Sustainable and a little bit ugly, or beautiful and not very sustainable?

How much does it matter if a building is wonderfully sustainable and a little bit ugly, or beautiful and not very sustainable?  

We’ve been asking ourselves where do we draw the line between making a beautiful building (works well, is inspiring and made from elegant materials), and a sustainable one (low carbon, responsive to the wider environmental context and serves its community). And, what to do when there is a trade off to be made between the two? 

Because, let's face it, all too many times, clients and yes, we architects too, suddenly become blind to the climate agenda when something is: too expensive, too difficult or just too damn ugly. Marble flown in from Italy is beautiful, tactile and sensual and the reconstituted equivalent might just not be any good, to look at or to touch. 

To cover brick with plaster, and this plaster with fresco, is perfectly legitimate… But to cover brick with cement, and to divide this cement with joints that it may look like stone, is to tell a falsehood; and is just as contemptible a procedure as the other is noble.

John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849

The idea of honesty in materials has much traction in the profession. For some more than others perhaps, but for most the idea of making one material perform like another is anathema - no one likes an impostor!  

Now is the time to add to this idea of honesty the idea of environmental integrity: what is the material’s provenance, how was it made, how much energy was needed to make it, how long will it last and what happens after its use. Building material EPD’s do much of this, and are starting to become more commonly used in the profession - which can only be a good thing, but they need to be as inherent to our material selection as colour, tone, texture or other performance criteria. 

There’s another key notion which exists in our collective approach to the environment: the idea that we should be giving something up to save the planet, that there has to be some sort of sacrifice to solve the problem. It’s a notion that I do not adhere to. Sure we have to change and adapt to different ways of doing things, but this can be a period of great invention and not one of sacrifice alone. In casting off the old ways we’re freeing ourselves up to many new possibilities. 

This week we started a new project: a simple house refurbishment, our starting question was: how can we do more with less? Two initial thoughts arose: the first, was to make a collage house from the materials that don’t make it out of the factory (high end precast concrete panels, that marble - now rejected, or misshapen bricks perhaps) and the second was to make a house cast entirely from hempcrete. Neither of these ideas would have come to us if we’d thought about the project in the usual way, starting from a spatial perspective or from the organisational brief etc….. and perhaps that’s the answer to the question: where to draw the line between design and sustainability…. Maybe it’s time to remove the line.