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The Possibility of Good
Less bad doesn't mean good
Posted on August 1, 2023 @ 5:42PM

" 'be less bad' is to accept things as they are, to believe that poorly designed, dishonorable, destructive systems are the best humans can do. This is the ultimate failure of the 'be less bad' approach: a failure of the imagination. From our perspective, this is a depressing vision of our species' role in the world. 
What about an entirely different model? What would it mean to be 100% good?"
~ William McDonough & Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle

I have always designed and built with what I have considered to be strong considerations for environmental issues. Yet throughout the entire course of my career, I have, from an environmental perspective, never created anything that did not fall somewhere between Bad and Less Bad. As architect Alan Shope has so tersely confessed, "I have been complicit in architectural crimes". We all - each and every one of us - are living somewhere between bad and less bad every day.

In writing Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart join a chorus of voices the likes of Thoreau, Leopold, Carlson, McHarg, Suzuki, Berry, Pollan, and others who not only point to our collective environmental missteps, but also offer positive inspiring and empowering alternatives toward corrective action. It seems to me that McDonough and Braungart are precisely correct when they speak of a failure of imagination.

To purchase and drive a Prius or a Volt is surely less bad, environmentally, than choosing a Hummer or Expedition. But a less bad choice is still bad; it still represents a ratchet-click in the wrong direction, albeit a somewhat smaller one. Even a totally electric car pollutes, as in most places electricity is produced using coal or nuclear power, and the energy embodied in the manufacture, maintenance, and disposal of a motor vehicle is enormous. Countless examples of 'less bad' are all around us.

The premise underlying Cradle to Cradle is that we are capable of being much better environmentally than merely less bad - that we are capable of being environmentally good. To get there does not mean moving backward, regressing to some primitive pre-industrial revolution living condition, but rather, to move radically forward, well beyond how we have deployed our inheritances of resources and technologies, toward healthy, sustainable, economical, rewarding, and honorable ways of living. It means being meaningfully progressive.

Progress begins with a vision. It is not difficult to visualize an idealized relationship with our environment. In the panel to the left, the 'Current Reality' column suggests how we are collectively living at present. Between our current reality and possible alternative realities lies a dynamic that represents the potential for positive change. This space - this tension between current and potential realities - is important. Presently, those among us trying to be 'sustainable' designers mostly make 'reasonable' gestures toward being more 'green', but the space between our current reality and what we may be aspiring to is so limited that radical change lies mostly beyond our ability to engage.

One of the primary obstacles to meaningful change is how we currently evaluate choices with respect to cost, or more specifically, how we define cost. Almost without exception, we consider the cost of something to be what we pay to initially acquire it. Our short term conception of cost fails to account for the substantially more significant and costly realities inevitably associated with longer term consequences of our choices. The direct result is a constant tension between environmental and economic considerations in architectural practice. A preoccupation with short term outcomes ensures the latter will trump the former as surely as a royal flush beats a pair of deuces. But once the temporal frame of reference shifts away from an obsession with immediacy, the tension between economic impact and environmental impact invariably dissolves. The impact on our health from cheap but toxic building materials is a prime example; what are the ultimate costs of living and working in environments loaded with carcinogens?

Buildings are our largest consumers of energy and generators of waste and toxic waste... but only because we settle for that outcome. Programs like the International Living Building Challenge are providing empirical proof that not only do we have the means to reverse those realities, but that doing so makes sense economically. The ILBC program is an example of good, while LEED buildings, at any level, are almost certainly just more examples of less bad. This is not a critique of the LEED program, per se; less bad is indeed better - often much better - but it does not represent the kind of meaningful progress we truly need to reach for.

At present, the lifespan of a building in the United States is statistically less than the lifespan of a person... substantially less. We should not outlive our buildings. They represent a huge investment of resources, and should provide many generations of service, not add to our waste stream while needing to be rebuilt again - especially not just as poorly. We value historical architecture, but are building very little that may be a treasured gift to future generations. Our emphasis on expediency and initial cost is instead establishing a legacy of rapidly deteriorating, polluting, high-maintenance, energy wasting eyesores.

The question of durability is close to the issue of designing and building buildings using materials that have a low initial cost, but that easily burn. We all pay for poorly constructed housing through the correspondingly high insurance rates it inevitably generates. Materials that are combustible are also generally vulnerable to rot and decay. To move away from setting ourselves up for disasters and toward creating a valued inheritance for future generations, we should assign more value to the option of building with durable, inorganic building materials.

Any aspect of design may be subjected to this simple 'possibility of good' analysis, as the panels to the right illustrate. The point is not to ignore the problem of cost, but rather, to back away from viewing it so narrowly.

The impact on initial cost may or may not prove to be a challenge. In many cases, there is very little or no impact on initial cost, or we may be able to reduce it. In others, we may determine that it will be necessary to make room for higher initial costs in certain cases, possibly by scaling back or phasing portions of a project. But regardless, the only way to advance from less bad to good is to begin by identifying the space between the two and be thoughtful, creative, and sincere about advancing productive change in that space.

Ultimately, design is about what we determine to be important; we decide what matters.

Author: Sam Rodell

Sam has practiced as an award winning architect for forty years, and has also built many of his clients' projects.  He is licensed throughout most of the western USA and Canada, and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) which expedites registration in other states and provinces. He was the first Certified Passive House Consultant architect in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.