Traditional Building Portfolio

Fortunately, there is a set of tools and processes available: what we know as human traditions.




The Wake-Up Call of Climate Change

"When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." – Samuel Johnson

By Michael Mehaffy

Some people think it's dangerous to hitch the cause of traditional architecture too closely to any one issue like climate change. I tend to agree – up to a point. For one thing, even if by magic we were able to end the threat of climate change tomorrow, we would still have to confront many other urgent environmental issues: pollution, resource depletion, habitat destruction, invasive species, and more. In turn these issues are connected to equally serious questions about the resilience and the sustainability of our civilization, and the degree to which our institutions are able to deliver genuine well-being. Currently we seem only good at a purely quantitative – and profligate – kind of prosperity. The "uglification" of the built environment is an under-appreciated manifestation of this deeper problem, and therefore it's an especially well-suited challenge for practitioners of traditional architecture. Research shows it's a surprisingly important constraint to human environments in which we can be well.

And yet it's increasingly clear that climate change by itself is going to be serious business. The science is now persuasive (for those who examine it dispassionately) that the phenomenon constitutes a grave threat to the well-being of our descendants, and even ourselves and our fellows, in the years ahead. One sign of this fact is that many of the most visible leaders on the climate change issue are increasingly those whose profession is risk management, like insurance companies and re-insurers. They no longer have to ask for whom the bell tolls. The knowns are bad enough: rising sea levels, stronger storms and droughts, growing scarcity of fresh water, increasing disruption of crop yields, disastrous economic impacts, likely knock-on effects of refugee movements and major geopolitical instability. But the unknowns – often pointed to by skeptics – cut at least as much in the direction of more devastation as less. There are very real and worrisome possibilities of feedback cycles and tipping points – for example, runaway release of methane, or melt of ice cover. Such "autocatalytic" processes could plausibly tip the entire planetary climate system into a new age – one that is, from a human point of view, profoundly disagreeable.

Climate change, in that sense, is the ultimate systems phenomenon: not a linear set of factors working in a simple mechanical way, but many factors working together to produce the emergent characteristics of complexity. And as a human challenge, it will therefore demand the ultimate systems approach from us: the ability to manage, balance and optimize, working with all of the interdisciplinary challenges of ecology, economy and human culture. We are only beginning to figure out what this means.

But paradoxically, therein lies an opportunity: climate change can serve as a kind of "lens" through which to see these other deeply connected but long-neglected issues, and to act on them at last in a more "joined up" way. Like Dr. Johnson's prisoner, we might find our minds "concentrated wonderfully" by the acute challenge of climate change – galvanized to make major changes in the way we think and act on these broader challenges.

For example, clearly we must mount an aggressive transition to cleaner and more renewable sources of energy. But flashy bolt-ons to business-as-usual will not be enough. We have to get at the root systems of use and demand, if we are not to erase every technologically produced reduction with an unintended increase in demand. This means that we have to consider the way people live their lives, in the places where they live their lives: in our cities, towns and neighborhoods.

Crucially, if we want people to live in low-carbon environments, it is clear that they themselves must want to live there. That means that such environments must be beautiful, vibrant, functional and resilient on a human level. They must have strong, walkable, diverse, mixed-use public realms, embodying all the efficient complexity that such places develop over time. It will not be enough to design them to a set of narrow technical or artistic criteria; they must be carefully optimized, fitted closely to the patterns of human life and well-being. We must come to see our built environment as a kind of physical "operating system" that shapes our daily activities and our patterns of resource use. If we want to bring our use of resources into balance with their availability, we have to optimize this system to be able to produce and maintain that balance. But how can we optimize such a system? What kinds of tools, techniques, and habits of thought will be required?

Fortunately, there is a set of tools and processes available: the robust cultural phenomena we know as traditions. We now see that in crucial respects, these are not more primitive than modern industrial methods, but more sophisticated. They have their counterparts in the self-organizing, adaptive processes of the natural world, such as those at work in sustainable ecosystems. We notice that these systems, with their remarkable ability to maintain a dynamic equilibrium, can endure for many thousands or even millions of years. Similarly, traditional processes within human affairs are capable of sustaining (and have sustained, in history) for many centuries or even millennia. We are slowly beginning to realize that this is not a coincidence. There is a similar process of adaptive evolution going on – a process of retention and refinement of elegant patterns that continue to prove useful over long periods. (Science itself is one important example of such an evolutionary traditional process. We work today with Einstein's ideas, but also Euclid's and Pythagoras'; and Einstein builds on them both, and many others.)

It is for just such a crucial adaptive process that the methods of traditional building, and the benefits they confer, are much more suited than it may first appear. I'll summarize these benefits in three categories: the hardware (the buildings and places themselves), the software (the patterns of information they contain), and the evolutionary process (the ability to produce new structures and new patterns of information, including new ideas and expressions).

The embodied resources of tradition (the "hardware").
Existing buildings and neighborhoods, especially historic ones, represent an enormous resource for low-carbon and sustainable-resource living: they are manifestly long-lasting and sustainable. They are often surprisingly well-adapted to low-carbon methods, because many of them evolved in a time of relative low-carbon, passive, low-maintenance technology. As we seek the basis of a more sustainable "green" economy, these places represent perhaps the most important resource that is readily available to us. (And therefore this must become a much greater priority for policy and spending priorities, e.g. "stimulus" spending.)

The collective intelligence of tradition (the "software").
The wealth of traditional building is not just in existing buildings, but also in the knowledge to make resilient, adaptable and repairable structures, with optimal properties of high efficiency and low carbon. And again, efficiency is not defined by one or another narrow technical criterion, but by optimal performance in human terms. The patterns that did this were exquisitely evolved and adapted to the detailed human and ecological problems that a built environment must solve; and they went on to form a local identity and heritage with great potential economic value, as research has clearly documented. This "D.N.A. of place" is a great repository for us to use and build on today.

The adaptive evolution of tradition (the process).
Tradition is not a fixed state but a dynamic process. It requires a "bucket and a searchlight" – a repository of knowledge, together with a continuing acquisition of new knowledge to fit new conditions. In such a process, new artistic vision has an important mythological role: but it must be anchored in the real adaptive processes of nature, and not allowed to soar off into the mesmerizing fantasies of yet another failed utopia. It must not discard the well-connected body of previous knowledge merely because it has discovered a powerful but narrow technology that is wrongly imagined to be more "modern". That does not produce collective intelligence, but a deadly form of collective amnesia.

So in that light, let's forcefully engage the issue of climate change, and use it as a lens to focus the wider challenges that are connected to it. As traditional practitioners we can persuade others (and remind ourselves) that what we do has great capacity to respond to the imperative for lower-carbon, more sustainable settlements – with everything that entails. Meanwhile, our professional colleagues who are currently captivated by retro-modernist or avant-gardist thinking will slowly learn that traditional design is much more than a reactionary style. In the end, it offers nothing other than the simple but fundamental capacity to learn from our mistakes.  

Michael Mehaffy is executive director of the Sustasis Foundation in Portland, OR., and chair of the USA chapter of INTBAU, the International Network of Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism ( He was recently invited to present and exchange research at the seminal IARU Scientific Congress on Climate Change in Copenhagen, a briefing session for the COP-15 treaty negotiations. He can be reached at

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