October 31, 2008

The Sustainability of an Architectural Practice

by Lucas Gray

ABSTRACT: If the world’s population lived with an average American lifestyle we would require five and a half planets to sustain human society. It is imperative that we adapt our lifestyles so we can meet our demands with the one planet we have. I used the Ecological Footprint Quiz on myfootprint.org to analyze how our daily choices impact the sustainability of our lives. Based on the varying results I present ways to change how we live and design in order to reduce our individual and community’s footprints. I offer suggestions on lifestyle choices while also addressing larger issues like sustainable energy sources and transportation methods. I argue that in this time of environmental crisis we should add environmental cost to economic thinking. If the general population adopts some of these arguments and we as architects incorporate strategic features into our designs we can change the destructive course our civilization is heading in. We will thus create a society that lives in harmony with planet Earth.


There is a growing trend in architecture towards sustainable design. Yet, how many firms have changed the way they operate to make themselves sustainable? How many architects live sustainably?

Our ecological impact is derived from our lifestyle choices. The website, www.myfootprint.org, offers a short quiz that roughly estimates an individual’s degree of sustainability. The questions survey personal decisions regarding food, goods and services, housing, and transportation. It calculates the area of land needed to provide sufficient resources to meet personal demands. This land is referred to as a ‘footprint.’ The quiz is based on national consumption averages, and it allows individuals to compare their results to these averages. Some parts of the footprint are beyond the individual’s control, such as municipal infrastructure, roads, government buildings, schools, etc.

Each footprint is measured in a unit called a "global acre", which is an acre of land with average global bioproductivity. Measuring the footprint in global acres allows easy comparison across different regions with varying land use. The Earth currently has approximately 26.7 billion acres of biologically productive space, equal to less than 1/4 of the planet's surface. These 26.7 billion acres are broken down into 5.7 billion acres of productive ocean and 21 billion acres of productive land. Dividing the total biologically productive area by the world’s population gives each person approximately 4.5 acres to meet all of their needs (rprogress.org). This also means that the average footprint is inversely proportional to the world’s population. As the population continues to rise our footprints must correspondingly decrease.

When humanity's footprint exceeds the amount of renewable biocapacity a decline in natural resources occurs. Currently, humanity's footprint exceeds ecological limits and is thus unsustainable (rprogress.org).

Based on my lifestyle as an environmentally aware architecture student at the University of Oregon, I have a footprint of 11 acres. This means we would need 2.4 planets to sustain the world’s population if everyone lived as I live. In comparison, the average ecological footprint in America is 24 acres per person needing 5.35 planets. As an architect living and working in Shanghai, China, I needed upwards of 5.5 planets due to my heavy reliance on automobile and airplane transportation, as well as consuming a diet relying on a large consumption of meat. It is our mandate as residents of Earth to have a footprint of 1 Earth or less, thus living completely sustainably. What do we have to do to reduce our impact? What can an architect do to reduce his or her footprint, and how can an architect work to reduce the footprint of others?

By analyzing major choices in our lives we can determine ways to drastically reduce our footprints. We must examine our consumption of food, goods and materials, as well as our use of transportation, and energy. Our consumption levels cause harmful emissions and create waste. It is the responsibility of the architect to consider how these issues influence the built environment.


All people need to make smarter choices concerning the food they eat. Eating meat and dairy is not environmentally sustainable. It takes over half an acre of land to produce the meat consumed in one dinner per week. Footprints needed to cultivate different types of food vary widely. “A plant-based diet generally requires less land, energy, and other resources. Crop-based food requires an average of 1.9 global acres per ton of food, compared to 5.2 global acres required to produce one ton of animal-based food” (Redefining Progress). Residents of South West England consumed about twice as much plant-based food as animal based food in 2001. However, the footprint needed to sustain the animal based food was over three times larger (Figure 1) (www.steppingforward.org.uk).

Figure 1: Food footprint of South West England residents, compared with tonnages consumed, in 2001
- Steppingforward.org.uk

We must purchase food that is grown within a 200-mile radius of where we live. According to the Lane County, Oregon magazine, Locally Grown, “The food on an average American’s plate travels 1300 miles to get from the farm to the plate, and during that time, changes hands six times” (Battson 06). The number one influence on these food miles, as this is referred to, is individual customers driving to the grocery store. In America on average almost 75% of food consumed is processed, packaged and not locally grown. In addition, 26% of food that is purchased in America is thrown away and not eaten. (Household Ecological Footprint Calculator). If we can design communities that have the infrastructure to produce 50 percent of our food locally then we can reduce the average American’s footprint by 1 acre, thus bringing our planets from 5.35 down to 5. If we consume almost all of our food from local, unprocessed, unpackaged sources we can lower our footprint by another acre and another 0.3 planets. “With current agricultural land, Lane County could grow or produce 100% of the county residents’ grain, vegetable and fruit needs, but only 83% of dairy needs and 10% of meat needs” (Battson 06).

We must choose to buy organic and sustainably grown foods that are unprocessed and unpackaged. Food grown this way reduces our dependence on chemicals and preservatives, and improves our health while allowing us to compost food wastes and return nutrients to the ecosystem. Too often our food waste ends up in landfills where it has no value. Composting our food and other biological waste is the only way to return nutrients to the ecosystem. If we don’t consciously change our approach to food, our resources will run out within our or our children’s lifetimes, and these decisions may be forced upon us.

As architects we need to consider whether the land we are building on can support agriculture. If so, it is a waste to build large housing communities and strip malls that increase suburban sprawl on valuable arable land. Architects should dedicate parts of each site to allow for local food gardens and thus promote consumption of locally grown produce. The Douglas Hospital in Montreal supports a large community garden on part of its sprawling campus. Parks throughout Eugene, Oregon also dedicate land to community gardening and composting initiatives. When designing landscapes and choosing tree types, landscapers and designers should specify fruit trees that supply food to the community, and plant berry bushes as hedges if the local climate can support them. In this way plants give back to the community, providing free food and supporting cooperation between humanity and the environment.

Architects need to design alternatives to wasteful uses of land such as lawns. We must change the preconception that lawns are a desirable feature of a property. Today millions of Americans spend approximately 30 billion dollars a year on the maintenance of over 23 million acres of lawns. The lawns in the US consume around 270 billion gallons of water a week. That’s enough water to sustain 81 million acres of organic vegetables for an entire summer. If every house with 1/3 of an acre of lawn converted the grass to a vegetable garden they could grow enough food to feed a family of 6. (Flores 06).

“The average urban lawn could produce several hundred pounds of food a year” (Flores 06). If we have to build on fertile land it should be required that we replace the building footprint with planted roofs. This will not only benefit the energy consumption of the building and help control storm water run off but also support local plant species and create habitats for indigenous animals. It is also possible to design rooftop vegetable gardens - imagine a city where each building grows enough food on its roof to support its inhabitants.


Our consumption of goods and services and our consequent waste is another aspect of our lives that needs to be addressed. The majority of products on the market are not built with sustainability in mind. Even recycled products are often created from materials that require just as much energy to adapt and create just as much waste as producing a virgin product (Braungart 02). It is our job as architects to research materials and find those that positively impact our environment; materials that have low embodied energy, no harmful waste byproducts, and can be endlessly recycled without a decrease in quality or require massive amounts of energy. These materials do or can exist; it is our job to find or design them.

Like with food, the movement of materials over great distances is a tremendous drain on resources. Architects should specify products produced within a 200 mile radius of the project site. (Figure 2). The energy costs involved in their transportation is vast and unnecessary. Designing with local climates in mind should extend to using local materials. Local materials should be easier to find, transport and be more plentiful. This should drastically reduce their cost. By using local materials our buildings will become more grounded in the communities they are built in. Local labor and craftsmen can be involved in the construction thus supporting local economy and giving residents a closer connection to the buildings they live in.

Figure 2: For projects in Eugene, OR, materials should be sourced from within a 200 mile radius: the region highlighted in red.

In order for architects to take advantage of local goods and services, we should choose to limit our work to local projects. This would decrease travel time and costs. It would also allow the architect to have an intimate understanding of the people and culture within the community. This also gives an understanding of the unique materials and skilled labor of the local building culture.

Conversely, architects may follow their projects. For example, if an architect took a project in Shanghai, she would relocate her office to China, living there for the duration of the job. She would then move again for her next project. In this way she would cut down on travelling to and from the site. Living in her new surroundings would provide a closer relationship to the site. She would experience the variations in climate over the course of a longer period, and have a glimpse of the local community and culture, making it easier to specify local materials or integrate recycled materials from local sources.


While transportation is not directly affected by the buildings we design, it dramatically affects the design process. Architects need to address the problem of separation between the site, the office, and the home. The first and easier decision we must make is living near our workplace, meaning within an easily walkable distance in all weather conditions. Living in a suburb and commuting to work by car or even public transportation is not sustainable. The reliance on fossil fuels to move us around cannot continue. The average American drives for 25 miles a day (Household Ecological Footprint Calculator). For every 100 miles per month we drive (assuming we get 25-35 miles per gallon and we carpool - a big assumption) our footprint is increased by about 1 acre. However, America’s obsession with SUVs, trucks and other large vehicles that get as little as 10 or less miles per gallon dramatically increases our average footprint.

Bikes offer an excellent alternative for automobiles. Biking is less sustainable than walking; however, it drastically increases one’s commuting radius making it such a great alternative to the car. As architects we need to better address the difficulties in biking as a mode of transportation. Both urban design and individual building design need to be readdressed with bikes rather than cars in mind as the primary mode of transportation. Bike lanes need to be incorporated into city planning and road design. Bike lanes require a distinct separation from automobiles and pedestrians. This can be created using a simple line or preferably an actual curb or hedge (Figure 3). Support utilities for bikes and their riders must be designed into our buildings, such as ample sheltered parking areas and locker rooms with showers where those who bike to work can clean up and prepare for their day.

Figure 3: A multi-use street design providing safe separation between pedestrians, bicycles and automobiles.
- Brearley Architects and Urbanists, Shanghai, China

A more difficult challenge is how architects get to, experience, and work with the site. First-hand experience of the site should be an integral part of the design process. It is vitally important that our designs relate to the context in which they are located. There are three ways we can bridge this gap: design locally, follow projects, or use technology to replace physically visiting the site.

The extreme, and perhaps most sustainable approach, as mentioned above, is to work locally. This would be a distance that is easily walkable or bikable. This radius could easily expand however, if we develop transportation that runs on renewable resources: solar electric cars for example. Another approach, as discussed earlier is moving our workspaces to the site; working out of a mobile studio/living space. This option has been successfully implemented by designers, as seen by the work of Jersey Devil Architects (Piedmont 97).

Architects who do not work locally may replace traveling to the site with the use of technology. Could a new profession arise to support architectural designers? “Architectural Annalists” should start regional companies that document building sites within their communities. They digitally document each site and its surrounding context with images and write a report analyzing local climate (short and long term), report on local materials, possible recycled content, and local building culture and craftsman skills. They will have a much better understanding of the forces acting on a local site than a designer who only comes to visit a site for a few hours or even a few days. This could be a system that allows big name international architects to work throughout the world in a truly locally sensitive way.

One way this may come to pass is if we change the economics of traveling. There is a cost that doesn’t currently register in our budgets: environmental impact (Figure 4). Natural resources are not free. Clean air and water are limited. We need to regard these resources as objects of value and consider the cost of depleting them. Harmful emissions from burning fossil fuels destroy the air and water we rely on for sustaining plants and animals, food and materials. We should be charged an environmental cost above the monetary cost of each flight or tank of gas.

Figure 4: Shows the additional environmental cost associated with the cost of air travel

“The myth that environmental protection must come at the expense of economic growth is dead. Short-sided policies and approaches to producing the energy and other products we need can and do have harmful impacts on society and the environment. Pollution, traffic congestion, and health risks are examples of such impacts which often disproportionately effect communities of color and people living in poverty. RP’s Sustainable Economics Program works to develop and promote creative, market-based policies that protect the environment, grow the economy, and promote social equity” (rprogress.org).


We must live and work in buildings that use fossil fuels for 0% of their energy needs. It is not possible to live with modern amenities and appliances and also have a footprint at or below one earth unless the buildings we design produce all their energy needs with renewable energy sources harnessed by the building itself. Living in a house that uses electricity produced by standard power factories (coal, nuclear, etc) vastly increases our footprint. If we incorporate passive energy systems and build houses that still rely on the standard energy grid, but use energy conservation and efficiency we can slightly reduce our footprint by about 1 acre and .3 planets. However, living in a home with no electricity can reduce a footprint by up to 4 acres equalling a reduction of almost 1 planet. We must employ active systems that generate the energy needed to run the important electrical systems in our homes. Solar hot water heaters, geothermal heating systems, photo voltaic panels and wind turbines should be the primary sources of energy in our built environment. If each building uses these renewable energy systems for all of their energy needs we can lower our footprint to that of a no electricity home.

Our planet is bombarded with enough solar energy each day to provide us with more energy than the entire human population needs. Harnessing this energy along with wind power and geothermal heating sources can make our buildings produce more energy than they consume. Once a building’s energy production exceeds its energy needs, the surplus can be sold back to the grid, and be reallocated to a place of need.

Design also has to relate to the climate where each building is located. The concept of an international style is fundamentally flawed. Our buildings need to respond to local climates rather than a globalized building culture. We can’t survive using the ‘brute force approach’ our industry has been relying on for the past two hundred years, in which buildings are heated cooled, and artificially ventilated to create a comfortable interior climate (Braungart 02). Relying on mechanical systems is gross negligence on our part. We need to work with nature in a way that is mutually beneficial.


Offices and living spaces should be combined. This saves money, resources and time. We thus use one building instead of two and we no longer have long commutes. This shift will give us more time to spend with our families and to pursue interests outside of work. This would also promote living downtown instead of in the suburbs, thus developing safe and lively cities while increasing population density. Conversely, architects who choose to live in rural areas can use technology to bridge the gap between their home office and their clients. Phone and internet conferencing have made it possible to communicate with people anywhere in the world. The savings in time, the reduction of harmful emissions from driving and flying, and the minimal use of fossil fuels and other resources make moving the office an ideal solution for sustainable living and working.

Within contemporary culture, we have come to seek a separation between work and home. Perhaps there is a way to combine work and play. Work should be enjoyable and the office should be a place where we enjoy spending time. The office needs to take on a natural atmosphere. We need to work in buildings with natural light and ventilation and in spaces where the users have control over their microclimate.

As mentioned above, population density needs to be restructured. Urban sprawl is claiming land that would be better used for agricultural production. As there is a limited amount of resources there is also limited land that can support agriculture. “Every acre of productive land we lose to suburban sprawl, erosion and industrial development…could have provided 36 people all of their vegetable needs, 12 people all of their grain needs, or 26 people all of their fruit needs” (Battson 06). We need to consider this as we design new communities or expand existing ones. Instead of clearing farmland to build suburbs we should revisit urban spaces, such as vacant lots, that can be redeveloped. Large open expanses in downtown areas should be subdivided and redeveloped as housing before we expand beyond the city limits.

We need to become accustomed to smaller dwelling units and larger shared space. As in Europe, Asia and many other parts of the world we in the US should use public parks and plazas as additional living spaces instead of having vast sprawling private houses and lawns. Right now the average per capita housing size is 582 square feet. This needs to be reduced. Communal living can be promoted through design by combining comfortable private spaces with shared space. For example, increasing the occupancy from one to two within a 500 to 1000 square foot house will save about 5 acres of land, or more than a whole planet. If we further increase the occupancy to three, we reduce the footprint by an additional two acres and .4 planets. When given the opportunity to design whole communities, architects must consider designing for an increased density. It is our job to convince developers and other town planners of the consequences of design choices.

Each site needs to be designed as a self-sufficient project. All energy requirements need to be produced on site. All waste materials need to be processed on site, either through reuse or by treating it in a way that renders it no longer harmful. For example, storm water should be retained on site, thus reducing reliance on storm water systems. “Living within the means of nature is sustainable when all consumption and absorption of ensuing waste occurs in the place where consumption directly occurs” (rprogress.org).

Designs also need to address the thousands of other species that rely on the land we build on. Architectural designs need to support and promote local vegetation and animal life. These plants and animals can also benefit us by assisting in accomplishing some of our goals. I have already mentioned some of the benefits of green rooftops. Another option is to create bioswales, which can retain and purify storm water and other contaminated wastewater. They can also beautify the site while providing valuable habitats to local plants and animals.


As architects we need to realize that it is our responsibility to promote sustainable living through our designs and our lifestyle choices. We need to hold ourselves to standards well above the rest of the population. As humans and as architects, we need to change the way we live and work. We must create continuity between our sustainable designs and our personal lives. In Greed to Green, David Gottfried said “We harm the planet because we don’t feel connection between our actions and the environmental impact.” To begin, we must evaluate lifestyle choices, and consider the environmental cost of our actions. Environmental impact must precede economic factors. Our planet is in a dire crisis, and as humans, it is our primary responsibility to create a solution. Within our profession lies the potential to make a powerful impact on society. Many people put forth negative energy in protesting and working against issues such as logging, carbon emissions, chemical wastes, etc. Conversely, our profession has the ability to work towards a positive ideal. We can build communities with communal gardens, housing complexes that create habitats for wildlife, buildings that produce naturally renewable energy that satisfies 100 percent of their energy needs. In short we can start building a sustainable society. As we take on this challenge now we work to prevent future crisis (Figure 5). We can focus our efforts on long-term change now, before we run out of the resources we rely on today.

Figure 5: Within the next 30 years our demands will surpass available resources, unless we change the way we live.
- naturalstep.org

© 2007 ARCC Spring Research Conference, Eugene, Oregon, April 16-18, 2007

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