Sustainability in Architecture Courses at the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science

The Declaration, Volume 3, Number 1 : March 1999  [Curriculum]

by Rob Fleming

Young students in K-12 classes are increasingly taught that we are all interconnected through the proverbial web of life, that protecting earth’s resources is an important part of being a global citizen. So, while the world is becoming environmentally literate, architecture remains in the dark, fixated on form, image and professional practice as the primary issues of design education. A case in point is the current accreditation standards for architecture schools written by the National Architectural Accreditation Council, which controls the quality and direction of architectural education in America. Only one out of a possible 37 educational criteria ranging from structures, to history, to professional practice targets the issue of ecology. Even then, the word “conservation” is used instead of “sustainability.”

Surely architecture could be more than what it is today if there was a motivation, a means to a better end, a new paradigm. Luckily for us, and for the rest of the planet, the concept of sustainability has finally built enough momentum to overcome the uninspiring solar architecture of the 1970’s. Sustainability is becoming a movement in design not because we architects have brought it along, but because society at large is beginning to ask for it.

At the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science (PCTS) the issue of sustainability is approached not as a means to satisfy minimum accreditation criteria, but as a vehicle for discovering the fundamental components of a new design ethic for architects. From the perspective of post-modernism and deconstructivism, the word ethic can never be used because architecture, which is solely fixated on style and appearance, must be hollow – devoid of intrinsic quality. To the contrary, “sustainable architecture” implies so many intrinsic design guidelines that it creates a design ethic. Once a powerful design ethic is established, architecture of integrity, transcendence and ecological soundness can emerge.

The ethic of sustainability straddles almost every area of the architecture curriculum, from building technology to professional practice to environmental systems. It impacts every decision a young student makes during the design process: where is the sun, what materials should I use, how can I contribute to the urban fabric, where does the building’s water supply come from and where does the waste go? The questions and solutions are never ending and complex, thus requiring a new kind of architecture student – one who is concerned with more than form and image. The new architecture student cares about how things work both in nature and in the building. The line between site and building is broken down until the project is viewed as an integral part of a continuous and specific eco-system. Building design is considered within the context of a particular region with unique stories, cultures and physical characteristics.

When a group of faculty members at PCTS became serious about teaching sustainability as integral to the design process, we quickly discarded those lessons that promoted unsustainable design and modified others to raise their level of environmental awareness. Part of the process involved confronting the foundation of architectural education itself to reveal its antiquated, boundary-conscious past in order to form a new, more sophisticated curriculum of the future. In order to accomplish this, we began by clearing up numerous “misconceptions” that the profession holds about design. We confronted each of these “misconceptions” and began to offer a response. The responses eventually became the ethical backbone for a new architecture studio. Below is a short review of the major misconceptions we uncovered followed by our responses.

Misconception #1: Buildings are sculptural objects floating in a neutral field

[Response: Teach landscape architecture as a required part of the studio]

It’s not surprising that design students choose to perceive their design projects as sculptures given that the majority of them were raised in the suburbs where almost all the buildings that they have ever seen are objects floating in a sea of parking or lawn. As a response, we try to teach architecture as a holistic process where site considerations, landscaping, ecological systems and urban/natural context are as important as the building itself. Students are continually required to draw their buildings within the larger context of the site – showing trees, slopes, existing buildings, wildlife, sky and water. Last fall, for the first time, we required students to literally “stake out” the perimeter of their building proposal so that they could come to terms with the ultimate impact of their design on the micro-climate.

Misconception #2: Architects are heroes and will uplift the huddled masses with their design solutions

[Response: Collaborative projects]

In almost every case, students want to work alone. Group projects are often seen as an undue burden to the creative process. In the studio, we stress collaborative projects with large groups of students – sometimes as many as 12 at one time. This allows a diversity of viewpoints and teaches the students how to campaign for their ideas while also learning how to listen and respect the ideas of others. The benefits of these kinds of projects are often not realized until years later. Sustainable design is inherently more complex than our culture’s reductionist post-modernist architecture. Sustainable design therefore requires many individuals in an interdisciplinary setting to achieve its goals.

Misconception #3: Architecture is the “mother art”

[Response: Multi-disciplinary design]

Architecture students are notorious for possessing a superiority complex over other design majors such as interior design and landscape architecture. Because the students see architecture as technically more demanding, they begin to believe that they are involved in a more important field. As a response, we continually introduce cross-disciplinary projects. Most recently we paired interior designers with architects in the master-planning phase of a proposed research retreat. The project helped break down the stereotypes that have developed about each design major. Students also have difficulty understanding their designs within the larger ecological fabric. As a response, we invite professors of ecology, biology and geology from the science school to speak to the architects in some detail about the inner workings of the given ecological context.

Misconception #4: Great architecture transcends its region and its time

[Response: Teach architecture history within a broad context]

Many of our students feel no responsibility or desire to develop a design project with reference to a region’s physical, historical and cultural context. This is not surprise considering that many design students are raised in communities devoid of any distinguishable cultural characteristics. As a response, we ask the students, as part of their traditional site analysis, to complete a visual and verbal history of a given project site and its region. Often, we invite guest speakers from the given region to enlighten the students on the nuances of their site and its history. We ask the students to understand the history of the site from a pre-European point of view. For example, how did Native Americans use a particular site? Was it considered sacred? What wildlife existed on the site in the past?

Misconception #5: Design is a rational process

[Response: Introduce the concept of spirit]

For many students, the design process involves the development of a building that satisfies certain minimal educational and program requirements. Unfortunately, there is no spark of imagination or excitement in their proposals. In order to raise their expectations, we include as part of the design process a spiritual analysis of a given site in order to determine what locations have “inherent value” and to define what elements (usually natural) combine to create a sense of sacredness about a given location. The decision of how to locate a building becomes both more difficult and more meaningful as the student becomes attuned to the essential energy of the site. In the end, students go beyond merely solving problems to creating inspiring designs that work within the unseen spiritual context of their given site.

Misconception #6: Architecture is only about form and image

[Response: Teach systems integration]

Rarely will a student attempt to integrate environmental systems into the conception of a building design. Invariably, students wait until the teacher requires them to do it, and by then the impact of integration is often unrealized. One of the responses has been to study animals in their habitats as a metaphor for buildings in their environment. Part of that study always includes a look at the following components of the animal: its skin as a weather modulator, its form as a response to its habitat terrain, its digestive system, its respiratory system and its aesthetic appearance. We then ask the students to consider their building in much the same way: how does it get its air and water, how does it respond to its terrain, how does it modulate temperature and shed water and how does it exist within its own habitat. By asking the students to perceive their buildings as live entities, a systems approach towards design can emerge.

By the end of the semester, students have expanded their perceptions about design beyond the often-limited understanding of the scope of the architect. At the same time, we have found that the issues, responsibilities and complexity of designing for sustainability overwhelm many students. They have come to realize that it takes much more than simply placing photovoltaic solar panels on a roof. They have come to realize that the current state of architectural design in America is, in many cases, a cultural and ecological disaster that must be stopped. They have come to realize that architects in the future will collaborate with different professions in a meaningful way, early in the design process, rather than adopting the segmented method currently in use among design professionals.

If modernism, the great reductionist paradigm of the 20th century, was fostered in the architectural academies of the not-so-distant-past, it may be possible for the architecture schools of the 21st century to possess the unique opportunity to turn the tide towards sustainability. In order to accomplish this, there is need of much more than a single design studio focusing on these issues. What is needed is a comprehensive rethinking of the entire architectural educational process including: reconsideration of accreditation requirements; reformation of design curricula to incorporate environmental literacy; breaking down of constructed territorial boundaries between disciplines; and the enlightenment of architectural faculty to issues of ecology and sustainability. If these tasks can be accomplished, architects can move stride by stride with other professions towards a sustainable future.

Rob Fleming is an assistant professor at the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science, School of Architecture & Design. He also co-founded ArchiGlyphics, an interdisciplinary design firm based in Philadelphia.

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