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Taking the Temperature of EnvironDesign
Dawn Danby, 6 May 06

environdesign10.jpg Dark rooms in a big downtown hotel are a strange setting for imagining the future of sustainability. I recently spent three days at EnvironDesign, held last week here in Toronto, having conversations about buildings, material culture, and growth. The Royal York Hotel, where the event was held, is musty and old-moneyed, with excellent tea and poor lighting. It's where the Queen stays, when she comes: a well-preserved relic of a long-lost (or even imagined) postcolonial Canada, and a slightly odd spot to be sitting in the dark, listening to slide lectures celebrating solar gain and daylighting strategies.

Although the idea of green building might seem like old news to most of you, we still live in a world in which every project that succeeds represents formidable political tussling and technical skill. But WorldChanging readers know well enough that much of the essential knowledge for creating ecologically responsible buildings is already here. New materials roll out. There's more quantifiable data to show that green buildings don't cost more. We know they make people happier and more productive, we know they make us less sick. The whole thing is taking hold like never before. And while we're at it, no one gets to leave the room without talking about India and China, and the green cities that are to come.

But there was a strange energy in the old hotel, and with our tea came a pervasive sense of walking along a knife-blade between opportunity and failure. As a result, I've been spending the last week trying to parse out whatever it was in the air over those few days in Toronto.

People are doing some great work. Vivian Loftness, who kick-started one of the first programs in green architecture in the US at Carnegie Mellon University, has a mountain of hard data to prove that green buildings are good for our bodies and brains. Bill Walsh, the national coordinator of the Healthy Building Network, does us all an incredible service by holding the building industry's feet to the fire. Dan Pink argued for a kind of strategic optimism: in an age of abundance, nothing is more in demand than aesthetics and sustainability, and his voice was still echoing a day later, after he'd long since left us to our brocaded conference rooms.

But because all this good work is underpinned by passionate people, we have to remember that their collective state of mind is a delicate ecosystem. Besides which, designers and architects and engineers are do-ers, not writers. Words usually aren't our craft. And yet over and over I found that the conversations we were having were actually about semantics. People wanted to talk about what sustainability is, what it means, or when it happens. Our muddled words weren't so much a hiccup in getting things done, but rather made the future (which is nothing if not murky and ill-defined) seem dark, like we were waiting for the flood, and betting on the date of its arrival.

Let's not kid ourselves. This work is hard. It is the great work of our time, as David Orr reminded us in his keynote on Thursday morning... "we need to create a vision, an opportunity so strong that it lures us to a better future". Orr is a great academic-philosopher of sustainability, and spoke about the edge between fear and possibility. He also performed a great version of the thing that I've taken to calling The Rundown, which usually involves a reminder to the choir of the state of things. It's the quarterly report on What the Scientists are Saying, and What the Governments Are or Aren't Doing, and Of What the Citizenry Is or Isn't Aware. The Rundown invariably includes cautionary tales, brand-new updated statistics and terms such as "intergenerational remote tyranny". Its second movement concludes with a rousing call to action. The Rundown is the thing that makes the first chapter of every book about sustainability that's more than a year old seem a just little dusty and out of date - and it's what makes Silent Spring, for all of its significance, unreadable. Some of us might feel we're done with such reminders; but as a whole we're not beyond their usefulness. Besides, being a singular and unique form of argument unto itself, I've started savouring the good ones.

Why do people hold conferences? Why do we go? What's the value in getting a lot of people into a room together to have these conversations? A small collection of folks in their 20s managed to fit at a small table. When events like this one limit themselves to folks with expense accounts, and draw out a middling number of younger, self-employed, or student designers, they lose the opportunity to pass this dialogue on. Not long ago, EnvironDesign was a really massive conference that pulled in thousands of people to some big city in America to talk about the emerging field of sustainable design. Now in its tenth year, it's come close enough to me that I had the great pleasure of getting there on the subway. But the event seems to have left most of its regular delegates across the border. Either Toronto is further away than I'd realized, or it's just lost its people to the explosion of competing events that have emerged to take its place.

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Thanks for this. I am neither an architect, designer, or student, but I really enjoy getting Rundowns as well. As for the smaller attendance at EnvironDesign - well, as things heat up (literally!), and more events spread out across North America, attendance will naturally get more local. And hey, LOCAL IS GOOD, right? Less energy expended by all to attend? More sustainable? Keep sight of the big picture.

Posted by: Prog Grrl on 7 May 06

I absolutely agree, by the way. (Many of the new events, like Metropolis' Tropical Green, are regional conferences that are also more relevant to local architecture.)

Posted by: Dawn Danby on 7 May 06

So, if the materials are there, and they don't cost more to build-what do you think it is that is stopping companies from building green buildings? Is it simple laziness?

Posted by: super susan on 7 May 06

Thanks for thinking out loud ...I keep re-reading this because there's something about the ominous undertone that leaves me wanting some resolution. I'm not sure you finished your thought.

...we need to create a vision, an opportunity so strong that it lures us to a better future.

Clearly, this is critically important, but I'm not convinced that we can get there through a process of market adoption akin to selling jeans to teens. The changes that we know to be necessary and urgent are so huge that it may require something more like a mass mobilization. What none of us have figured out yet is how to trigger this. Are we at a tipping point, or are we simply running out of time to do it? That's the question that I hear lurking beneath your essay. Is there some option, some strategy, that we haven't yet hit on? That is the question that is my daily obsession.

Posted by: Phil Mitchell on 8 May 06

I would have attended this event - its in my own backyard. BUT as you mentioned it is VERY expensive to the average student, on in my case, ex student. I believe the ticket price was around $300 ? It's a little much if you don't have a company forking over the expense for you.

Posted by: Jon on 14 May 06



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