Dean of Architecture emphasizes green construction

Henry Clayton Wickham

What we choose to build has a huge impact on our natural world. Buildings consume 50 percent of energy used in the United States and as the human population grows exponentially, our need for homes, offices, parks and public buildings is not easily abated. By 2030, half of the buildings in our cities will have been constructed in the last 30 years. In his book, “Design for a Vulnerable Planet,” UT Dean of the School of Architecture Frederick Steiner explores how design and planning can create a more sustainable world.

Steiner is speaking at Texas Book Festival this Sunday.

“There’s lots of challenges when we look at the planet becoming increasingly urban,” Steiner said. “But I think there is lots of opportunity for creative people to shape a healthier and more beautiful future.”

In his book Steiner argues that, to achieve sustainable design, we must understand the full economic social and environmental costs of development and act accordingly. Understanding these costs means being aware of the interplay between the man-made and natural environment.

Architect Paul Cret, who planned the UT campus in 1933 and designed many of its older buildings such as the Union and Goldsmith Hall, exemplified this kind of awareness in many ways. In one chapter of “Vulnerable Planet,” Steiner discusses what we can learn from Cret, who used local materials such as limestone and live oak and took sun angle, weather conditions and topography into consideration in his arrangement of UT campus.

The success of architects like Cret was achieved by consulting their environment but ignored by the Modernist movement, which shaped the design of many of our cities, Steiner said. “Around the planet we produced an architecture of boxes, some glass, others transparent and windowless,” he writes. “We created cities disconnected from nature.”

According to Steiner, designers and planners need to abandon this “one-size-fits-all” point of view and use knowledge of the place if we are to shape a sustainable future.

“The great English poet Alexander Pope said ‘consult the genius of the place.’ Japanese garden designers live a year in a place before they make a design,” Steiner said. “They try to understand the four seasons, the wind and the light.”

But “consulting the genius of the place” does not just mean aesthetics for Steiner. By understanding that the natural and man-made environments interact as part of the same ecosystem, designers and planners can bring about powerful environmental changes. Transitioning to renewable energy sources and reusing existing sites rather than encroaching on “prime farmland” or “environmentally sensitive areas” are two steps that Steiner said can have both environmental and economic benefits.

In cities growing vegetation on roofs, using absorbent paving materials, building smaller parking lots and planting more trees can minimize runoff, keep temperatures in cities from becoming unnaturally high and generally make cities more enjoyable places to live, he said. The social impact of design is important, Steiner said.

“Certainly we spend a lot of money as tourists to go to environments that make us feel better,” he said.

The Woodlands, an environmentally sound community outside of Houston, is one example where sustainability and livability have gone hand and hand. Now one of the country’s largest, most successful planned communities, The Woodlands began as a government-funded effort to build community that meshed with local ecology. Wooded communities have helped change the suburban aesthetic, Steiner said.

“When The Woodlands first started, people thought it was crazy,” Steiner said. “It was about protecting old trees and water courses, and now a lot of rich people want to go there and play golf.”

In his book, Steiner emphasizes that shaping a sustainable future requires interdisciplinary cooperation and the opportunity for involvement in shaping our environment goes beyond just architects and designers.

“If we aren’t involved in the creative process, we’re involved as consumer and interpreters,” he said. “We can make good choices.”