Turning Green: Educating the Public about Sustainability

bridges vol. 11, September 2006 / Green Buildings Focus
by Susan Piedmont-Palladino


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"May have changed my life," writes a visitor in the comment book at the National Building Museum's current exhibition, The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design. Much as curators like to think that their exhibitions change lives, it is rare to hear it put so succinctly. Yet, on page after page, visitors offer their thanks, often augmented with an implied "at last"- at last green is becoming mainstream; at last we can see how to make a difference; at last architects are making houses green and beautiful; and from the baby-boomers, at last ideas that were important 30 years ago are becoming important again. Ideas once marginalized as "back to nature" movements or "solar architecture" have been transformed into "green" architecture, which nestles under the broader concept of sustainability.

What is sustainability? Sometimes it seems we have invented a complicated term for something that has characterized building for thousands of years, yet sustainable technologies are not new. The classic definition of sustainability dates back to the 1992 Earth Summit, the United Nations Council on Environment and Development conference in Rio de Janeiro: "Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." Sustainability is a complex concept, not a new style of architecture and, interestingly, none of the principles enumerated at the Earth Summit mentioned architecture in particular. It is a true cultural shift, requiring each discipline and profession to employ its unique tools to enroll the general public in effecting change.

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