Paper title:

Architecture, Ecology and Equity


Environmental Justice, Cities and Planning


Prof. Michael Wigginton
University of Plymouth, United Kingdom



In the 20th century architects have regularly seen themselves and their profession as central to the future of the world. These claims have generally been at best marginal, and at worst preposterous. Now, however, architecture is potentially in the position of being able to affect the future of humanity and the biosphere as never before.

In the Western World, buildings can use over 50% of the energy used by a nation, with an impact on climate and resources which is becoming established1. Many of the current forms of urbanisation are despoiling the planet's surface. This is in the context of a spread of the world's use of resources and energy which disadvantages the vast majority of the world's human population.

Extrapolating population figures worldwide, and assuming as we must that increased equity is an imperative, we can see accelerating degradation of the biosphere which may be disastrous. Estimates of the timescale vary, but certainty of the end is not usually challenged.

Architecture must now take itself seriously, not simply as an expression of cultural identity and richness, but as a major consumer of resources, and potential major abuser of the world's inventory. Only by the conscious effort to produce genuinely sustainable architecture will we be able to ensure that the world community in 2200 is balanced, peaceful, and equitable. This is not rhetoric, it is fact.


The idea of architecture being in some way fundamental to the survival of mankind on the planet has been a common one in the polemics of architecture this Century.

In Vers Une Architecture, written by Le Corbusier in 1923, he wrote

"It is a question of building which is at the root of the social unrest of today: architecture or revolution"2.

Much of the power and passion of the Modern Movement derived from the social and technological polemics which underpinned it. Whether in terms of what we might now call social engineering, or in relation to the worship or dread of technology itself, architects have for a hundred years or more seen themselves as potential saviours of the world.

In this context it is almost a relief to hear one of the founding fathers, Walter Gropius (perhaps a better polemicist than an architect) say, in 1956, that "the greatest responsibility of the planner and the architect ... is the protection and development of our habitat. Man has evolved a mutual relationship with nature on earth, but his power to change its surface has grown so tremendously that this may become a curse instead of a blessing"3.

Now, forty years after Gropius's cautionary observation, we can see how right he was.

Most of the claims of the 20th Century Architects for their position, for most of our Century, in so far as they were related to social or technical concerns, have sat on the margins of world development. Now, however, architecture could be poised to take a more pivotal place in the way humanity develops, and in the calm evolution of the planet and its biosphere.

We will all be aware of the strength and importance of the various movements which have arisen to remind mankind of our planetary obligations. Greenpeace, of which I am a member, is a frequent thorn in the side of those who behave badly towards their environment. Friends of the Earth also acts as an organised conscience. Such organisations do not always hit the target when they launch their campaigns, but they are essential agents provocateurs in the fight to maintain sustainability on the planet. However, as they will say themselves, they can only address a very few issues at any one time, and they cannot be said to have a real programme of environmental research.

Underpinning many such movements is an anti-technological stance, seen at its most evocative in the efforts of those such as the alternative technology groups, who approach sustainability, ecology, and gentleness with the biosphere, from the standpoint of those who would discard many of the trappings of 20th century technology in an attempt to return to a simpler life, often based on an idea of the rural idyll.

I believe that this is fundamentally misdirected, for two reasons.

Firstly because the task of persuading hundreds of millions of people in the so-called developed world that what they see as the technological "progress" of the last 100 years or more must be discarded is an impossible one. To try this is simply to end up with a small proportion living a quasi saintly life, desperately trying to act as exemplars for an unheeding mass of technological consumers, happy with their own expanding lifestyles, content to assume that technology will save the planet for their successors just as it has always done, or (perhaps more likely), not thinking about it at all.

Secondly, because it is extremely unlikely that the billions who comprise the rest of the planet's population of humans will be happy to accept a position whereby they are prevented from acquiring the technology and lifestyles of the developed world just because the developed world has realised that these carry attendant problems. As the populations of South America, India, Africa and China evolve their appetites for technology and profligate styles of living, our Western attempts to minimise the use of resources, energy and pollution, will fade into insignificance. When Richard Rogers was in China a few years ago he referred to the large number of bicycles in Shanghai. He meant it as an expression of endorsement of course, but his hosts took it the wrong way. I am told that one of them said sternly "Don't worry Mr Rogers. Soon we will have plenty of cars".

Any solution to the problems of the planet and its resources, so clearly set out 25 years ago in the Club of Rome's Report, "The Limits to Growth", must attract not only the convinced environmentalists, but also the billions of people in the Third World who have as much right to the use of the world's resources as we do in the so-called West.

As the life style of the developing World changes to reach that common in the West now, the concerns expressed by environmentalists may be expected to become louder and more significant.

I speak as one who believes that attempting to bring the planet into balance by reversing economic growth, restricting economic success, and severely rationing energy and resources in a way which dramatically erodes life styles simply will not work. Even if we were to persuade the millions in the West to reduce consumption by the comparatively small percentages we speak of, the resulting consumption, applied across the world, would still devastate the planet. The large percentages demanded look frankly impossible. President Bush said of the Rio summit "the American Way of Life is not open to negotiation". This is a measure of the problem. We clearly need innovative solutions which cut consumption radically, without pain.

The idea of significant reduction, by whatever amount, is included in the standard agenda of most environmentalists. As an architect I have been interested in the issues raised for a long time, but I have found that my approach to them is quite different to that of most of the people I speak with. Before I come to this, I should explain the background to my own position. I have been intrigued by the influence of technology on architecture ever since I was at University. To begin with my interest was related to the simple principle that buildings should perform well, and efficient and optimised control of the internal environment was only one aspect of this. I produced an environmental guide for the first office I worked for in England, Yorke Rosenberg and Mardall, in the late 1960s, and then, in the early 1970s the oil crisis hit us, and the significance of energy became obvious. This was when "The Limits to Growth" was written. It was also the time of Ian McHarg's great book "Design with Nature", in which he said

"In the quest for survival, success and fulfilment, the ecological view offers an invaluable insight. It shows the way for the man who would be the enzyme of the biosphere - its steward, enhancing the creative fit of man-environment, realising man's design with nature"4.


Whilst there is an obvious relationship between the celebration and enjoyment of ecological design in McHarg, and the dire warnings in "The Limits to Growth", the now obvious implications of the two sets of ideas for architecture were not immediately obvious to me. It took 15 years of teaching and building to formulate the rather obvious principle that environmentally careful design is not just a social and planetary imperative. Rather more interestingly, perhaps, for architects, it is a manifestation of a vital aesthetic principle. I enunciated the implications of this principle in a series of lectures given at various Conferences and in my lectures on the Theory of Architecture at the Royal College of Art in London in 1992.

The principle, and its ramifications are simple. Design is considered as a process in which morphological evolution (the design process) produces economical answers to practical propositions. A tree, and the leaf on a tree, represent beautiful examples of this principle. In addressing issues of height, support, spread, energy flow, and reproduction, the tree represents design at its highest level. So too does the human body. Engineers understand this well, and incorporate the principle that the best design is that which produces a desired result with the least possible material. The bridges of Maillart exemplify this. Material and energy are interchangeable, and the fact that energy is invisible does not remove it as a "raw material" which should be conserved. Using the least energy to create and use something has the same value as using the least material. This is an aesthetic concept, and the basis of what is called style in athletics. It is also of course an environmental concept, at least potentially.

The environmental principles are perhaps more questionable. After several years of assuming that we should be economical with energy in our buildings (beginning with a desire to reduce running costs, and concluding, now, with assumptions about global balance), I found myself asking the question whether this desire was based on reality, or was simply one of what Philip Johnson called the crutches of modern architecture: yet another manifestation of functionalism. I therefore decided I had better check the implications of energy use for myself. In a paper written for the British Building Centre Trust Conference on design education in Cambridge in 1994 I set out the results of such reading as I had been able to do. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that global warming is a real phenomenon, and that the current intensive use of fossil fuels will have to end sooner rather than later, both because of the environmental pollution they produce, and because we will run out of them, or they will be come too expensive to obtain. I have seen various estimates for the time it will take for depletion to become an issue, from 30 years to 200. I have not heard anyone argue that the resources are infinite, or that our use of them will become so efficient that they will last for

Millennia. David Pearce of CSERGE in the UK brings a detached view to this idea of depletion, and points out in Blueprint 3 that a good measure of scarcity is the "reserves to production" ratio (that is, the total known reserves divided by the annual production). For oil this stayed at 30 years from 1966 to 1986, and rose to 43 in 1992: in other words in 1966 it was thought that it would be nearly finished by now, but by now we are putting another 43 years on it. For natural gas the figure has grown from 40 years in 1966 to 65 years in 19925.

Statistics like this provide a telling paradox:

First: that we are getting better at conserving fuel, and

Second: that it is going so fast anyway that our children are certainly going to have to suffer from our actions.

My reading in 1994 convinced me that the issue of sustainability was not just a fad, or a marginal realm occupied by what might be called the brown rice brigade, or a useful piece of marketing exploited by any architectural practice trying to place itself in the developing environmentally conscious market place. I was sure that it was a real issue. To me the important aspect of this was that it was not simply another practical thing to worry about like rainwater penetration. Since it was related to an essentially aesthetic premise, concerned with the obtaining of the maximum effect by the minimum resources (the essential argument behind the value of the String Quartet in music), it provided a wonderful opportunity to enrich the design process. Architects almost always seek rationales for their design: the concept of sustainability provides a rationale which is not only delightful in its richness. It also has the urgency of an imperative, both broad and deep, and as powerful in its impact on architectural morphology as the force of gravity.

Having reached a conclusion like this, we are faced with an interesting choice, related to the issues of human ambition and global equity, which are the subjects addressed by this Conference, and which I referred to at the beginning of this paper.

As architects and citizens we can choose to retreat into what might be called an alternative mode of existence, in which we reduce our level of consumption to one which is consistent with what some expert tells us is the sustainable level, in terms of watt-hours per year per person, or permissible units of CO2 emission per year per person. We can adopt personal lifestyles in which we try to grow our own vegetables to avoid the costs and polluting effects of transport. We can all buy photovoltaic cells (without perhaps calculating how much energy it takes to make them). We can do this to the point where we persuade ourselves that we have achieved a level of personal consumption consistent with a sustainable future for the human race on the planet, and we can then set about trying to persuade our co-citizens in our own developed world, and the billions of people who have watched us for 200 years or so rapidly achieve extremely high levels of personal convenience, with automobiles, refrigerators, dishwashers and the vast panoply of technological support upon which we rely. Frankly, however brilliant we are at expressing ourselves and offering this 21st Century Cistercian life, I do not think the world will buy it. Nor do I.

I am convinced that there is a future in which none of the enormous technical progress we have made needs to be discarded, but in which our own technical ability can produce a world in which sustainability and technical advance will sit happily side by side. I do not believe this optimism is empty. I believe it is founded on perfectly sound reasoning based upon equally sound premises. I am happy in this regard that my opinion is shared by thinkers with a far larger reputation in "green thinking" than I, such as my friend Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute6.

Having reached these conclusions about 5 years ago my colleagues in practice and I were faced with the same problem that all environmentally well-intentioned designers face: who are our Clients going to be, and how can we put any principles we may hold into effect? In my practice we were fortunate in meeting the founder of an important project in the UK known as the Earth Centre. This had the backing of some of the best known figures in British environmentalism, and incorporated the potential to address most of the main issues we might be concerned with at this Conference, from agriculture and forestry to water and building. It was intended to be a paradigm for the future. I was asked to prepare a document which might act as a set of guidelines for the architecture of the project. A team comprising architects, ecologists, and an expert in embodied energy and emissions produced a report, which I will briefly summarise here, since it contains what I believe are the seeds for a sustainable architecture of the future in our drive to global equity.

With the objective of setting up criteria which could be audited, we set out seven topics which we believed lay at the centre of environmental thinking in architecture, not only in the project concerned, but generally:


Resources and materials






I would not claim that these seven topics comprise the whole realm of environmental considerations, but I offer them as a possible starting point as we think about what we, as architects, can do to help create a sustainable world.

The first topic is ECOLOGY. McHarg suggested that man wished to be an enzyme of the biosphere ( a pious suggestion).

Ecologists speak of homeostasis, the tendency in something to remain in equilibrium in spite of varying external conditions. A project incorporating this property must incorporate sound ecological principles, in which the arrival of a building is carried out with maximum integration with, and minimum disturbance to, the site. This refers both to a house and to a city. It demands a study of all ecosystems, and must be topographical as well as inventory based. Ecological auditing, both before a building programme starts, and afterwards, should act as the proof that this equilibrium has been achieved. Buildings constitute a large interface with local ecology as they interact with it, and design must ensure that the result is integrated, synergistic and benign.

The second topic relates to RESOURCES AND MATERIALS. Architecture essentially consists of materials formed to create space, and in its materials lie much of its intrinsic quality. However materials, like the food we eat in the Western World, can lose their sense of place and origin. Producing materials costs time and energy, and so does converting them into building products and transporting them around the world. Materials can also act as the clues to a buildings provenance. In ancient times the materials and resources used to make an architecture placed it in time and space. An understanding of performance and a love of appearance has always led to builders transporting materials, but only at a cost. Much great architecture, and nearly all good vernacular architecture, has been based on the use of materials which in some way belong to the locality of the building concerned, from the sandstone and glass of Hardwick Hall to the London stock brick. The use of materials which in some way relate to a location can no longer be used to the exclusion of "imported" materials of course. I have often challenged my contemporaries who subscribe uncompromisingly to a low technology vernacular philosophy by asking them where they propose to get the copper for their electrical wiring, or the plastic which shields it. Nowadays we have a much more complex web of materials to deal with. Our approach to this is to create an embodied energy audit, in which the materials form part of a life cycle costing. We should also explore the materials which are available close by, and carefully examine the local vernacular architecture to see what truths it holds. This is more vital in the developing world than it is in the developed world, if only because of the vastly greater numbers of people involved.

The mention of ENERGY brings me to the third topic in our search for sustainable architecture. Energy is the most obvious characteristic of a current sustainability auditing process, and with good reason. In most of our areas of endeavour the use of energy implies the creation of emissions. The use of passive solar energy is one of the comparatively few policies which deny this principle. In the UK, the USA and no doubt most of the rest of the developed world, buildings use over half the energy used in the country. In the creation and transport of the materials (measurable as embodied energy), through to the use of electricity, and fuel for heating and cooling, we are capable of using an enormous amount. Unless this is obtained by using renewable resources, such as hydroelectric power or solar energy, this usually means using fossil fuel, which must be obtained, and the burning of which creates carbon dioxide and other emissions. I have already referred to the widely spread forecasts of what fossil fuel reserves comprise, but there is a "Catch 22" here. If we continue to find fossil fuels and use them, we are simply putting more and more CO2 into the atmosphere. As a race, humanity could perhaps have lots of energy, but then drown, suffocate, or starve to death7.

As I have said, apart from this, and importantly for those of us who are designers, the conservation of energy can be an aesthetic principle just as well as the minimisation of materials in bridge design, with the added benefit that the life cycle impact of a building can be reduced significantly. In research work carried out by some of my students a few years ago we demonstrated that the replacement of a building could result in a reduction of the 30 year energy bill (including embodied energy) of 75%. Savings of this order will be essential if we are to produce an architecture of sustainability.

The fourth topic is POLLUTION, within which term I include so-called "waste". Buildings are the agents of man's activities, and the activity of man, and the buildings he creates, are inevitable creators of pollution, from the discharge of the products of combustion to the emission of organic and inorganic waste. However, pollution is one of those terms like weeds in horticulture: if a weed is a plant in the wrong place, then much pollution is simply a material in the wrong place. One person's pollution can be someone else's raw material. Of course there are aspects of pollution which should simply be avoided such as the use of volatile organic compounds and other harmful or toxic materials. In general though, if the energy level is kept to an absolute minimum, and if the principles of recycling are anticipated in the specification and construction, a building can be considered as a treasure trove for raw materials in the future, not a potential polluter.


Reference to energy and pollution brings me to the fifth aspect of sustainability, AUTONOMY. Buildings, and the groups of them which form villages, towns and cities, are great importers and exporters of materials and energy. The infrastructure which is necessary to support a building is a major component of the impact it has in the community in which it sits. The web of electricity, gas and water supplies, drainage, and waste collection services produces a major constituent of society's financial investment. Much of this is unnecessary. Rainfall on a three storey building can produce 30 litres or more of grey water per person per day in the UK. This can be used for many purposes, and then discharged to be used for irrigation, or taken to a local processing plant for dealing with foul waste. The designing of energy efficient domestic equipment can ensure that reliance on imported energy is minimised, and use of passive or active solar design, or photovoltaics, can reduce the requirement for heating and electricity. Even beneath the grey skies of England, buildings approaching zero operational energy are perfectly feasible. We can conceive of buildings where the only requirement for infrastructure is gas for cooking and electricity for power at night. We simply need the will, and the skill, to design for it.

The sixth aspect of sustainability sits in some ways uneasily with the others, ECONOMY. It is introduced because in most building projects, other than those driven by some philosophical objective, a Client will need to be satisfied that he is not paying an undue price for commitment to sustainable architecture. The proof of economic viability is essential, and central to the case argued by Amory Lovins6.

The seventh and final aspect put in my Report to the Earth Centre was REGENERATION. It is clear that, in the Western world, much of our building, and much of society, is disadvantaged. It behoves an architecture of sustainability to address social issues as well as technical and cultural ones, and in many projects this may be a prime basis for the brief.




I believe that these seven areas of concern can form the basis of a new architecture of sustainability which can take us through the next Millennium. There will be stress as we apply them, but not as much stress as if we do not.

As you will have gathered, I believe that this new architecture is not just an attractive marketing ploy which will engage the attention of pseudo (or even genuinely) altruistic Clients. There is quite of a lot of such cynicism about, including, in the UK, amongst some of the best known architects. However there is also a real future, and an essential one, if we are to persuade the population of the planet to join us in the enterprise of sustainable architecture.




It is traditional in Conference papers to summarise, and I think that the complexity of the discussion indicates that a summary would help close this paper.

Firstly, I believe that architects are not suffering from delusions of grandeur in suggesting that they can help save the planet. If buildings use 50% of the developed world's energy, and we can cut this by over 50%, we are not only saving a lot of energy and pollution; we are also reducing the gap between ourselves and those who would emulate us, and may be providing the technology and approaches which enable them to catch up. By our emphasis on considering resources carefully we can restore much of the regional identity of architecture, and enrich global culture. By designing sanely we can also bring to the design agenda a whole new set of exciting and challenging aesthetic criteria, which will be a much greater joy to work with than the tired stylistic epithets of modernism, post modernism, hightechism and alternative architecture. We will moreover be ascribing to the oldest and most distinguished of aesthetic and philosophical principles, economy of means.

As we move into the new Century and the new Millennium it is clear that architecture must change. The 20th century has seen the replacement of what was a largely eclectic way of making buildings derived from historical sentiment. The industrial revolution initiated a change in architecture and design which has dispensed with much of the baggage of history, but often relied on mechanical metaphors for its achievement. As our quality of manufacturing has become more sophisticated so has our reliance on mechanical and electronic means to satisfy an ever-advancing wish for comfort and convenience.

There is little to be gained from proposing life styles which ignore technical advance. However, the very technical advances themselves provide the means to give us environments which are both satisfying and life enhancing, and considerate of the planet's resources and the likely needs of those who succeed us in inhabiting it. The energy crisis of the early 1970s created a realisation that the problems expressed in the Club of Rome's report "Limits to Growth" were real. The subsequent expansion of globalisation, the use of economic principles based on world wide market and supply, and the realisation of the potential catastrophic implications of climate change caused by energy profligacy, have together destroyed communities and created a new agenda for human activity.

We are now moving into the century of the biosphere. Biological metaphors will supplant the mechanical metaphors which inspired the architecture of the first half of our Century. These metaphors are not visual but conceptual. The new architecture will not necessarily look as though it belongs in the realm of organisms, but it will be derived from an understanding of the real efficiency of organic beings, with real intelligence serving their functioning.

The creation of sustainable architecture means the creation of an architecture which does not prejudice the opportunities for our children and their children, but which acts properly. The essence of sustainability involves ensuring that what is made is greater than the degradation of resources necessary in the making. This demands the creation of a new agenda for architecture, and the architecture will behave differently and may look different.

This is the exciting challenge.






1 The usual reference to the "50%" statistic in the UK is attributed to Henderson and Shorrock of the UK Building Research Establishment

2 "Vers Une Architecture", Le Corbusier, (first published in 1923), the English Edition translated by Frederick Etchells published by the Architectural Press London, 1927, p 14

3 "The Scope of Total Architecture", Walter Gropius, published by George Allen and Unwin, London 1956, p169

4 "Design with Nature" , Ian McHarg, 1969.

5 "Blueprint 3", David Pearce and others, published by Earthscan 1993, p 6

6 "Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use" by Amory Lovins and others, published by Earthscan, London, 1997

7 According to Boyle and Ardill, writing in 1989, the atmosphere currently contains about 700 billion tonnes of carbon, and fossil fuels are currently adding 6 billion tonnes a year8. About 80% of the CO2 being put into the atmosphere by man (that is, as opposed to a result of natural phenomena) is derived from the burning of fossil fuels (the rest coming from the burning of forests and firewood, and from agriculture)9.

If we burn all the fossil fuels we will put most of its 7,500 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere8 14. Whether this takes 1200 years, or 200 years, the result could be fundamental climate change which promises to be far worse in its impact than us simply running out of fuel.

The climatic thermal problem is global warming. Conventional assessment suggests that CO2 accounts for about 50% of this, with about 18% coming from methane, 14% from CFCs 6% from N2O and 12% from tropospheric ozone9.

We hear a lot, from time to time, about global warming, and we may be tempted to think it is a problem which will simply go away. Unfortunately, it probably won't. It was thought to be a problem about 100 years ago, and late 20th Century monitoring is showing us what is happening quite clearly. The Mauna Loa station in Hawaii has measured a consistent rise in CO2 of 4.5% per year since 1957, increasing in concentration from 315 parts per million to 350 parts per million10 14.

Predictions for the year 2030 are a doubling of CO2 levels over the 200 to 300 years prior11 14. Predictions about what this will do to the earth's climate vary 14, but it is variously thought that there will be a global temperature rise of between 4ßand 16ßC10.

The importance in this for those of us involved in architecture lies in the fact that buildings use 50% of the fossil fuel energy in the western world, and that they are also responsible for 50% of the release of CFCs, with resultant damage to the ozone layer11. Nor are these the only pollutants, since power stations produce 71% of all the SO2 pollution in the atmosphere, and 37% of all the NOx pollution12 13.


8 "Green Architecture - Design for a sustainable future", by Brenda and Robert Vale, Thames and Hudson, 1991, p 29

"The Greenhouse Effect", by S Boyle and J Ardill, London 1989, pp 81-83


9 "Green Architecture - Design for a sustainable future", p 21

"The Greenhouse Effect", pp 33-34


10 "Green Architecture - Design for a sustainable future", p 23


11 "Green Architecture - Design for a sustainable future", p 23


12 "Blueprint 3", David Pearce and others, Earthscan 1993, p 58


13 It is worth noting here that questions are being asked about the potency of CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Nigel Howard of Davis Langdon Consultancy has pointed out to me that the level of warming is far too small for the level of CO2 increase measured in ice cores. There is, he says, a search for the missing link in global warming research. Also, greenhouse warming in the troposphere is preceded by absorption over a much larger path length in the upper atmosphere. CO2 warming is dwarfed by water vapour warming, SO2 in the atmosphere promotes the condensation of water vapour into radiation-reflecting clouds etc.


14 An article in the New Scientist of 8.10.94 reports as follows:

1 CO2 levels have risen from 280 to 350 parts per million in the last 100 years

2 Jack Barrett of Imperial College London suggests that the burning of all fossil fuels would result in a four fold increase in CO2 levels to 1400 parts per million.

3 Jack Barrett also suggests that the lowest 30 metres of the troposphere already contains all the CO2 necessary to absorb all the radiation reflected and emitted back by the earth's surface at most infra-red wavelengths, except for the "window" between 7.5 and 14 micrometres, through which radiation escapes back into space.

4 Finally, JB suggests that the most likely consequence of all of this is flourishing vegetation rather than runaway global warming.

5 Bruce Sellwood and others at the University of Reading challenge the use of Cretaceous period study to indicate climate change (such study is one of the bases for the assessment of temperature rise.

6 Despite all this, Phil Jones of the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia maintains the view propounded by the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), with current modelling, that increasing CO2 levels leads to global warming