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11.24.2010
Review> A Sustainable Approach in the Green Pages
Two new books offer a non-apocalyptic approach to sustainability
Maisongomme in the Netherlands (2005)
Jan Korbes

Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order
Thomas Princen
MIT Press, $22.95

Rematerial: From Waste to Architecture
Alejandro Bahamón and Camila Sanjinés
Wiley, $49.95

When we hear the clarion call for sustainability, threats of dystopia often follow: diminishing food and water supplies, expanding arid lands, rising sea levels, erratic weather, pandemics, flotillas of waste, not to mention waves of crude oil soaking our Gulf shores. In reaction, we are bombarded with lists of new standards, sustainability-measuring systems, and the green-ness of new buildings and products. It’s enough to make your head spin.

 
Refuge-observation post in Chile (2005) 
Rodrigo Sheward
 
 

Architecture straddles a fine line between waste and rejuvenation. Buildings consume tremendous amounts of energy—74 percent of electricity consumption—and produce massive amounts of waste, 65 percent by output. Simultaneously, architects and planners have been developing wide-ranging initiatives, from net-zero buildings to high-density, transit-oriented developments, to offset environmental scourging.

Thomas Princen, who teaches social and ecological sustainability at the University of Michigan, has authored several sustainability-oriented books, and his latest goes to the heart of the matter. Treading Softly acknowledges the dichotomy of environmental preservation and human development in urbanism as well as economics, but doesn’t browbeat readers. Princen argues that while we as a society must inevitably face dire ecological circumstances, our fate depends on how people view their place in the world and how they choose to live.

Princen declares his book is for “those who know the problem is in the grounding.” While this may sound like preaching to the choir, his arguments and examples provide inspiration for those who know but haven’t acted. However, more facts and figures, rather than citations, would have provided more grounding. Instead, he fills the book with stories, metaphoric examples, and academic prose.

Princen challenges readers to “live well by living within our means,” what he calls a “home economy.” This ties into his four Es—ecology, energy, economy, and ethics—that people must engage to become sustainable citizens. He further challenges readers to develop a new language for understanding, relating to, and “imagining and enacting an ecological order,” not as an abstract idea, but as that which requires responsibility, stewardship, and balance. That we continue to extract resources from finite supplies at increasingly and alarmingly unsustainable rates needs little evidence. Princen argues that we need societal sacrifice, behavioral change, and revived ethics, but he readily admits that he doesn’t have an easy single-step solution.

Hand in hand with consumption comes waste. In a mining economy, to use Princen’s term, consuming resources rules the day and waste is the unconsidered byproduct. In a producer economy, manufacturers determine what type of waste to produce and how to live with it, not how to hide or ignore it.

Rematerial: From Waste to Architecture presents several projects that repurpose waste materials. The authors, architect Alejandro Bahamón and artist Maria Camila Sanjinés, both based in Barcelona, introduce each building or installation with overview information, the material strategy, and detail images, all in succinct and easy-to-survey spreads. Each project concludes with a diagram of its rematerial process, which, while easy to grasp, glosses over the technical aspects of a resourceful guide.

Big Dig House by Single Speed Design.Big Dig House in Lexington, MA (2006)
Single Speed Design

Divided into six sections, each tackles a different theme, from overarching initiatives to landscaping to interiors, in addition to institutional and housing building types. Various authors introduce each section with an essay that grounds the strategies of the projects that follow. Anneke Bokern tells the story of how Freddy Heineken, the magnate of the ubiquitous Dutch libation, upon seeing his green bottles strewn about Caribbean beaches in the early 1960s initiated a campaign to redesign his beer bottles into a form that could be used to build homes. John Habraken, the then-young architect in charge of the design, relays the process that yielded the WOBO, or World Bottle, a glass block–like bottle successfully used in a housing prototype, as well as the marketing politics that ultimately killed their mass production.

While many projects are private, a number of public projects, mostly installations, populate these pages. Jean Shin, in her 2003 installation Penumbra at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York, collected fabric from broken umbrellas to create a sunshade, the metal hopefully recycled. Dennis Oudedndijk and Jan Körbes of the Hague–based collaborative REFUNC.NL (which oddly appears three times), present a public park built from reused car tires, a material they used in constructing their own studio, also included in the book. Each project uses materials readily at hand that have reached the end of their intended life-cycles, but repurposed in a new application.

Students, interestingly, completed many of the projects, often as coursework. Rodrigo Sheward, a Chilean architecture student, conceived and built a particularly poetic project, an observation post in Villarica, Chile, using the remains of trees locally felled some 30 years before. These projects are exemplary in that they allow tomorrow’s practitioners and researchers the hands-on experience so desperately needed for exploring unconventional means and methods.

Both books target larger audiences than architects and environmentalists, but this populism lacks resourceful depth. Rematerial inspires through rich illustrations, diagrams, and photos, but doesn’t offer detailed processes or specifications that readers could easily implement in their own projects. The book resides somewhere between the glossy coffee-table book and a manual of ideas. Treading Softly does just that when it comes to hard evidence. Still, both books successfully inspire and point the way to a cleaner, more sustainable future, if we start reimagining our roles and materials.

James Way

James Way is a New York-based designer and writer.