The relationship between Architecture, Technology and Sustainability

fauna overgrows a 900 year old castle in the town of Porto Venere, Italy.

This is an article from D/Zine issue 08 for The Dub, a student design collective based at QUT in Brisbane, Australia.

Markos Hughes explores the themes of architecture, culture and identity through the lens of technology and its relationship with sustainability. This article is part of a continuing series of articles about architecture and its place in society.


Sustainability as a concept is an overarching concern that addresses the increasing environmental problems affecting the planet today. Architecturally, sustainability impacts the designer’s intent and in this article we will explore the relationships between sustainability, technology and architecture, and the consequential design thinking that is essential for a more sustainable future.

History

To understand the association between architecture and technology we can look back at the history of their relationship. All definable styles of architecture throughout history have, in one way or another, been a reaction or reflection of the events, lifestyles and technologies of their time. We can understand this relationship through our past ancestors from the architecture that still stands today. We can also see the influence religion had throughout the ages by the churches, mosques and monasteries that still stand today. We can also distinguish how advanced civilizations were, by the complexity with which they built, and over time the remaining physical remnants that reflected the social and scientific development of an era. This influence of technology and architecture would dramatically change with the rise of the Industrial Revolution. New technologies allowed greater innovations in building design, having a lasting impact on the social attitude around the built form and its meaning. The effect of technology on architecture and ideology are important to note as it manipulated the cultural idiosyncrasies that previously influenced architecture and guided it toward minimal functionalism. With the advent of Modernism, The Industrial Revolution led to a machine aesthetic, shaping new architectural styles like futurism and functionalism as well as new-age philosophies and theories on society. The ramifications of our exponential industrial rise through the 20th century are now being addressed, as we endeavor to implement sustainable goals that acknowledge our past actions and intervene with new solutions.

Technology & Architecture

The industrial revolution was a key period in architectural and social developments. It was the first time in history we were able to harness the energy resources of the planet and exploit them to manufacture for an advancing society. The effects this had on our culture, our architecture and our identity were far reaching and ultimately lead to a second great revolution; that of the more recent digital information age. Our current social identity has undoubtedly been defined by the gamut of technological advancements in the last century. Moore’s Law that predicted a twofold increase in electronic processors every 2 years proved correct, as we saw exponential growth in digital and information technology that encouraged us to consume rather than produce. The Post-Industrial age designed a content society that was unaware or unwilling to budge from the comforts that our advances had afforded us. This led to increased globalization and social connectivity. The explosion of post-war consumerism across Europe and North America created huge economic growth and prosperity. It was only by the latter half of the century that we started researching and documenting the ecological effects our lifestyles we were having on the planet.

How were our architectural styles influenced by all this change and growth? I believe it continued to be an expression of our identity and the way we perceived ourselves. By the turn of the 20th century, new building technologies were being employed to create a world we wanted to live in. The architectural movements of the 20th century, notably in the western world, were greatly influenced by the industrial revolution, employing pure functionality as an aesthetic. The fundamental architectural dictum by Vitruvius of Venustas, (beauty) Utilitas (Utility), and Firmitas (Structure), was being influenced by the new technologies made available. Developments in concrete and steel allowed for the creation of an aesthetic that derived beauty from pure functionality. The minimalist visual style of Functionalist and Modernist architecture made physical our ideals of a techno-centric society. However, in doing so the utilitarian and functionalist architecture unintentionally is lost into the background hum of our increasingly busy lives and no longer becomes a driver in our social narrative. As the information age cultivated our desires for automation and efficiency, we took these ideals and applied them to our built environment. As we now look to implement sustainable design as part of our buildings, we realise that the physical demarcations that define contemporary architecture are harnessed amongst the noise of our increasingly digital world. Attempts at sustainable architecture have applied a machine aesthetic and integrated technologies as a solution to automate and control the design, construction and use of our buildings.


High Tech v Low Tech

Today, we are using technological solutions to help our buildings become more sustainable, and these can fall into the two categories of high tech and low-tech systems. Low-tech solutions are passive and indirect solutions that designers have used for years to manipulate environmental conditions in a building to improve comfort. These include techniques of sun shading, natural ventilation and passive cooling that capitalize and manipulate environmental conditions. We have used these age old solutions, as seen in many vernacular buildings of the past that would use locally sourced materials with an understanding of the immediate environmental context, inadvertently designing in a sustainable way. Low-tech solutions are highly sustainable because they do not increase the energy input or output of a building during its construction or inhabitance. Rather, they redirect existing environmental resources to make conditions comfortable for human occupation. High tech solutions, on the other hand, use technological innovations to implement “smart” systems that monitor and adjust aspects of the building to the human needs. These can include automatically controlled air conditioning, buildings that can clean themselves with “smart” windows and highly complex green walls that increase the amount of plants and trees. The problem with the ideals of high tech in buildings is that it gives the preconceptions of being sustainable through the notion that it reduces a building's overall energy consumption “smartly”, but does not considers how that energy is obtained, or how much energy is consumed by the technologies that created the building.

Our desires to use high tech solutions toward sustainable buildings have come from a pattern where increasing access to energy has led to innovations in technology. There is an underlying causality between technology and energy resources. Economist Jeremy Rifkin first popularized this concept in the 1970’s, expressing that humans will gravitate towards the easiest forms of energy use, before developing more sophisticated technologies to consume more energy resources. This created an increase in the global population, which continued the cycle for more energy consumption. The effects of this are what we are experiencing currently, as a third of all global CO2 emissions come from maintenance and use of our buildings. The energy efficiency of our buildings needs to be the priority by balancing the relationship between the output of beneficial energy and the input of energy, or the resources used. This isn’t to say that low tech and high tech cannot exist together. The question is whether these solutions can ultimately be sustainable for the future. High and low tech solutions combined can increase our sustainability goals if they are designed with an architectural influence in a system that combines sustainable energy input and output. We are encouraged to design with a sustainable intent, but one that contradicts the value of true sustainability and the goal of a balanced system of inputs and outputs. High tech solutions use technological innovation which increase the energy input in a buildings development, reducing its energy output during use. High-energy use in the design, construction and use of a building can only help marginally in reducing its overall consumption. If we want to make our buildings come closer to being sustainable we must gradually change the energy inputs into our buildings by adjusting the way we design, construct and inhabit our buildings. The mass-market consumerist excess of the 20th century will have to give way to a more restrained and self-aware design ethos developing in the 21st century that will place greater reliance on renewable energy. We are already seeing in our society how our energy use is growing, along with our population, and that the primary energy resources we use are not renewable or sustainable and won’t meet demands for the future. This unfortunately is the outcome of the world we live in, where our methods towards sustainable goals are not truly consistent with the world we are currently living in. Trying to mirror nature’s own ecological balance with the post-industrial philosophy we have created simply cannot work on entropic values, where increased activity leads to chaos and disorder. Unsustainable energy has been used to create unsustainable technological, and architectural innovations.

A cyclist rides past a building overtaken with vines in Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.

I believe there is an opportunity in the future where we will see a third revolution occur. A revolution that is based on balancing the energy demands of our society with the energy resources that are inherently sustainable — solar, wind, gas & hydro. The harnessing of our renewable energies can be aided by technology to be used as a tool for the solution, rather than as the solution itself. We know this model works, as we are already seeing a marked increase of these renewable systems in place. Portugal recently went 4 days straight running entirely on solar, hydro and wind-generated electricity, and Chile is literally giving away excess electricity gained from solar energy. We’re seeing renewable energy influence transportation, with electric cars, and enticing people to live entirely “off the grid”. This future “revolution” of renewable resources can change the thinking towards how we be build for our generation, using new systems of design rooted in sustainable energy creation and consumption within our built environment, and in turn impacting the ideologies of future generations. The relationship between our cultural identity and the science and technologies will permeated into our architecture and these changes will present an exciting opportunity for the future.

Conclusion

True sustainability as a solution should influence our design process and makes us acutely aware of every aspect of the design. If we can come to understand that sustainability is a process rather than an end product, we will be placing our value on the goal of being sustainable than finding sustainability. The act of system integration is greatest when it is considered a process rather than a physical outcome. It is an intangible ethos that wields visible benefits years after its implementation. We must change our solutions to the problems facing this world; by changing the way we view the problems. To quote Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Possibly, with the greater implementation of renewable energy solutions, we will be creating balance that offsets the energy input over the energy output. It is our role as designers to understand this value and realize our opportunity to imbue a sustainable contribution to our world that will undoubtedly influence our generation’s culture and define our sense of identity… before it's too late.