A Few Thoughts on Sustainable Architecture

Episode

A while ago, my office, Doojin Hwang Architects, designed a club house for a public tennis club in Seoul. The client originally asked us to design a very simple and basic building, but after a number of presentations, we ended up designing a piece of full-fledged eco-friendly architecture, with deep sun roofs, rain water recycling system and of course, solar panels to produce electricity, which also worked as sun shades to keep the summer sun light off from the roof deck below.

 

After we submitted the construction document set and the foundation works started on the job site, I asked myself a question: Am I saving the planet?

I don’t know; I am still looking for an answer.

 

Local vs Global

It all depends on how we look at it. If we look at an individual building in itself and its eco-performance, the answer will an easy Yes. The building that we designed will save water and electricity and work with the nature for cooler summers and warmer winters. That however, is a’ local’ point of view; an accessment of an individual, isolated system.

If we look at a larger system on the other hand, for example the entire planet earth, the answer will be much more complicated, since we need what is called a life-cycle accessment and I believe this is the one of the most complex and advanced  types of science and engineering. And I think this can easily defy our common-sensical understanding of a situation. For example, it can be argued that the energy saved by electricity-producing solar panels can be off-set in the long run by the energy to produce and recycle the solar panels themselves. This is a ‘global’ point of view. And this is what we need when we think about the sustainability of sustainable architecture and environment. Otherwise we will keep doing unwise things like burning the Amazon forest to plant sugar canes to produce bio-fuel.

 

Active vs. Passive Solar Houses

We all learned about these at schools. And the emphasis has been always on the active solar houses, for a simple reason that these involve the use of industrial products such as solar panels, batteries, heating coils, operating systems, etc. The market interests are obviously there.   

The passive solar houses on the other hands are generally considered as literally too passive and ineffective, since even the best passive solar house could never produce hot water, for example. Less dramatic and less market-friendly, the passive solar houses were in a sense more design-, and less product-, oriented approach. It is an architect’s game.

 

Learning from Traditional Architecture

I believe that all traditional architecture in the world is passive solar houses in their own ways. They became what they were not because people were concerned with the idea of saving energy and materials for the planet, but because people did not have enough energy and materials and they simply had to find a solution to make the best out of what little they had.

Hanok, or Korean traditional architecture, is not an exception. Its clever use of deep roof overhang, for example, helps blocking the sun light in the summer and allowing it in the winter, and keeps the rain off the wall, a feature widely referred to as truly eco-friendly. The world architecture is full of such ingenuities and wisdom, responding to different environments. That why I believe we need to pay more attention to traditional architecture; they have a lot to offer to us, living in the 21 century.

 

Urban Perspective

However, no efforts for sustainable architecture is valid if we do not look at it from urban point of view, since the majority of the world population is living in urban areas now and the tendency will only grow in the future.

Density is the keyword; the human habitat is becoming denser and denser. That gives us an uncomfortable awareness that the green lessons from most traditional architecture suddenly lose their effectiveness in dense urban situations, since traditional architecture was typically formed when human societies did not need the kind of urban density that we have now.

Nowhere is this issue more clear than in Korea, where most traditional architecture is single story buildings, whose FAR(floor area ratio) is at most 30% or so, a sub-urban typology from contemporary point of view.

There is no way of meeting the demand of urban density with this kind of architecture and it is no wonder that the majority of hanoks. Korean traditional houses, has been destroyed for more floors and bigger rooms. It was a war for density.

  

Low-rise, high-density, complex building typology

In conclusion, what interests me on an architectural level is a low-rise, high-density mixed use building typology, as in European cities. Less dependent on machines like elevators, this typology will perform better in case of global energy crisis, like the one in 1970s, than Corbusian, high-rise typology. To develop such a typology in Korean urban context is one of my missions as an architect.

The concept of a mixed-use building is also important. It not only helps enlivening the streets, but also shortens the distance of commuting between work and home. 

 

Smaller, compact and pedestrian city

On the other hand, I believe that Korean cities also need to be smaller, denser and more pedestrian than they are now. The vast urban sprawl in the last several decades only made the country more energy-consuming and less sustainable in the ‘global’ perspective, no matter how much efforts have been made to make individual buildings or communities perform better in terms of sustainability.

The green dots are imaginary communities around Seoul. No matter how environmentally sustainable they are designed from a local point of view, it doesn’t make sense from a global point of view if its citizens have to commute a long distance.

 

Cultural Sustainability and Pan-bioism

Finally, I challenge the current debates on sustainability in architecture being too much focused on energy issues only. It is imperative that we start to look at this issue from a broader perspective. I propose a new concept of cultural sustainability, in which the sustainability issue is to be examined from a wider spectrum of viewpoints including engineering, regional culture and architectural and urban tradition, etc.

The philosophical background of cultural sustainability is what I name Pan-bioism, in which human beings are considered as an equal, not superior member of the world of life, as illustrated very clearly by Hong, Daeyong, an 18th-century Korean scholar of the realist school of Confucianism:

 

 “From the viewpoint of the human beings, the human beings are noble and all creations are lowly.

From the viewpoint of all creations, all creations are noble and the human beings are lowly.

From the viewpoint of the heaven, the human beings and all creations are equal.”   

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(Summary of my presentation at the ‘ACTIVE Sustainable Design Now’ symposium on September 1, at the Italian Pavilion, Shanghai Expo. A detailed report of my trip to the Shanghai Expo will follow soon.)

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