Venn and the Art of ‘Sustainability Maintenance’

Venn diagram showing relationship between sustainability, building performance, and solar power

Building performance is only a piece of sustainability, and solar power is only a small part of building performance

December was an interesting time to graduate. With several holidays immediately succeeding the celebration, I had little time in those first few weeks to reflect on leaving studenthood behind. I enjoyed time spent with family. I reconnected with friends I had hardly spoken with in years, catching up on all the stories missed, just… enjoying myself. And my freedom…

… until The Inevitable Question would come at me like the coffee shakes after a French press on an empty stomach. ”So what kind of architecture do you want to practice?”

Immediately sweating, I would stammer an answer…

“Uh, the kind that nets me experience and a paycheck?” (Then to myself: Preferably good experience. And preferably a good paycheck.)

“No, I mean – do you want to work on museums? Or houses? Maybe schools?”

“Uh… Yes?” The conversations would find their death to be as quick as the unspoken answers still burning through my brain.

The question wasn’t ever difficult for lack of an answer – rather, The Answer was more complex than I was prepared to give without any prelude. How to jump into a conversation wherein I espouse that typology matters less to me than sustainability?

And then how to clarify what sustainability means to me?

I actually cringe to use that word, now – I hear it spoken so freely that it almost sounds like “paradigm” or “proactive” or even, cochlea forbid, “synergy”. We’ve lost a lot of good words in recent decades, all relegated to the heaping bins of empty buzzwords whose meanings few actually consider anymore. I can’t help thinking “sustainability” is a lost linguistic cause.

Problem is, often I hear people use it in the industry when referring to energy generation – solar panels, maybe a little wind power if the conversation gets crazy. Better circumstances find conversations revolving around whole building performance or, even better still, the establishment of strict and rigorous metrics for studying performance and finding alternatives to the ways our buildings work.

Metrics have been a leap forward for an industry that all too often has the appearance of being an aesthetic art over a science, a form of personal expression devoid of any hard reasons (beyond cost) to reject any given designs. But how much deeper does sustainability go beyond the ‘mere’ idea of quantification?

I have to think about what sustainability really means: the ability of a system to sustain, to perpetuate, itself.

If all we consider are the buildings themselves, then a net-zero building that generates its own energy meets that very definition. But buildings are not the end result of architecture. Architecture is meant to serve the people that use it and the environments that host it.

Architecture should result in buildings that (help to) sustain those greater systems. Performance is a vital piece, but not the only one – how does architecture sustain people, with all our myriad lives, cities, and societies? What do those things even need in order to be sustained?

I’ll maintain the position that Sustainability is my greatest career interest. To do that, I’ll have to actively perform maintenance on my definition of the word itself, nurturing it, providing upkeep for it, finding the zen in developing the idea of it – all things we must do for anything to be maintained, whether a word, a relationship, a motorcycle, or an idea.

Who knows, maybe the next time someone throws The Question at me, I’ll have a readier Answer for it.

One thought on “Venn and the Art of ‘Sustainability Maintenance’

  1. Pingback: Balancing Scales of Sustainability | AIA Colorado Emerging Professionals Blog

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