Environmental Issues


William Allen
Spring 2011

Course Description:
A broad review of the history of the natural environmental systems and how they have affected/influenced the evolution of the built environment. The current state of the environment and society response on political, social and individual levels to the current and future development of built environment more specifically, architecture. The professional role and responsibility of the architect in society today as it relates to environmental issues to foster a level of awareness and understanding on the part of the future practitioner or academic. Challenging or championing those issues as they relate to architecture. Readings, reports and projects serve to generate discussion of environmental issues. Although course is conducted as a seminar, lectures on relevant topics generate discussion and bring issues to the forefront for debate and review.

Reading List:
Collapse by Jared Diamond
Break Through by Ted Nordhaus & Michael Shellenburger
Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher
Biomimicry by Janine M. Benyus

Man on the Street Interview
Waste Not, Want Not
Environmentally Sound Building

Course Reflection:
Environmental Issues was taught by Professor William Allen, and was a core course in the graduate curriculum. The intent was to encourage students to look at environmental and sustainable issues as they relate to the built environment and the practice of architecture. The course was mainly organized around lectures and in-class discussions relating to the required reading, but also incorporated case studies and a field trip to the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Pertinent lecture and discussion topics involved climate change, deforestation, water conversation, waste reduction, energy sources and use, and overpopulation.

The semester was kicked off via the Man on the Street interview assignment. Students were to interview a range of individuals about what they think the most pressing environmental issues are. General results yielded waste, pollution, global warming, and depletion of resources. The Waste Not, Want Not assignment required students to create something useful from things that were deemed as waste. Old wooden shutters, disassembled fan blades, and pieces of building signage were respectively transformed into a lamp, magazine rack, and coffee table. The purpose of this exercise was to show that there are creative uses for several types of waste that can reduce the needs of both landfills and consumer consumption. The final assignment was a case study called Environmentally Sound Building, where students researched a building that incorporates historically relevant sustainable practices. My partner and I chose Herzog & de Meuron’s Dominus Winery, which utilizes gabion wall structure for natural lighting, natural ventilation, and temperature control. This confirmed that many sustainable practices have been around for centuries, and can be planned into current designs to naturally combine function, aesthetics, and environmental consciousness into a good cohesive project. Moving forward in my career and studies, simple considerations of building orientation and material choice can have a profound effect on the overall sustainability of the project.

The issues of the depletion of natural resources and overpopulation were discussed throughout the semester and were complemented by reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which outlined the collapse of ancient civilizations that depleted their natural resources. This served as a caution about the way our society is handling our resources today. E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful embraces the familiar concept of “less is more” and discourages society’s obsession with excess. This complemented discussions about reducing waste and conserving resources. From reading Janine Benyus’s book Biomimicry, students were exposed to the opportunities that current technology and research of natural organisms and processes can be used to develop solutions for environmental issues. As technology and innovation continue to increase, society needs to invest more in studying nature and its organisms. For all we know, further research into a process like photosynthesis can help reduce carbon emissions.


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