Green Can Be Beautiful

November 21, 2012 | Amanda Kolson Hurley

You could fill a small library with books on green building and sustainable design, most of them how-to guides or compendia of ultragreen projects. Lance Hosey's The Shape of Green is different.

Hosey isn't trying to convince us to build more sustainably: that case has already been made, many times over and with great success, as green building speeds toward the mainstream. But as sustainability becomes the norm, Hosey worries that we're settling for just-average buildings, rather than exceptional ones.

"The ugly truth about sustainable design," he writes, "is that much of it is ugly."

Hosey is the chief sustainability officer for global design firm RTKL and a former architect for the renowned studio of William McDonough + Partners (full disclosure: he also used to be a collaborator of mine at Architect magazine). He's watched the sustainability movement grow from a hippieish niche concern to today's multi-billion-dollar, LEED-fueled juggernaut. Along the way, the ethos of sustainability diverged from aesthetic concerns, and now sustainability and beauty are perceived as being at odds. Instead of adding ethics to aesthetics, sustainability has largely replaced aesthetics with ethics.

Why Aesthetics Matter

This might not seem like a big problem. So what if the buildings around us aren't very attractive? The important thing is that they perform well and leave a light footprint, right?

Hosey argues that aesthetics is not a gloss — it's an environmental imperative. We are far more likely to value and want to conserve things that we find visually appealing. We become attached to them. (Imagine how you'd feel about losing your iPhone. Now imagine losing a Blackberry. See the difference?)

Besides, closer attention to design can drive a building's performance higher. As Hosey rightly notes, we tend to focus on higher-tech materials and equipment as the best tools to make buildings more efficient, neglecting design. (He calls this "good tactics compensating for bad strategy.") But orienting and shaping a building so that it shades itself — like London's new city hall — can dramatically cut its energy use well before an HVAC system is specified.

Don't even think about making designs look "earthy," a green cliche that Hosey abhors. "Sustainability should have style but not be a style," he declares. The Shape of Green proposes a clear and practical definition of ecological aesthetics. It blends three principles: conservation (shape for efficiency), attraction (shape for pleasure), and connection (shape for place).

Bringing Beauty to Dry Work

Beauty isn't often associated with the kind of policy and standards work that's our specialty at IMT. Frankly, a lot of what we traffic in day-to-day is unbeautiful: the dry verbiage of bill language and building codes. Developing policy is not an aesthetic exercise.

But that makes it even more crucial that we deploy visual appeal whenever we can, to catch the eyes and stir the hearts of the environmental advocates, government leaders, and design and real estate professionals who are our key partners. If we can convey the importance of energy efficiency to the general public, that's an added bonus.

Last year, we worked with Column Five Media to create a dynamic infographic showing the advances in energy codes over the past 30 years. It was a hit. Expect more graphics soon that will make the benefits of efficient buildings visible, relatable, and desirable.

Meet the Author

Amanda Kolson Hurley

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