Traditional Building Portfolio




Poetics and Science

By Michael Lykoudis

As the looming crises of global climate change and fossil fuel depletion become more of a reality, we are underequipped with respect to the information and data needed to make constructive decisions about how we will live and build in both the near and the long terms. To help direct us in our decision making, I suggest that a new kind of research be pursued and that an institute, or a consortium of schools, universities and other institutions, be established to assist in carrying out this work. Before describing how this institute might work, it is useful to understand what we are up against.

Climate change will undoubtedly bring about conditions that will require mediation and adaptation in ways that were hard for us to imagine even a few years ago. These include unpredictable and volatile growing seasons as the earth's atmosphere warms up. Water shortages, famines and rising sea levels could force mass migrations and new levels of violent weather could change the criteria for construction.

Peak oil production may already have passed or will shortly come to be. This means that we have extracted over half the oil of known reserves. The rate of the demand curve for energy has been increasing as the Asian economies become much more dependent on energy and adopt Western notions of growth and development. Natural gas, which is necessary for the production of ammonia, the necessary ingredient in fertilizer, which currently makes contemporary agribusiness possible, is also being depleted at an increasingly faster rate and its future availability will eventually be limited as well.

Most experts exploring issues of the environment and energy have focused on the development of new technologies that save energy and on the possibility of extracting even more energy from existing solar, geothermal, wind and other technologies. These are all important and need to be pursued, but there are two questions with respect to new technologies that have not been answered.

The first question is: To what degree are the technological solutions based on our oil and fossil fuel economy? In other words, after the embodied energy of a particular product or system such as a solar cell is factored in the equation, from its research and development to its production, distribution, installation and final disposition, what is the net efficiency? How efficient is a hybrid automobile when you factor in the embodied energy of the product over time? It seems efficient when only the fuel consumption is examined compared to other cars, but the batteries that it uses have another cost that is not currently part of the discussion. Most of the calculations for such products are done only at the consumer level, which assumes conventional distribution, life cycles and other costs that may not be realistic or possible in the future.

The second question is: How do the savings from more efficient green technologies compare with the rate of increase in demand for energy? For example, the U.S. government has mandated that all incandescent bulbs be banned in four years, but given the world wide demand on energy created by our current economic model, those energy savings will be lost in a few years. The combination of the building industry, the built environment and the transportation required to support them consumes about 70% of our energy resources. Little emphasis, however, has been placed on substantially reducing our energy demands by changing how we build and live together. We need to develop a holistic systems-based approach for assessing the sustainability of our culture's economy and built environment.

Traditional architecture and urbanism represent the foundation of sustainability. They are the "original green." Traditional urbanism relies on polycentric cities and towns with pedestrian accessibility, mixed-use neighborhoods and mass transit. Traditional architecture ensures the longevity of the built environment through durable materials and methods of assembly that conserve energy. Traditional architecture conserves resources by facilitating the adaptive reuse of old buildings. Traditional architecture and urbanism have a significantly smaller carbon footprint than the current models of land use and construction that are based on maintaining high levels of fossil fuel consumption.

It is possible to have a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified platinum building perform well at the consumer level but when we factor in the embodied energy over the life of the building we may find out that it is sadly lacking. Many of the glimmering glass and steel certified buildings have high embodied energy in the materials and in the transportation of those materials to the site. If the building lasts only 30 years, this then becomes a fairly short life span on which to amortize that embodied energy. Compare this to an abbey built in England in about 1100 AD from the bricks of a Roman ruin itself built around 300 AD. The embodied energy in the bricks has been used in two buildings and society has gotten 1,700 years plus of use from those bricks. Which is the greener building?

How do we then compare a glass and steel structure with a flat roof loaded with green gizmos compared to a load bearing masonry building with a pitched roof? How do we compare a patch of urbanism with 50-story high rises to a patch of low- to mid-rise apartment buildings? How much do we save on the urbanism and how much is saved because of the architecture? How do latitude, climate, geology and other local conditions affect these variables? Can we quantify these materials, buildings and urban forms from the onset of their construction to their final disposition so that we can make intelligent decisions about them rather than relying on the poetics of our design theories?

What is needed is holistic research that takes into account urban organizations and densities, architectural forms, building materials, building systems and their life-cycle costs and embodied energy with as many variables tested as possible. We need to bring together interdisciplinary teams of scientists, researchers, scholars, practitioners, political and business leaders. The mess we are in was generated in part because of a culture of specialization that never saw the larger problem. It can only be rectified by a collective and unifying effort.

There is no one institution or entity that is currently able to fully engage such programs of research. I suggest that those academic and professional institutions devoted to traditional architecture and urbanism contribute to a research consortium that would engage, document and help coordinate such research efforts. The consortium could have an administrative center in a major city, its board made up of representatives from the interested schools, centers and institutes. There would be a core staff that would carry out the work, their salaries paid for by the participating entities.

Research is needed to focus on the environmental performance of different construction systems, and types of urban organizations and densities. The consortium would coordinate and suggest research partners for its participants so that, the burden of research is spread out, the most appropriate partnerships are made with the most compatible and complementary participants and ensure that the widest possible circumstances are studied.

The structure of the New Urbanist Transect provides a superb model in which to insert the research findings. The results of building construction research along with the urban modeling could yield significant and useful results as we better understand the implications of the relationship between architecture and urbanism. Laboratories that test materials and assembly methods in as large a context as possible need to be built, perhaps even entire buildings if necessary. Cities in different climates and zones can generate empirical data for large scale urban-design modeling to better understand the effects of city planning on embodied and other life cycle energy costs.

Not only architects are needed for this work, but engineers, anthropologists, lawyers, doctors and many other professionals. Research needs to be done in business schools to examine current models of growth and consumerism and to search for alternative models that change our conception of economic growth. This research could examine issues that impact society's indirect energy uses, such as the effect of urbanism on health care, and other areas that are not currently linked in conventional thinking.

Schools of architecture are a natural place for the seed of this kind of institution to be planted. Architecture is a unique form of pedagogy that engages almost every discipline at a university: philosophy, mathematics, engineering, the sciences, psychology, anthropology, economics, business, law, preservation and the visual and performing arts. Each school could use its location, its strengths and assets with respect to the other disciplines in its university or college to decide what it is best suited to pursue. Each school could establish collaborative projects with departments in other disciplines at other universities. The consortium's administration would be useful, even necessary, as a coordinator for the work with other institutions and fields. It could also be a repository for the data and conclusions reached by the various groups and act as an information distribution center. Organizations such as the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America and the Congress for the New Urbanism could lend expertise and additional talent to these efforts.

For the next academic year, the University of Notre Dame is organizing an intensive series of university-wide and departmental events on issues of energy and the environment. The School of Architecture for its part will devote its lecture series and host a conference on these topics in the early part of the spring semester of 2009. We invite all those who are interested in contributing ideas to this effort to join us to discuss how we might organize such a consortium of collaborating groups. We can think through the who, what, where and why so that we can introduce a larger dimension to the current discussion.

We will succeed only if we can change the perceptual model of how we inhabit the planet. To do that, we need to obtain information that we do not have. We can speculate and suggest, but without the data that can prove what we believe, we will not be as effective. We need to think much more boldly than we have before. Each of us, either as individuals or groups or institutions, can exert a significant force on the collective consciousness. In the past 20 or so years, New Urbanists and traditional architects have already had a significant effect on contemporary attitudes of urban design and architecture. So far it has been more about the poetics and it needs to also be part of the science. In ancient times these two natures were not separate and perhaps it is time that we come full circle to reunite them as one. A research program that links the poetry and the science is necessary and a consortium could facilitate and coordinate our efforts so that we may be more effective.  

Michael Lykoudis was appointed dean of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture in 2002. He is the author of Modernity, Modernism and the Other Modern, forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co. Prior to joining the Notre Dame faculty, he worked as a project designer and architect for firms in Florida, Greece, Connecticut and New York. He also has conducted his own practice in South Bend, IN, Athens, Greece, and Stamford, CT.

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