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`Sustainable Design': Hot Topic for Architects

`DO no harm to the environment; heal the earth," is a sort of Hippocratic oath that Donald Watson, dean of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's School of Architecture in Troy, N.Y., would like architects to take. He says "renew and sustain" should become their motto.

A panel of seven architects and teachers discussed "Sustainable Design: A Planetary Approach" at the American Institute of Architects' annual meeting here.

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Jestena Boughton, a landscape-architecture instructor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and her students came up with buzzwords to capsulize the growing philosophy of environmentally sound design: reduce, reuse, recycle, rethink, redesign, restore, recreate, redevelop, rehabilitate.

The panelists urged that architects pay greater heed to environmental issues - energy conservation, global warming, resource conservation, "green" building, and the consequences of third-world development. They also encouraged architects to build in a way that would reduce the drain on the earth's natural resources.

Judith Chafee, adjunct professor at the University of Arizona's College of Architecture in Tucson, Ariz., offered a presentation that included slides of beautiful homes in the desert Southwest.

Plans for these houses and communities in Arizona use irrigation water in canals to cool them at nighttime. The houses can then be left closed during the day, and they remain cool, reducing air-conditioning costs.

Ms. Boughton showed how sustainable systems can be used for landscape architecture that protects and enhances the natural environment. One of her examples was a former Navy asphalt yard in Seattle. The asphalt paving was removed and replaced with grasslands, enabling native birds to return. Not only was the natural environment restored, but the quality of the space was improved for the people who work there.

To manage resources effectively, the panelists said, architects must be able to communicate with everyone involved in the design and building process, and with people involved in managing natural resources around the world.

Pliny Fisk III, co-director of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, Inc., has developed a project to show connecting relationships between resource and resource by-product use. This project was billed as the only program to receive recognition at the 1992 Earth Summit for local-government initiatives.

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Mr. Fisk described a sustainable built environment that merges several methods from various disciplines.

He says this system can be beneficial to architects because they can begin to look at infrastructure (water and waste transportation, energy systems) as creatively as they look at space and superstructure.

For example, he says that it is not only important how creatively one hides the storage of recycled water, but also how creatively that water is collected. Lakes, ponds, and swimming pools are good options for reused water storage because they are both attractive and efficient. The filtration of waste water can be used to create exciting landscape elements as well, he said.

Fisk cites the case of a client who is building a house in the Cadillac Desert. He says his client was concerned that her home's functions mesh with its beauty. They designed a three-part water-treatment system with the final runoff ending outside the master bedroom, where a patio door opens onto a garden of rainbow irises. The irises are irrigated by recycled water.

Mr. Fisk presented a system for showing how a sustainable built environment could be accomplished and introduced a language system so that people around the globe could share information with one another.

The language he proposes is based on "icons or symbolic pictures that represent actions (e.g. production technologies, transport methods, harvesting means) as well as recording data on maps." These symbols would be as easily recognizable to building professionals as symbols seen on road signs here and abroad.

These symbols are plotted on a graph or map. Fisk, for example, showed a city water system plotted from the source (icon with a picture of rain), transported (pipe), treated (plant), transported (pipe), to source of use (home), use (shower), dry landscape (tree/shrub), to a holding tank (tank).

This system can be applied to an entire building or community, and would ensure that everyone involved in the designing and building process could comprehend the entire plan and its ramifications, including the plumber, city sanitation engineer, and the architect. In addition, this building system could be understood anywhere in the world.

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