should begin by making our urban centers more efficient, accessible, and friendly.
Much of the hard paved surfaces could be removed and replaced with urban forestry and wildlife corridors. Where paving is required, we can use porous paving that allows the water and land to relate naturally and diminishes the need for storm sewer systems.
We need to look for opportunities to eliminate sewer connections where possible by using solar aquatic or other decentralized wastewater treatment systems.
Robert: Are you speaking now of new construction or existing buildings?
Bob: Both, although I think we need to look for opportunities to reuse buildings whenever possible. It’s important that we consider the embodied energy that existing infrastructure and building stock represent. Doing so could create a greater stimulus to the historic preservation movement than the "Washington slept here" syndrome and the Preservation Tax Act combined!
Whether we decide to reuse or build new, the next step is to design as if the facility will be constructed off the electric power grid and then connect to the grid only to give something back, to produce more than we use.
Robert: What’s your sense of the current state of the art in terms of the technical feasibility of doing the kinds of things that you’re describing?
Bob: Everything I’m describing is possible today with off-the-shelf materials and systems. It’s not technology but the obsolete rules and laws we’ve created that are getting in the way.
For example, our land-use laws were created decades ago with the objective of maintaining and improving property values. They’ve been fairly effective at achieving that goal, but they have also contributed to record levels of consumption, waste, and pollution. They were created before we understood about resource constraints and before we knew that the automobile would be the largest single source of pollution. We also didn’t know at the time that these zoning regulations would promote isolation and destroy our sense of community.
Now that we know all this, it’s time to think more holistically and change these obsolete land-use regulations. We need to integrate natural systems and new technologies, promote diversity in our communities, and look for every opportunity to be more efficient.
Robert: How do you go about incorporating holistic thinking in the context of the design process?
Bob: We begin with questions like, "How can we improve our quality of life without diminishing the opportunities of future generations? How do we design to operate on current solar income?"
We’ve been designing and operating our communities under the Francis Bacon/René Descartes system. Bacon encouraged us to bend nature to our will. Descartes suggested that the most efficient technique for manipulating nature was to break everything into its smallest components. We’re now discovering this approach is producing unexpected and unwanted results, such as global warming, dependence on fossil fuels, sick building syndrome, and Super Fund sites.
For example, by looking at transportation only in terms of speed and convenience, we lost sight of the fact that that system has dramatic impacts on the consumption of resources, air quality, ozone depletion, and on isolating communities.
When we begin looking at things holistically, we begin accepting input from all the stakeholders. From the very beginning, the design process needs to include people who can speak for the environmental assets of air, water, soil, flora, and fauna, and the ecosystems on which they depend, and someone to represent the culture we are designing to serve.
Robert: So a restorative design process benefits from having various design professionals and others concerned with the design involved quite early on, working as an integrated team.
Bob: That’s right. A traditional team of consultants doesn’t have the knowledge to develop holistic solutions for the complex community and environmental issues we face today. Nature is diverse and complex, and if we intend to imitate nature in order to create sustainability, then we need to invite more participants to the table. The first conversations should often include sociologists, economists, geologists, and industrial ecologists. The ultimate user should also be a part of that dialogue – they are the best judge of what will nurture them.
Robert: This sounds like more planning time up front, which a prospective building owner or bank might not want to pay for. How is it that there are, indeed, increasing numbers of building owners and others who are finding that the extra design effort at the beginning is worth it?
Bob: Because they are finding that more care in the design reduces construction costs and operating expenses while increasing the life and value of the building or community.
For example, I’ve been working with a design team that is planning a new research institute for the University of British Columbia. By involving all the stakeholders and professionals early on, we’ve found we can do without a standard mechanical system. We’ll be able to save the cost of purchase, operation, and the energy bills associated with a standard heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system.
Normally a mechanical engineer would be called upon to design a heating and cooling system after a building’s form has been established. In this case, the mechanical engineer was involved from the beginning and could work closely with the landscape architect, the structural and electrical engineers, the building users, and the architects.
This group is developing an integrated solution that will use solar energy and daylight; natural ventilation and cooling from the adjacent forest floor; the occupants’ body heat; and waste heat from computers, electronic equipment, building transformers, and a nearby steam tunnel.
In nature, everyone’s waste is someone else’s diet. By imitating nature, we often find we can reuse something that had been thought of as a waste product. In this case, we’re combining several forms of waste energy.
So even if some owners and bankers aren’t attracted to the long-term environmental benefits of this kind of approach, they’ll be interested in avoiding the cost of a mechanical system and the building area to accommodate it, together with the savings in operating and maintenance costs.
Robert: If you had been saying these things five years ago, people would have looked at you askance. Yet here you are – a principal in one of the major architectural firms in Kansas City, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects; you are in many ways a representative of the mainstream of the architectural profession. What’s brought about this change?
Bob: Space technology and improved global communication have conspired to inform all of us of our interdependence and to sound a warning that our society is not sustainable.
The challenge is especially compelling for American architects, as the developing world is rushing to duplicate our community model, which is arguably the most inefficient, non-sustainable model available.
Buckminster Fuller warned us that we "can’t make significant change by force; the only way to make significant change is to make the thing you wish to change obsolete." The American design community faces the daunting challenge of rebuilding our model with enough spirit and elegance to restore nature and human nature, and restore hope for future generations.
Robert: Given that, what advice would you have for your fellow design professionals?
Bob: Understand sustainable design as a philosophy. It’s not a list of do’s and don’ts about materials, site development, and building systems. It’s a holistic ethic that includes all the stakeholders in the dialogue, encouraging feedback for continuous refinement and improvement. It seeks to imitate the efficiency and diversity of nature and create design solutions that are responsive, self-regulating, and full of spirit.
Too often as designers we have fallen into the Descartes approach of isolating things in designing systems. Yet in nature the place where two ecosystems meet is where all the activity, all the exchange is found. I think the same is true in designing communities and buildings. If we explore the edges and look for ways to integrate and soften, we’ll find some of the greatest opportunities for breakthrough-scale improvements.
We all too often think of building the ideal solution on untouched ground – ground that may be a very important biosystem or a wetland. Instead, we need to start with our existing neighborhoods – to improve the sense of community, improve pedestrian access, and add urban forestry and wildlife corridors.
If we allow the systems we’ve hidden – like streams and sewers – to come back to the surface, we’ll become more aware that they are important components of a living system and we’ll accept more of the responsibility for managing, supporting, and restoring them.
It’s time to move beyond solutions that are technically acceptable to those that are brilliant enough to be elegant – that inspire, touch the heart, and elevate the spirit. If we want to give our children hope, we must make the things we design and build, or rebuild, a rite of passage – to take the average urban, disconnected, stressed-out individual, and give them an experience that’s so elevating that it opens them up to new potential in their own lives and in their decisions, so that they can become contributing members of a restorative process.
Robert: So it’s not just restoring the ecosystem; it’s restoring the cultural system.