Thinking Out Loud – Metaphorically

August 14, 2009

I’ve had the idea in the back of my mind for a couple of years now that I would like to win a Fulbright to study sustainable architecture in the Netherlands.  I’ve been kicking it around and mentioning it casually for a long time  now …and I think the time is right.  The application deadline is in October, which means being a great deal more concrete about the whole thing than I am right now … and very quickly too.  So I’ve been spending my coffee shop internet time the last month or so surfing, reading accounts of other students in the Fulbright process, papers on sustainable design, little articles on current events in Dutch and trying to sort it all out in my head.   I’m going to start using this blog for its original purpose again – a place to siphon off some of the ideas that are rattling around,  making it hard to think.  Last night I sat down and typed up the long rambling version below the fold and this morning I distilled it into the following three two graphs.

Here’s what I’m thinking right now:

I am fundamentally interested in why the Dutch are so much further advanced in their process of creating sustainable, livable buildings.  [For the moment we’ll take it as read that they are and I’ll back it up later.]  There are any number of reasons ranging from geography and the financial system to the socio-cultural but one of the most obvious and concrete is that in the Netherlands they legislate for sustainability and in America we have a legal building code which often prevents environmental innovation.

So my interest, really, lies in the way the Dutch have used legislation to aid their progress in forwarding sustainable design.  Here’s why I think this is a good Fulbright proposal subject: It’s concrete; it requires academic research that needs to be done on site; I can tie it into culture as much as I choose to; and best of all it is applicable to the united states within a  fairly quick timescale. Due to the way our building codes are administered on a local basis so I could go into this with the goal of teasing out concrete concepts that can be applied to one (or many) local building codes to improve municipal sustainability.

If anyone has any thoughts on this I’d love to get some input.  If you want to get the long rambly version of what I’ve been thinking about all this, read below the fold.

The rambly version:

I had a quiet but fundamental realization yesterday morning.  All summer I’ve been in a state of mild panic because I’ve been thinking that there are a million aspects of Dutch Culture/Housing/Design that interest me and I have to narrow it down from a million to one in a few short months.  But my focus is actually already clearer than that.  Fundamentally (in this context) I’m not interested in the details of how the Dutch do sustainable housing better than we do – for instance, I don’t want to focus on particular flood control techniques or even how they arrange row houses on the street in a way that is friendly to cars, bikes and people.  There is a bigger and more relevant question:

I’m operating from the assumption (I’ll have to back this up with some facts) that they are doing sustainable housing – both public and private – better in the Netherlands than we do in America.  This is pretty easy to say since we are doing sustainable housing almost not at all here.  What interests me most is why.  What do they have going on over there that allows their designers to do this so much more effectively?  OK … so there are still a lot of sub-genres here but its much more manageable.

Here are a bunch of the reasons according to Peter Buchanan in his book Ten Shades of Green; European architecture is more open to green options than we are for the following reasons: Higher fuel prices, which underline the financial benefits of sustainability; A greater number of businesses which own and operate their own buildings rather than renting, which increases interest in the long term benefits of energy efficiency, lifespan and general livability at the time of construction; Multiple adjacent countries monitoring and policing each other’s pollution levels; The greater role that engineers play in the design process, allowing for greater innovation and better technical results; The European banking system is more open to alternative construction types and willing to subsidize the added up-front cost of green; and, finally, “European building, planning and tax codes are less likely to inhibit green building than some of those in the United States.(p18)”  Also European governments actively promote sustainability at local national and international levels.  That helps too.

This tallys with some of my own thoughts on the issue.  Some of the most interesting factors in why-they-do-this-better to me are what I have shorthanded in my head as the cultural, the socialization and the legislative reasons (I should note that they are all tied together).  I’ll lay them out below and dismiss the first two before I get to the third (oops I gave away the end of the story).

The social argument comes from my mother who says, rather bombastically,  that Europeans are fundamentally better at the art of living – they have been socialized to believe that they should cooperate and that they don’t deserve to own the whole world or do whatever the hell they feel like all the time … so they don’t.  Consequently, better environment.  I on a socio-cultural level rather than a strictly environmental one this boils down to the fact that the Dutch idealize a small cozy standard of having enough (gezelligheid), whereas Americans dream of the McMansion.  I think this is a bit subjective and also hard to prove.  So I’ll leave it alone.  However it is closely tied to…

…My cultural argument which is that the environmentalist perspectives of our two countries are irrevocably colored by our history.  The Dutch have developed a culture of responsibility based on the fact that they first built their country out of sea floor and now have to constantly maintain it or be inundated.  This basic awareness is embedded in the mind of every school child and the Dutch People collectively feel a sense of shared responsibility for their environment which was easily adapted from worry about flooding to concern about pollution, energy efficiency and general natural welfare.  America , by contrast, was founded as a nation of wide open spaces and infinite resources.  We have always believed that there is enough and more than enough to go around.  If you want a natural resource you can reach out and take it.  The result is a dilettante attitude about sustainability – perhaps it’s a nice idea for Birkenstock wearing hippies but it’s nothing that hardnosed, serious business people need concern themselves with.  It should be noted here that this attitude won’t last once the oil prices really start to levitate, but for the moment its set in stone and it won’t die easily either.  This is a complex issue and one that’s been interesting to me since college.  I think this will be tied into what I get at eventually but its not something I can easily propose to study.  I have no training in sociology or ethnology and I’m not equipped to effectively prove that either the Americans or the Dutch think what I say they think, let alone get at the reasons why.

Which leaves us with the legislative angle.  I think I remember Tom Fisher saying in Theory or else at an evening lecture that American architecture was never going to go anywhere really interesting until designers decided to tackle the building code for themselves rather than abandoning it to the bureaucrats and litigation lawyers.  I think he’s right.  A big part of why the Dutch do sustainability better is that the actually legislate to encourage it rather than to drag their feet or actively outlaw it.  This is rooted in their history.  As early as the turn of the last century they legislated the 1901 Housing Act which stated “the right for all Dutch citizens to decent quality housing (p13).”  They already had the intellectual infrastructure both socially and politically to legislate further for sustainability.  The Netherland was the first country to produce a national architecture policy (16).  This, I think, is where I can really sink my teeth in.

So (I think) my interest, really, lies in the way the Dutch have used legislation to aid their progress in forwarding sustainable design.  It’s concrete; it requires academic research that needs to be done on site; I can tie it into culture as much as I choose to; and best of all it is applicable.  And even with a fairly quick timescale I think. Due to the fractured way that America legislates construction building codes are administered on a local basis so I could go into this with the goal of coming out of it with concrete concepts that can be applied to one (or many) local building codes to improve municipal sustainability.

This goal of coming back with seed ideas to apply to American code systems seems both useful and manageable – it’s the kind of thing one person could start and grow into a regional or national movement.  A useful precedent is one of the Design @Noon lectures we had by a Seattle based architect named Ross Chapin.  He had been designing cohousing and small homes and kept running into code problems so he developed the idea of a pocket neighborhood with a number of rules and reg.s and worked with a city to create an addendum to their zoning code to accommodate it.  Then he regularized it into something he calls the “Cottage Housing Code” and now he consults with local municipalities to add this as an overlay to their existing code and increase their density.  Here I’m operating on the assumption that within ten years rising gas prices will have made such an impact that city officials all over the place will begin to be more open to new ideas for how to modify their current operating system.  Its not only a laudable aim generally and (I hope) well tailored to appeal to the Fulbright committee goal of fostering international understanding and communication but it also has the potential to lead into an interesting future for me, either diving back into academics to study this in theory and/or working it in practice.  It’s something I’m passionate about and that has to count for a lot.

This might be the plan.


2 Responses to “Thinking Out Loud – Metaphorically”

  1. doug Says:

    Hi dear,
    I asked Bob Koechley, our company librarian, about how you might establish the number of citations for a certain topic, book or article. He said that we’re kind of spoiled in the sciences and in medicine because there’s money to be made by doing this sort kind of search. Probably not so much in architecture.

    He suggested talking to your old UMN grad school librarian or some similar reference expert.

    Not to knock your own work to date finding Peter Buchanan and Ross Chapin though. You’ve got a good start on a compelling idea!

  2. […] Fulbright Ap. September 6, 2009 Here’s a for-the-record update on my thoughts about this Fulbright application.  I’ve been contacting professors and professionals and a couple family friends in NL over […]

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