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With news like the White House’s recent announcement of $68 million in federal funds for 540 renewable power and energy efficient projects (including 240 solar ones), terms like “green,” “sustainable,” and “clean tech” have entered common parlance. At the forefront of this energy revolution, solar and wind are gaining the most media coverage—but how are green technologies being used in construction and architecture? Is there a way to make our homes not only energy efficient and cost-effective but also aesthetically pleasing?

In light of this recent news, we asked, Dan Spiegel, noted green architect and academic, his thoughts on the subject to gain deeper insights on the industry and what it might mean to construct lived environments with a sustainable focus. A visual exploration of the topic follows in the slideshow “10 Creative Uses of Alternative Energy.”

1. How did you get into green architecture and design? What attracted you to the field?

I studied public policy in college and came to the realization that a lot of the interesting, difficult challenges we face are related to the built environment. Additionally, as the interrelatedness of our lives (socially, technologically, environmentally) increases, design approaches seem particularly well suited to handle this sort of complexity. Architecture is about thinking through problems as interconnected systems. How do we handle shelter and structure and ecology and safety in a single cohesive design? On the other level, architecture is charged with helping people relate to their surroundings – their position in these systems. Both policy and architecture are about the relationship of individual subjectivity to the system.

To that end, I don’t think of “green” as a separate discipline from architecture. “Green-ness” seems to stand in as a reminder that lots of building as practiced has slipped from architecture’s role of considering how its structures interact with their environment over time.

2. You mentioned that your work in sustainable architecture implements “green” elements such as solar paneling in ways most people don’t even notice. Can you describe what you mean by this?

As long as “green elements” are seen as somehow separate from the building, separate from the architecture, it seems unlikely that they will ever be integral to the design. My feeling is that a truly sustainable design methodology is one that doesn’t look like a collage of technical features, but rather integrates its sustainability into the organization and aesthetic of the building.

By way of contrast, there’s a project called Sol Grotto by Rael San Fratello (see photos below) that re-purposed spare tubes from the failed Solyndra plant into “a spartan retreat—a space of solitude.” In other words, it has turned the technological devices of solar production into a place of pure subjective experience and zero technological performance. “Green” buildings should respond to both the technological and the experiential roles of architecture simultaneously.

3. In your opinion, what are some of the most innovative ways solar is used in architecture today? Can you recommend any academic articles that examine and analyze these uses?

There are so many brilliant things going on. To put things in perspective a bit, Germany is the largest producer of solar PV capacity, which is stunning if you think about how inhospitable the climate there is to solar. It goes to show that solar isn’t about creating ideal conditions or solutions, but that a great impact is possible through a determined and systematic approach to the environmental context.

One office that is doing really cutting edge work on climate engineering is Transolar (www.transsolar.com). They have produced a number of publications and incredibly innovative projects. There are scores of good books about solar design out there. One I have found useful is In Detail: Solar Architecture, as it combines information about various solar systems with thoughtful, exactingly drawn architectural details, showing the techtonic relationship between the technical device and its architectural expression.

4. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions surrounding green architecture and sustainable design or solar energy today?

This extends from the discussion of “green” architecture above. I think the most pernicious misconception is that sustainable design is in some way “additional” to the discipline of architecture. There’s no such thing as a neutral configuration in design—each way something is constructed imbues a series of preferences (for behaviors, aesthetics, symbolic content, and resource consumption). So, there really isn’t such a thing as a “normal” house and a “green” house. Instead, there’s a large spectrum of ways in which a structure can relate to its context, including how much energy it consumes.

To me, this is important for a few reasons. First if “green” can be “achieved” in a binary way, then there can be a market disincentive to continually strive for improved performance. Our benchmarks for achievement tend to be based on incremental improvement over past performance, so if you do just a little better than the old way, a building might be “green.” But is this satisfactory? On the other hand, metrics are useful, particularly in evaluating the effectiveness of our designs and the relative progress of our innovations, but I think it could be helpful to view it in a less binary way. The existence of a category of “green architecture” seems to imply there is another sort of architecture that doesn’t have a direct relationship to its environment and long term ecological viability. But this isn’t the case. Every building is part of this system, so it may be counter productive to suggest (even unwittingly) that some structures are somehow outside of that conversation.

5. What do you want teachers to know about teaching concepts of sustainable architecture? What are the best academic texts professors could use when creating a course on sustainable architecture?

One thing that is important about the architectural education process, though, is that it’s generally a studio based system. Students are given design problems (real or imagined) and required to address them through the creation of original content production, through intense interactions with their instructors. As such, the work that takes place at academic institutions produces a great deal of innovation and drives much of the discourse in the field.

6. What areas of architecture do you feel need the most improvement?

Well, likely all of them. It’s a discipline that benefits from perpetual motion. The business side is fairly stunted, but that’s another story.

8. What sources or academic texts would you say are critical to your field?

There are really too many to list here – architecture has been around for thousands of years and the body of knowledge is cumulative. I’d also say that architects need to keep an extremely wide base of engagement, as architectural work requires and understanding of history, politics, science, technology, art, psychology, philosophy, and so on…

Image credit: SOL Grotto

About The Author

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Architect and Scholar

Dan Spiegel received a Master of Architecture from Harvard University Graduate School of Design and B.A. in Public Policy from Stanford. Prior to founding SAW, Dan worked for leading architecture offices in New York, Beijing, and Boston. He was formerly adjunct professor of architecture at Wentworth Institute of Technology, and has been a design critic at several schools of architecture, including Harvard, RISD, California College of the Arts, and UC Berkeley. Dan is a licensed architect in California.