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April 22, 2022
It’s Russell Fortmeyer, Global Sustainability Leader at Woods Bagot, writing from Los Angeles. Today marks the launch of my newsletter, Not So Much, a regular take on the climate crisis and approaches and innovations from the AEC industry that are either easing or advancing environmental disturbances across the world.
NOT ANOTHER EARTH DAY SOCIAL MEDIA POST, PLEASE
While you may have already seen coverage marking the annual festivities for April 22, I propose we flip Earth Day. Instead of trumpeting the myriad examples of how we saved energy on this building or achieved net zero carbon on that one, could we perhaps own up to our consumptive habits in architecture? Is it not better to start expressing our thanks to the Earth for giving us the resources we’re consuming, to be transparent about that consumption, to assign value tow the things we actually used rather than the things we managed to efficiently design out of the project?
I’ve never walked by a building and said “I’m so happy they managed to design out that extra mullion during the plan review phase.” Of course, in everyday life we respond to what’s physically in front of us, everything else is a memory. I wanted to call my sustainability newsletter for Woods Bagot, Not So Much, partly to redirect our attention to consumption as a destructive endgame in contemporary architecture, but also to conjure up the informality of the phrase when used to express a relative indifference to something. Is Earth Day going to prevent the climate crisis? Not so much.
Nakagin Capsule Tower, Joshua Daniels – stock.adobe.com
My social media feeds have been active with outrage and sadness this month over the demolition of Kisho Kurokawa’s 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower, a Metabolist landmark in Tokyo that had suffered neglect and decay to the point where it no longer made economic sense for its owner. Clearly it had social value as a model for prefabricated, modular, and idealistically flexible individual housing units, the small footprint of which certainly gave it environmental credibility, even as the building itself barely lasted 50 years.
Nakagin Capsule Tower also represented an architecture of ideas, inspired on a fundamental level by doing as much as possible with as little as necessary. We cannot house our planet’s growing population without building new housing, which may be the most urgent calling for architecture everywhere, but a positivist approach demands a more rigorous appraisal of how we consume and whether that consumption is worth it outside of performing a functional role for a comparatively limited amount of time.
Every year, we overshoot the planet’s ability to support our consumption. In the USA, Earth Overshoot Day was March 13; in Japan, it will be May 6. Overshoot Day represents the amount of time from January 1 it would take us to exhaust the planet’s resources for the year if everyone lived the way we do in our respective countries. In 1972, when the Capsule Tower was built, Japan’s Overshoot Day was April 22, so in some respects the country is consuming less today even if it remains fundamentally unsustainable. But in a global context of the planet’s capacity, Japan consumes at the rate of 2.91 earths today compared to 1.98 in 1972—a nearly 47 percent increase that represents the diminishing capacity of our planet.
Consider a project like Woods Bagot’s C.F. Row in Melbourne, from 2017, which installed new multi-family housing within a preserved historical brick envelope. Adaptive reuse projects upset our view of consumption, since they challenge the architect to develop a position on keeping as much as possible of an existing building, questioning the removal of materials rather than celebrating the absence. Naturally, keeping more of what already exists is a messier affair, since it challenges a reigning architectural crutch of “clean slate-ism,” or the presupposition that a new building or city will always be better.
C.F Row, Trevor Mein – woodsbagot.com
Since land ownership governs so much of what gets torn down or what gets built, architects are often late to the table where decisions are made to keep or demolish an existing structure. Cut off from that, work in sustainable architecture has focused attention on transforming the substance of the materials we use, removing volatile organic compounds or reducing the embodied energy of a structural system, for example. Prior to material lifecycle assessment software transforming the ease at which we could develop whole-building embodied carbon models, we considered “dematerialization,” or the reduction of materials by mass, as a corollary for reduced environmental impacts—a fancy scientific way of preserving what’s there when a project retains existing mass rather than adding new.
I don’t mean to suggest we should stop our dogged pursuit of eliminating the most harmful ingredients from architecture, but at some point, we must acknowledge diminishing returns and an inability to control such specific components in what is the seemingly limitless economy of consumption in our field. It’s especially humbling when we see so much mindless destruction of architecture in Ukraine’s many cities, not to mention the catastrophic loss of life. Rebuilding those cities will require consumption and where will that come from next? So, on this Earth Day, I want to appreciate the architecture that surrounds me, the banal and great buildings that I otherwise take for granted every other day, and the people who live in them.
WHAT AM I READING?
On the demolition of the Nakagin Capsule Tower:
Tokyo’s iconic Nakagin Capsule Tower to be demolished, CNN
Demolition of iconic Nakagin Capsule Tower begins in Tokyo, Dezeen
Chart the day your country overshoots its share of the planet’s resources:
Country Overshoot Days, Global Footprint Network
Devastation in Ukraine’s cities:
‘90% of houses are damaged’: Russia’s Syria-honed tactics lay waste Ukraine towns, The Guardian
‘This Is Everyone’s Culture’: Ukraine’s Architectural Treasures Face Destruction, The New York Times
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