Sustainability in Architecture Education
Process & Research
Matter, space and time form the infinite physical variables of reality. Human existence, in contrast, is restricted to our natural environment: the Earth. Human associated creative activity involves the transformation of matter within the space-time continuum. What has since time immemorial been regarded as an unlimited resource for human existence is coming to an end due to the bio capacity of our Earth being exceeded globally through human activity – we are reaching the limit of our own reality. That we still barely notice this in everyday life is attributable to the capacity of the Earth’s crust to store materials, the relatively high tolerance of our natural eco systems, but also due to the globally and economically inequitable distribution of resources.
This „boundary experience“ is an event absolutely unique in human history. Nor, therefore, are there any simple recipes for addressing this phenomenon of the imbalance between human consumption and our planet’s capacities.
This situation demands from mankind a fundamental change in our attitudes – a paradigm shift. The enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries demanded that action be guided by reason. This gave rise to a view of the world, which increasingly centered on the human spirit and over exalted the role of man. Nowadays we have to accept that the human spirit is just one tool among many, one which is itself open to question; at the same time it enables us, as humans, to perceive ourselves as a small part of a greater whole.
For the scientists of the 21st century, this means that they need to focus all their efforts on leading mankind away from the path of linear growth, reintegrating us into the natural cycles, and moving beyond our perception of ourselves as the superior creative intelligence.
The transformation of architecture education
Sustainability should stand in the centre of architectural studies. It is understood as a broadly defined concept in relation to human activity. Different models of sustainability are presented and intensely discussed. These are among others:
- The three-pillar model with interacting environmental, social and economic aspects,
- The model „Meadows“ of the Club of Rome, the research model that reveals about the limits of human growth,
- The model of the ecological footprint, in which the lifestyle of man is brought in relation to the earth‘s surface and the need of its bio capacity.
Conclusions for the study of architecture:
- Sustainability is neither a science nor an ideology. It rather describes the relationship of man to his reality, ecologically between him and the nature, socially between him and the community and economically between him and his real values.
- Each society needs to overcome its own deficits and corresponding challenges with regard to sustainability. There is thus no such thing as a global solution; rather, what is needed are specific local solutions.
- In Western societies these involve maintaining security of supply in terms of raw materials and energy (increased efficiency and the generation of renewable energies), calling a halt to encroachment on the landscape through the spread of built-up areas and addressing the socio-economic consequences of an ageing society.
- Architecture, as a science, is responsible for delivering solutions to these problems. This is not a burden, but an opportunity to give our creative efforts a new orientation.
- This is achieved through a comprehensive fine-tuning of all basic subjects in the Bachelors Program – and through corresponding elective subjects in the Masters Program.
- A design studio with a focus on „Sustainable Design“ serves as a laboratory and a focal point for the entire academy.
2. Bringing together the categories of scale
The categories of scale urban development, design and construction design divide the tasks addressed by a modern architect in an inappropriate way. This deficiency should be overcome through a simultaneous consideration of all scales (a city should not be planned without considering the building materials or the landscape, a house should not be planned without considering the surrounding development etc.). Structural design should be reclassified from being purely an accessory to design to being a subject with a key function. Structural design is the essence of the study of building. Building materials are assembled together to create architectural structures and space; taking into consideration the relevant framework conditions, to create architectural designs, and ultimately to create the real value of the built environment.
3. Matter, space and time
The transformation of the world, as the human beings essential adhesive action, must be controlled and converted into a sustainable balance with our planet‘s bio-capacity. Thereby the science of building design has a key position. The architect is almost a master of this global transformation. Physical quantities, matter, space and time provide guidance in the Building Sciences. Reduced to a common denominator the challenge for our work is: less matter/energy, less space, but more time. We achieve this through efficiency, density and durability – the new/old standards of sustainable design.
4. Expansion of the existing curriculum
Answering the key question – why? – the importance must be considered. The subjects Ethics and Philosophy are intended to allow the students to develop well-founded positions on existing local and global social issues. In the Bachelor course philosophy and architecture should be extended and could be offered as an elective subject in the Masters program.
The study of materials has been the basis of any structural design since the time of Vitruvius. Its importance should be emphasised and taught over at least two semesters, using the method of Life-Cycle-Analysis (LCA). In this way the students learn to assess the ecological impact and economic value of a building.
Moreover, it is appropriate to organize the technical-scientific subjects in an own „Institute for Technology and Architecture“ ITA.
5. The integration of related institutes
It is easy to see that the required issues in architecture demand a profound knowledge outside of pure designing. This is done through the integration of related institutions. For this purpose, the design course interfaces with the Institute for History and Theory of Art and Architecture (ISA), institute for the Contemporary Urban Project (i.CUP), Laboratory for Alpine History (LabiSAlp), Osservatorio dello sviluppo territoriale (OST) and define the new „Institute for Technology and Architecture“ ITA.
The integral interdisciplinary way of thinking can not start early enough. Therefore, the design studio work with the five related institutions, which alternate in turns, together level-appropriate semester tasks. Under the relevant lectures research questions are developed that serve as the basis for the parallel running design course. Topics could be for example:
– Theories to solve current architectural issues in relation to history
– Pre-fossil building tradition as a solution for the post-fossil construction tasks
– Building services in balance to the building envelope, building physics as a mediator
– Paradigm shift in urban planning, to balance the linear growth of the city and the countryside
Considering aspects from different perspectives and in combination with related topics, provide a sustainable study of our existence and creation. Sustainability is a method to confront our current local and global question as scientists and architects. It challenges us to question our philosophy of life in many ways.
From many years of teaching experience, I can say that the students almost call these existential questions and pursue them with passion. This is the best requirement for a sustainable teaching and learning success.
Dietrich Schwarz, 04.02.2014