May 10th, 2010

The Role of the Architect in Sustainability Education

By Christopher Haines


The field of sustainability is gaining prominence in higher education.  While teaching sustainability includes information from many traditional academic fields, it should also include the expertise of the architect.  Many professional architects are knowledgeable in aspects of the built environment critical to sustainability.  In addition, the art of the architect, that is, the design process is a model for resolving problems by integration instead of dissection, appropriate to complex issues such as many found in sustainability.  Examples of utilizing this  expertise in sustainability courses are provided. 


The world is struggling with the un-sustainable course set by western society just as other parts of the world are striving to imitate us.  We are facing climate change, rising populations, drought, floods, hunger, intensifying storms, depleting resources, destruction of human and non-human habitat, the potential of rising sea levels and the realization that we cannot maintain a growing economy within a finite world.

There is a growing movement to transform our educational system to better prepare students to live in and address this changing world.   Many colleges and universities have committed to The American College and University President’s Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) to “make climate neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experience for all students.”  Architects and the field of architecture can assist sustainability education with both content and process and they, the students and society at large, will benefit.

This paper proposes that the architect and the profession of architecture need to be an intimate partner with other fields as we expand the education of sustainability to “all students”.  To evaluate this thesis we consider: what sustainability means, how sustainability of the built environment is evaluated, the subject matter of architecture as it relates to sustainability, the value of the architectural design process to resolving complex problems such as those found in sustainability and examples of how the inclusion of the expertise of the architect could benefit sustainability education.


“There are some truths, even fundamental ones, that are apt to elude us.   The most basic truth concerning our Earth-home is that all living things, in some manner, are related to each other.  This fact, while mainly important as a physical principle, carries implications even of a spiritual nature.” (Storer, 1956)

The term sustainability has been so over used it is hard to know what it does mean.  To quote from recent comments by a leading architect in the field, “If society can continue to do something for 10,000 years it is sustainable.  If they cannot, it is not” (Reed, 2010).   What can we continue to do for 10,000 years?  Let us start with what we cannot do.  We cannot increase the world’s population.  We cannot grow an economy.  We cannot fight wars.  We cannot oppress a segment of the human population.   We cannot depend on non-renewable energy and material sources.  We cannot consume renewable resources at a rate greater than the natural replacement rate.  We cannot deplete soil fertility and we cannot kill the living structure of the soil maintaining fertility.  We cannot pollute soil, water and air.  We cannot deplete the world’s forests.  We cannot compromise natural habitat of the non-human species.   We cannot produce non-recyclable, non-biodegradable products that go to land fills.

So what must we do?   We must reduce population to reduce the stress on the world’s resources.  We must develop an economic model that fits within the fact that the world is finite.  We must learn to settle conflicts peacefully and deal justly with our neighbors.  We must live solely on renewable resources below the replacement rate.  We must build and maintain soil fertility (see Farmers of Forty Centuries, F. H. King).   We must live with materials that recycle within the natural world so as not to pollute.  In fact we must clean up much pollution.  We must expand forest reserves.  In short we must live “within the web of life” and not believe we can live outside of it.

Mathis Wackernagel (1994) developed a system to measure the impact of a person’s lifestyle on the earth by translating it into the equivalent land area required to provide the energy and materials and remediate pollution generated by that demand.  The system focuses on four elements of lifestyle; the goods and services we own and consume, our diet, our shelter, and our mobility.  Western society is marked with a much greater amount of stuff, a diet higher in protein, particularly red meat that requires more land area and energy per calorie unit, larger houses with more energy consuming comfort and convenience features and a mobility system that is largely based on high energy private automobiles and a high use of energy intensive air travel.  The average US citizen has a much larger footprint than the average European with a similar lifestyle due to a variety of efficiencies in the European structure.  The calculations indicate we are currently consuming more resources than the earth can provide and if more of the world population achieved the US living standard we would require several extra planets of resources. The footprinting concept is also being used to translate lifestyle demands into greenhouse emissions instead of translating it into unit areas.

Sustainability of the Built Environment

The country has largely adopted the LEED (Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design) rating system by the US Green Building Council (USGBC— to evaluate the environmental impact of building projects.  The LEED system provides project points for aspects and elements of the project that promote environmental sustainability.  The rating provides:

●        up to 26 points for aspects of the site selection and use,

●        up to 10 points for measures that improve water use efficiency,

●        up to 35 points for improved energy efficiency,

●        up to 14 points for use of sustainable materials and practices,

●        up to 15 points for improved indoor air quality,

●        up to 6 points for design innovation, and

●        up to 4 points for regional issues.

To 110 points total.

Ratings are awarded at the certified (40 pts), silver (50 pts), gold (60 pts) or platinum (80 pts) level.   Any checklist system of this sort faces disagreements over the correct inclusion of items and the proper weighting of points.  The system has made an incredible impact on raising awareness of sustainability among architects but has many critics, and even some of the original founders claim it was never intended to measure sustainability in the manner in which it is used.

Other rating systems have been proposed by other groups, but none have been as widely recognized as LEED.  The Green Globes system is supported by the Green Building Initiative, a not for profit with a mission to accelerate the adoption of sustainable building (  Energy Star programs are promoted by the US EPA, along with energy star labeling of appliances and computers (  Ed Mazria, an architect and early proponent of energy efficiency is promoting the 2030 Challenge to make all buildings energy neutral by 2030 (   The Living Building Challenge developed by the Cascade Region Green Building Council (the local branch of the USGBC) was a response to the perceived limitations of LEED.  The group envisioned “Imagine a building that operated as elegantly as a flower” (  This is an inspired program along the lines of Daniel Burnham, the architect of the 1893 Chicago World’s fair, “Make no little plans for they have no magic to stir men’s minds.”

In 2008, I proposed a simple performance based system that utilizes three metrics to define a building’s sustainability:  the environmental impact of the construction or ecological footprint, the energy (and other resource) consumption of the facility over its life and its durability and longevity (Haines, 2008).  To be sustainable a building must be constructed of materials that do not over-commit the earth’s resources, be energy neutral or energy positive and last for a very long time, perhaps 500 years is an appropriate goal.  I proposed that this concept be evaluated with the International Standards Organization (ISO) 14000 Environmental Management System that promotes a continuous improvement cycle since the learning curves required to achieve these results will be fairly long and steep.

The Subject Matter of Architecture.

The architect is “the first builder” in the built environment.  Originally the architect, as the designer controlled the design intent and oversaw the work of the builders.  As projects became more complicated, specialists, first in structural engineering and later in other fields became sub-designers to the architect.  Today the architect is the central contact in what is sometimes a vast array of specialists working to complete a construction project.

As the central figure, the architect is responsible for the conceptual design of the structure, the design drawings that turn that concept into an actual building, the technical plans and specifications that define the construction for the contractor and generally for oversight of the construction project to insure that the construction is built as designed.   While some of the design details may be done by sub-contracted designers, the architect is responsible for the package as delivered to the owner.

The architect translates the owners’ requirements into a program of spaces and functions that fulfill the owners’ needs, comply with all relevant codes, provide a structurally sound, storm and fire-safe building that is weatherproof, moisture-safe, thermally efficient, low maintenance and durable, built of materials and construction technologies that fall within the owners’ budget and schedule and is presented in an artistic form that lifts the spirit of the building inhabitants.

The architect must first be an expert in materials and building technologies.  Choices are made for selection to meet the above listed requirements along with aesthetics.  Where availability and/or prices change, adjustments may be required to stay within budget and schedule.   To meet sustainability criteria, choices must be made on the embodied energy (energy invested to make that material available) and resource use of the materials selected.  As an example, the materials in a standard 22 story concrete office building (Santos Offices, Adelaide, South Australia) were calculated to contain the embodied energy of six atomic bombs the size of those dropped on Hiroshima (based on Student work, University of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia).

Many new materials are being touted by companies as green and sustainable.  The architect must be able to analyze those claims to determine the truth behind the advertising.  While new materials may be improved over older versions, without a track record to work from the architect must determine if the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks if the material fails to live up to its claims, or causes some unforeseen problems in the construction of which it is a part.  There are standards for choosing new materials, but the architect must be careful, keep all parties informed and record all communications in case a problem arises that fuels disagreements.

Architects must increasingly be experts in the energy consumption of the buildings they design.  Buildings and structures account for about 40% of the energy and about 70% of the electricity in the country ( citing US DOE statistics).  The energy consumption of buildings is clearly a major component of our greenhouse emissions and a critical element of any movement towards a more sustainable future.  While much of that energy consumption is due to the electrical and mechanical equipment in the building, specified by the respective engineers, the architect at the center of the design is responsible for the thermal efficiency of the building envelope that determines much of the energy use of the equipment systems.

While LEED does not fully address durability, it is clearly a prime concern for sustainability.   Architects must build durable structures that will sustain for future generations.   Fortunately, where previous architects have done that, society inherits their built environment and investigations into how well, or badly those buildings perform, as many years of use reveal much about sustainable construction.  There is now general recognition that historic preservation is inherently linked with sustainability.

Many older buildings require repairs from the ravages of time on what were then new technologies and the stress placed on buildings to be fully space conditioned to modern standards.  Rapid change in the materials and technologies of the construction industry turns the design and construction of buildings into ongoing experiments.  A standard material that is no longer available, or has become too expensive, is replaced with a new material that has no track record.  A new material is tried in order to lower costs or to meet increasingly stringent building codes or new environmental standards (or a LEED rating).   Some of these experiments prove successful, but some will fail, and with that failure a building requires expensive repair.

Probably more destructive to building fabrics are the expectations to fully climate control buildings.  While the Greeks, the Romans, architects of the Renaissance and many others worldwide made buildings that are still standing after hundreds or thousands of years, none of those structures were space conditioned to modern standards.  Early examples of buildings that were space conditioned were terribly inefficient and lost large quantities of energy through the building fabric.  Once we became conscious of energy loss and tightened up the envelope to improve efficiency, we discovered moisture migration and mold.   Many buildings designed to be highly energy efficient experienced extensive moisture induced damage, some failures and lawsuits.   LEED buildings have not been exempt.  While many more practitioners now understand the problems and can avoid them, problems will continue for some years to come.  Learning to build structures that will endure for far longer than a human life time will continue to be a challenge for the industry.

Architectural practice is not limited to the design and construction of individual buildings. Determining a facility’s location impacts transportation energy and greenhouse emissions that, in turn, impact the mobility footprint of the region.  An architectural practice may likewise include planning studies of commercial facilities that impact the supply and purchase of goods and services.  The same factors may have an impact on the distances required to transport food stuffs to metropolitan areas.  Thus architects are at the heart of sustainability of the built environment and gain direct experience in these issues throughout their professional life.

The Art of the Architect

Western society has developed discreet academic fields and students become experts in their chosen field.  Some very small percentage gain degrees in multiple fields.  The different fields view the world from different perspectives, make different assumptions and ask different questions.  As the amount of information has increased, people have become more and more specialized.  No one can cover or keep up with the breadth of an entire academic field.  Lawyers cannot cover all aspects of law; they are specialists in some discreet subset of law and even that is becoming harder.  When we become overwhelmed by our own discipline, we lose the ability to see the world from another perspective, to consider wider issues, or entertain alternative interpretations.  We build incredible depth of expertise but are so focused we may lose the big pictures even within our general discipline.

Architects are artists in the sense that they are generalists at heart, not specialists.   Society rewards specialization and some architects have become specialists in some sub-set of the discipline.  For example, some have become code experts, some specialize in building envelopes or in hospital design.  While architecture is a field of study, it is one that requires the synthesis of information from a wide range of academic disciplines.  Architects are not geologists or landscapers but must understand the site on which they set the building.  They are not sociologists, but must create a building that fits into the surrounding context.   They are not structural engineers, but must understand engineering to develop a structural design that supports the design idea and parameters.  They must pick materials that are appropriate to the project requirements and will fit the owner’s budget and schedule.  They are not physicists or chemists but must avoid material interactions that could cause corrosion or deterioration of the building envelope.  They are not lawyers but must create a design that meets all legal and code requirements for that building type and size within that jurisdiction.   The building must perform on a wide range of performance criteria and to that list we are now adding requirements of sustainability.  While not psychologists they must so fully understand human perceptions of space and finish that they achieve these ends and do it so as to create a “Wow” experience for all who enter the building.

They say the greatest compliment you can ever give an architect is “of course”.  When the solution appears obvious after the fact you can be sure it was the hardest one to find.   The only course that provides the architect with any chance of success is to work by integration and not by dissection.  The solution is found by expanding the problem out to get a larger view, by looking at relationships more than at objects, by finding new ways to see the problem differently.   I once resolved a design problem by turning the program upside down.   It allowed me to see something I had not seen right side up that provided the insight I needed to resolve the problem.

This is not intended to boast that all architectural designs are successful.  Many are not, but the process is important.  Architectural training is only the beginning of learning how to use that process to “see” differently, to resolve problems and provide truly creative and artistic solutions.  Le Corbusier is said to have commented near the end of his life, “I am just beginning to learn how to see”.   This “learning how to see” could be extremely important in the integration of expertise to address sustainability.

The Architect in Sustainability Education

Architects traditionally train architectural students in the theories, history and practice of architecture.   Most architectural programs could increase and deepen information and problem solving abilities in energy, materials and durability issues around sustainability.  Some programs are making those changes and are finding better ways to have students address sustainability.  The American Institute of Architects has been fairly aggressive in promoting radical responses to climate change among architects (, advocacy, resources).

While having architects capable of designing zero energy buildings and sustainable construction projects is clearly important, I believe that it is more important to have owners who understand the issues, will pick architects capable of delivering sustainable projects and will demand (and be willing to pay for) truly sustainable solutions.  I know dozens of examples where owners did not understand the ramifications of cutting costs and ultimately paid thousands to millions of dollars more to repair the problems they created.

Based on that experience, I have found teaching environmental management (ISO 14000) and sustainability in an MBA program to be very rewarding.   Buildings, whether built, renovated or rented are a major cost to any business.  As business students become aware of environmental issues and more fully appreciate the implications of standard business responses, they start to see the issues differently.  These students will not become architects, but they will be better prepared to ask the right questions should they have to hire an architect, will be better able to understand the architect’s recommendations and better able to seek additional advice if they need it.

Architects who are knowledgeable about energy resources and energy use in buildings generally have a broad perspective.  While engineers, who are usually specialists in either electrical or mechanical engineering, will know more about their specialty, they will frequently know less about the building envelope and its potential both to reduce energy loss and to provide renewable energy harvest.  There will be some exceptions to this.  Architects will also likely be better attuned to the critical people issues that engineering will not resolve.  The engineering is necessary but not sufficient.  The architect’s expertise provides ample options for coursework in energy resources, energy efficiency and renewable energy critical to any business operation. Information on material resource management and Life Cycle Analysis (ISO 14043) could be separate courses or combined into the energy material for a less extensive format.

Architects are concerned with the productivity of workers in their buildings and many studies have been done on the productivity improvements of workers in sustainable buildings (due to light, color, vision, stress and psychological factors).  A course on the science of productivity taught by, or with the input of a knowledgeable architect could be very beneficial in a business program.  Another business course that includes environmental factors is triple bottom line accounting.  An architect is not likely to be sufficiently knowledgeable to teach that course, but could add valuable input as a co-teacher or team member.

The above examples for a business program are far from exhaustive and many schools are innovating in their program structures and course offerings.  Therefore the value of expertise on the built environment, energy resources and use, and environmental management depends on individual circumstances.  Courses in sustainable living, footprinting, environmental choices & ethics, sustainable design for non-architects or alternative building technology could be appropriate in many undergraduate core programs.


Specialization is our worst enemy when faced with sustainability.  The web of life is an incredibly intricate, complex and interrelated system with multiple feedback loops and inter-dependencies.  For all the expertise we can put together in, for example the biological sciences, how much do we still not know, and how much do we not understand, particularly at the peripheries where fields juncture?  Many have recognized this issue and have addressed it by the use of interdepartmental teams and cross departmental studies programs.  There is much merit in such approaches.  The bringing together of different perspectives and different assumptions promotes conversations that widen the student’s (and perhaps the faculty’s) perspectives.  The academic give and take promotes understanding in many ways.

As we move forward building curriculum to bring the lessons of sustainability to all students, we need to bring the perspectives, contents and understanding of all disciplines to bear on the problem.  While architecture is generally seen as a professional, not academic field, the architect’s experience and expertise relate directly to many of the issues we face.  Their experience with buildings, energy consumption, materials and durability is critical to sustainability.  That expertise needs to be included, along with the expertise of other disciplines, in assisting students to better understand the changing world.  In addition, the architect’s training as a generalist and integrative thinker provides experience that, while different from most fields, could be a beneficial asset when faced with the complex problems of sustainability.


Storer, J.H. (1956).  The Web of Life (New York, Mentor)

Reed, B. (2010).  Boston Society of Architects Lecture, The Practice of Living System Design, Boston, January 20 2010.

Wackernagel, M., (1944).  Ecological Footprint and Appropriate Carrying Capacity: A Tool for Planning Towards Sustainability.  PhD Thesis. School of Community and Regional Planning. The University of British Columbia

Haines, C. (2008).  The Three Key Performance Indicators of Sustainability, Build Boston.

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