Published in DASH #07 - The Eco House
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Editorial DASH #07

Forty years after the first oil crisis and the Club of Rome’s controversial report Limits to Growth, environmental awareness and sustainability are starting to become an integral part of construction practice. The new shortages of energy and raw materials precipitated by the rise of new economic superpowers like China are partly responsible. In addition, the United Nations climate conferences and Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth have helped make the public at large aware of the negative repercussions of our way of life.

Construction is responsible for about 20 per cent of total carbon dioxide emissions and 30 per cent of energy demand; this ranks it alongside the chemical and trans-port industries among the biggest polluters. Sustainability is therefore one of the most significant issues for designers and architects, as well as a challenging field for innovation and research. Yet simple solutions are not easily available. A wide range of approaches are now being demonstrated in practice, from the idealistic-holistic and politically engaged to the pragmatic and commercial. At times these approaches complement each other; at times they frankly conflict.

Take for instance the much-discussed Cradle-to-Cradle philosophy of American architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart. Energy supplies, remarkably enough, are not an issue within Cradle-to-Cradle thinking as long as this energy is generated sustain-ably and the cycle of material flows are well organized without exhausting natural sources. Superuse, the name given by the 2012Architecten bureau to its approach to material recycling in architecture, is paradoxically at odds with the Cradle-to-Cradle concept. From McDonough and Braungart’s perspective, such an inventive form of recycling begins at the wrong end of the system and Superuse is nothing more than a further degradation of materials in the various cycles of reuse. There are many other conflicting approaches: in counter-point to Danish architect Bjarke Ingels of BIG, who advocates a new hedonistic architecture that, free of Protestant guilt, exploits the opportunities of reuse and energy management to the utmost, we find the inter-national movements of eco-village and Transition Towns, which propagate new definitions of social responsibility through alternative lifestyles and forms of good governance.

In order to demonstrate the various basic principles and possibilities of a sustainable architecture of housing, this issue of DASH is devoted to the eco house. As architectural design is the focus, the discussion primarily concentrates on architectural invention rather than on the application and integration of today’s highly advanced (and often expensive) technological remedies, such as climate-control installations. The house by Carlos Weeber in Curacao is one of the most evident demonstrations – a comfortably interior climate is achieved without the use of air conditioning, but through principles of cross-ventilation, shade and natural cooling. The organization of the interior climate by dividing the home into zones produces special typologies that are characteristic of the eco house, from the hippie architecture of Earthship and Dome to cozy, middle-class conservatories in the back garden.

What links the studies and designs presented is the idea of an ecological approach to the issue of sustain-ability in the broadest sense of the word. Thinking about housing and ‘habitat’ in terms of ecology is relatively new in the history of architecture. Scottish biologist Patrick Geddes, who specialized in slum clearance and urban planning, was the absolute pioneer in this area. Thanks to his ground-breaking work a concept like habitat became common parlance in modern planning and architecture. Etymologically speaking the terms ‘ecology’ and ‘housing’ are closely connected via the Greek oikos, which means home or household. Ecology or the eco house (which is therefore really a pleonasm) has come to symbolize an approach in which housing is understood as a composite of processes and systems (social, economic and cultural) that together form the human living environment. Living patterns and building production are a self-evident component of this; the individual house is both the outcome and the support of these processes and patterns.

This look at the eco house builds on the work of a special MSc studio, ‘The Greenhouse Effect Studio’, organized by the Chair of Architecture and Dwelling of Delft University of Technology in association with Jacques Vink, Piet Vollaard and Thorsten Schuetze in 2009-2011. Jacques Vink and Piet Vollaard, as guest editors, also worked on the organization of this issue of DASH; in their essays they discuss aspects of the typology of the space and the production of the eco house. Machiel van Dorst takes a more detailed look at the aspect of lifestyles and sustainable housing. Daniel Barber presents part of the history of the eco house and demonstrates its connections to new lifestyles, technology and architectural invention. Jean-Philippe Vassal and Steve Baer address the experimental as well as the everyday improvisational aspects of the eco house.

What consistently emerges is that while there are identifiable general principles and conventions, these can only lead to a specific result in the project and within the specific conditions of the project – from climate to available means, time perspective and scale, etcetera. As such, each eco-house reformulates the question of sustainable housing; it is always an experiment with often unexpected improvisation or inspirational prototypes as its result.

One of the most speculative questions in the sustain-ability debate is the question of style. What does sustain-able architecture look like? The most provocative answers are based on the tradition of functionalism, according to some one of the forerunners of ecological thinking in architecture and planning. In this view, ecologically friendly architecture does not have an innate form; it can adopt any ‘style’, because the point is the effective organization of processes and systems. This can be done with a neo-classical look or in a modernist style. Nevertheless, we know that functionalism and modern architecture, as an language, also involved inventions, more than half a century after Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace, when all the ingredients for a new architecture were already in place. This is why the question of a formal idiom that communicates the values of sustainability keeps coming to the fore. When you leaf through the many glossy magazines and coffee-table books featuring fantastic ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’ villas, you sometimes get the impression that sustainable architecture is already a standardized practice. When you look at the pioneers, however, you realize that nothing could be further from the truth and that the most radical forms of sustainable architecture are still to come.