Living Green # 2: So what is the ‘Real’ Green?

 

            Over the past couple of years, I have received more than dozens of free cotton bags from almost every organization I have visited. I just wonder if we have really succeeded in reducing the use of plastic bags. Maybe not. Why? Is it because we perceive green revolution only as a movement of ‘business as usual’? Or, is the cotton bag phenomenon just an act of CSR (i.e., Corporate Social Responsibility)? Doesn’t the society have enough bags, so it is the responsibility of big corporations to give more shopping bags? I would say that now they have been responsible for us enough. It is time for them to be a little more selfish by charging some money for every plastic bag we use at supermarkets. If they do, I will not complain, instead, I will be more than happy to bring my cotton bags every time I go shopping.

 

No matter what funny things big corporations are doing to save the planet, at least, thanks to Mr. Al Gore who told us that global warming is a real threat, and everybody, rich or poor, should help with any means they have. One point that Gore has mentioned is to green our homes. There is nothing wrong trying to put as many trees as possible in our houses; however, is it really green? I used to say that there are a lot of things we can discuss about green or sustainable development, without mentioning about trees. Just leaving them grow as they want is ‘green’ enough. We will have a lot to discuss as well about not having a lot of trees, but still be really green.

 

If we only define ‘green’ as having lots of trees, it is the same as big corporations trying to save the planet by giving away cotton bags, then there is nothing much to say. If the definition of ‘green’ is to help reduce greenhouse gas emission in the atmosphere, we will have a lot to talk about what else we can do. As an architect, I know that whatever we design, any forms we create, any lines we draw, any materials we use, they will eventually lead to both positive and negative impacts on the environment. Of course, having one good looking building that serves human’s need very well is the positive side of architecture; not yet to mention about cultural identities or milestones of civilization that great architecture have revealed from times to times. However, for bad architecture, they create only negative impact on the environment. If the mother earth sacrifices her limited piece of land and resources for us to build something, we should use it wisely to create a building which does not give poison back to the Mother Nature. So, here we have another definition of green architecture—“not poisonous to the Mother Nature”. The earth has its marvelous mechanism that cleans all our dirtiness, only recently does this engine has reached it full capacity, it can’t take our pollutions any more!!!

 

So, how architecture could pollute the nature? Just looking at how a building is built, we will be astonished to know how much natural resources are put into constructing a building. If we had built only for our sufficient need, we would have never polluted our planet. The amount of excess carbon we dug out from underneath would have been contained by the natural mechanism, not floating to the sky and causing global warming like this. Therefore, if we need to build more, why don’t we limit the amount of new carbon we dig up from the earth, so that we don’t have to worry about how to manage it? The answer for this is to ‘reuse’ and ‘recycle’ what we build as much as possible. In the same manner, we should design and build in a way that everything from our buildings can be later reused and recycled. William McDonough, an architect based in U.S.A. explains this through his well known concept of ‘From Cradle to Cradle’ or others will say it as ‘Zero Carbon Emission’ design, of which extra carbon will not spread into the earth atmosphere.  Now we have another definition of green architecture—Reused, Recycled, and Recyclable Building Materials.

 

    Here we understand more about the ‘real’ green– not poisoning to the earth. However, if we try that hard when we build a new building, why don’t we maintain it through its lifecycle? Using recycled materials not only reduce the generation of new carbon, but also help cut down the energy used for production of materials and construction of building (i.e., known as embody energy). What is left to do is to cut down the energy used to operate our buildings as well, or try to use clean energy as much as we can. Therefore, one of the most important features of being green is energy efficiency. It has been talked for many years, but the outcome is still far away from success. Compared with recycling; that is only technically difficult, and growing more trees –which everyone would be happy to do, energy conservation is the most difficult one since it concerns changes of old habit. Even though, knowledge and technology are available, but it is the people who are not ready to change. Unless we can seriously reduce our energy consumption, any ‘going green’ commercial campaigns (e.g., cotton bags) will lead us to nowhere near the ‘real’ green. We will have a lot to discuss later about ‘green’ features and energy efficiency in buildings, but for now, at least we have come closer to the ‘real’ definition of green buildings.  

 

 

ผู้ช่วยศาสตราจารย์ ดร. อรรจน์ เศรษฐบุตร

Asst. Prof. Atch Sreshthaputra, Ph.D.

Faculty of Architecture, Chulalongkorn University

Chairman of Green Building Board. The Association of Siamese Architects under Royal Patronage.

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