While I am, on the one hand, heartened by the rising popularity of Sustainability (with the capital “S”) within the building design (and, by extension, construction) industry, I am disappointed by the mechanical nature of the most prevalent rating systems that have emerged. LEED, in which one must accumulate “points” to reach a precious metal certification for one’s building, and the Living Building Challenge, in which designers and builders pursue “petals” (though it appears few, if any, buildings ever achieve more than three such “petals”) appear to be in an ever-increasingly competitive race to see which can be stricter, more exclusive, than its competitors (why are these organizations so fixed on the notion that they must compete with each other as opposed to working cooperatively for the betterment of humans in general?). The field is broadening, bringing in systems with different names, with slight nuances in their application and attitudes (take, for instance, the newish LEED certification WELL – which, at least, is a word – a separate rating system that LEED folded into its own format). Many of these names are made up of tortured English, stacking adjectives and multiple nouns together to create a new “supernoun” to describe the idea that one is pursuing. My initial complaint with BREEAM, which stands for (take a deep breath now): Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Model, is that, as a phrase, if not completely unintelligible, then at best tortured English phrases. Where do the creators of these systems come to decide these are the words they want to use to create a memorable [supposedly, anyway] acronym? Why are nouns piled on top of one another as if they’re adjectives and adverbs? For this example, there is only a single adjective in the last phrase. Where are the first three words headed? I suppose it might be a real phrase in English: building research establishment. But, as I just mentioned, it’s rather tortured (if not torturous to the reader) language. Whatever happened to grammar?
Before you, my dear reader, label me a “grammar Nazi,” I challenge you to come up with a definition for this phrase, this adjacency of words. Is it merely a pet peeve of mine? Indeed, it is. A big pet peeve of mine is the creation and subsequent use of words like probiotic. A compound can have probiotic properties. Sure, this one is fairly common these days, (perhaps even more so than digestive being shorthand for “digestive biscuit,” but the increasingly popular use of the word “probiotic” is driving me up a wall; not literally (obviously), but figuratively, up a fucking wall. I suppose one could be referring to a cabal as “the building research establishment,” referring to a body of persons who appoint themselves “keepers of proper building research,” but even that sounds a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it? But I digress…
Yes, LEED, the acronym for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” isn’t all that bad, I suppose. It’s not even as bad as SNUBA®, which, as a trademarked term, takes its cue from SCUBA (coined by Jacques Cousteau, Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus is, at least, a real, descriptive phrase in English), from “Surface Nexus Underwater Breathing Apparatus.” Well, perhaps I can give that a go, since they were obviously trying to relate their system to an established acronym that people can already pronounce. However, the more acronyms I come across, particularly the newer ones, the less and less they make sense as language. English has become, over the course of my lifetime, and I’m not that old, a repository of phrases that form acronyms which are hardly straightforward anymore.
Well, that was a long enough diversion from the topic of “green” buildings. The creative minds within architecture have been challenged to create “biomorphic” buildings. Biomorphic, as I’ve come to understand it, means “to take one’s cue from living things.” There are some aspects of different living creatures that lend themselves to mimicry, hence the word biomimicry, to describe designs that are directly influenced by animals, or, as I should say, nonhuman animals, since I believe that life is a continuum and that humans are part of that, as much as some would have us believe that homo sapiens is somehow “above” other species, “created” to “rule over” them, as proclaimed in the holy book of jewish and christian sects.
There are limits to which many of these adaptations can be applied to the artificial world in which humans have ensconced themselves. Yes, velcro (a combination of velour and crochet) is a great invention, created out of observing the ability of small seeds, by making themselves “sticky,” to be carried long distances by animals before being deposited into new soil (preferably with little if any competition for resources, since plants don’t generally move from place to place by their own power). However, there are some problems that humans face as the consequence of living modern lives, for which there is no natural parallel, but are invented to enable humans to live more comfortably. Take Gore-tex®. It’s a completely manufactured material. Hats off to the family of inventors Gore!
Is it possible to create a truly biomorphic building, one that behaves much like a living thing in that it has the ability to actually grow? I have heard of self-assembling materials that are under fairly recent study as a means of sequestering carbon, and I would be thrilled to learn that this has made itself into a building (construction) application. The only drawback is that I believe a lot of such processes are time-consuming, and thus not as applicable to our current drive to make things operate and come online at an ever faster pace. Could we make a return to living in the trees, but ones of our own design? This is something that remains to be seen.