WEB EXCLUSIVE: The Shape of Green: a Q&A with Lance Hosey
Lance Hosey is a former columnist with Architect magazine and the co-author, with Kira Gould, of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (Ecotone Publishing, 2007). His latest book, The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design (Island Press, 2012), outlines a clear set of principles for aesthetics and sustainable design, and studies how form and image can enhance conservation, comfort, and community at every scale of design, from products to cities.
Q You write that conventional views of sustainability are short-sighted. How so?
A Popular understandings of sustainability define both the questions and the answers narrowly—the problem is global warming, the cause is emissions from outmoded energy mechanisms, and the solution is smarter mechanisms. Technology has hijacked sustainability. Imagine a day when we’ve perfectly solved the challenges of energy, resources, and emissions, and everything we make is clean, harmless, and infinitely renewable. Is that enough? Life is more than its “resources,” and sustainability must mean more than just the efficient use of those resources.
Q How is your view of sustainability different?
A It’s the difference between surviving and thriving. Sustaining life means not just maintaining a pulse but also embracing all the things that make life worth living. The so-called “triple bottom line” expands the traditional notion of value to include not just economic but also social and environmental measures, and I can think of nothing at all, certainly nothing of value, that doesn’t fall within one or more of these categories. Even the most intangible human and natural treasures are social or environmental in origin, so the triple bottom line must include even the emotional and the spiritual—love, family, faith, and, yes, beauty.
Q How has “technology hijacked sustainability,” as you say?
A Many designers seem to believe that sustainability belongs in a technical manual, not on a napkin sketch. If I ask you to name a “green” car, you’d probably mention one of the hybrids. Yet, the 2010 Honda Civic Hybrid is indistinguishable from the conventional Honda Civic. What makes it green is invisible, hidden under the hood. But designers can embrace sustainability by focusing first on what they’ve always cared about most—the basic shape of things. For example, I drive a first generation Smart Car, which has a regular gas engine and gets better mileage than most American hybrids, just because it’s small, round, and light. (Plus, everywhere I drive, people smile as I pass, so I like to think I’m spreading joy through the land.) The intelligence is in the shape, not the engine. Similarly, Daimler’s “Bionic” concept car, inspired by the form of the streamlined boxfish, gets 84 mpg with a regular diesel engine. We can get a lot smarter with low-tech solutions before jumping to high-tech systems. Design trumps technology.
Q How is it that green design got a reputation for being unsightly?
A Because many of the earliest and most familiar examples of green have a compelling environmental story but a less-than-compelling appearance, the agenda got a bad reputation. As a result, many see green as not just occasionally but inevitably unattractive, as if beauty and sustainability were incompatible. In 2009, America Prospect magazine asked, “Is ‘well-designed green architecture’ an oxymoron?” Originally, the concept of sustainability promised to broaden the purpose of design, specifically by adding ethics to aesthetics, but instead it has virtually replaced aesthetics with ethics by providing clear and compelling standards for one and not the other. The most widely accepted measures for environmental performance exclude basic considerations about image, shape, and form. So, even the most ambitious sustainable design can be unattractive because attractiveness isn’t considered essential to sustainability.
Q Why are aesthetics important?
A A more attractive design discourages us from abandoning it. Studies show that we form positive associations with things we consider beautiful, so we are more likely to become emotionally attached, giving them pet names, for instance. Experiments in interaction design also reveal that people generally consider attractive products more functional than they do unsightly ones and therefore are more apt to use them. We prefer using things that look better, even if they aren’t inherently easier to use. Who throws out a thing they find functional, beautiful, and valuable all at once? Conversely, how long will something last if it fails to excite the spirit and stir the imagination? If you want something, you’re less likely to waste it. The Senegalese poet Baba Dioum wrote, “In the end, we conserve only what we love.” We don’t love something because it’s non-toxic and biodegradable—we love it because it moves the head and the heart.
Q What are the environmental benefits of beauty?
A We’re less likely to abuse environments we find attractive—for example, littering, a persistent environmental hazard, occurs less often in beautiful places. Furthermore, the vast majority of the environmental impact of consumer products occurs during manufacturing. Nokia estimates that over 74 percent of a product’s total energy usage and over 90 percent of its material waste occur during manufacturing. Making a 2-gram memory chip requires 1,300 grams of fossil fuels and materials—650 times the resources. Nokia calculates that prolonging the life expectancy of a mobile phone by just one year could cut its total energy consumption by more than 40 percent. Some sources claim that continuing to use a computer, rather than recycling it, can save twenty times as much energy. If we create things people find so appealing that they won’t discard them so quickly, the resources saved could be enormous.
Q If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the saying goes, isn’t it too subjective for designers to plan for?
A Growing research reveals a universal, biological basis for visual preferences that often transcend individual and cultural differences. To paraphrase biologist E. O. Wilson, beauty is in the genes of the beholder. Psychologically and physiologically, all of us to some degree are drawn consistently to certain shapes, proportions, and spaces we find deeply satisfying. Certain colors and patterns can actually reduce stress or boost productivity. Conventional sustainable design strategies have evolved out of in-depth research and tried-and-true evidence about what works and what doesn’t, and a similar scientific method can be applied to aesthetics. Designers can create a more rational approach to beauty by boning up on this body of research.
Q What’s keeping designers from thinking this way?
A Designers often see “good design” and “green design” as unrelated pursuits. In 2010, Vanity Fair surveyed popular architects to identify the most important buildings of the past 30 years, and there were no green examples on the list. For my column in Architect magazi
ne, I did a parallel survey of sustainable design experts to find the most important green buildings of the same period, and not one building or one American architect appeared on both lists. The greatest designs are far from the greenest, and vice versa. The gap will continue until we break down the walls between the arts and sciences, intuition and intelligence, emotion and reason. Then beauty and sustainability can become one and the same.
Q Why is this book timely?
A Designers and consumers have become very familiar with conventional sustainability and the need for more environmentally responsible design. Now that the ethical value of green is becoming more accepted and understood, its aesthetic value demands greater attention. I think people are hungry for a subtler debate about sustainability, what it is, and how it brings meaning into our lives.
Q What are some examples, in different areas, of green design that is good design?
A I already mentioned the Smart Car, the Tata Pixel, and the Daimler “Bionic” car. Other examples:
• The Mission One electric motorcycle capitalizes on the lack of a gas engine by indenting the sides so the rider can pull her legs out of the slipstream, creating a much more aerodynamic form. With the change in technology came a change in shape—and in the results.
• PAX Scientific’s Lily Impeller rotor mimics the logarithmic spiral of seashells and other natural forms to reduce energy needs by 85 percent.
• The nose of the Shinkansen bullet train emulates the kingfisher’s beak, which can penetrate water with surprisingly little splash. The sleeker, quieter train moves 10 percent faster with 15 percent less energy and avoids a sonic boom.
• The London City Hall’s sculpted form leans into the sun to shade itself, using only 25% of the energy of a typical office building.
• At a much larger scale, the Shanghai Tower is twisted 120 degrees in order to cut wind loads, and therefore the amount of steel, by 25 percent, saving $60 million.
What makes these cases environmentally intelligent is precisely what makes them visually distinctive. They demonstrate a direct relationship between form and performance and show that shape itself can aid sustainability.
Q Has the rise of Apple and similarly minded companies signaled a change in the way the public values design and aesthetics?
A Certainly. Apple singlehandedly incited design revolutions with the iMac, the iPod, and the iPhone. The candy-colored iMacs, the first to signal that computers need not be drab beige, sent Apple’s sales through the roof, and profits doubled after the iPad tablet hit the market in early 2010. Consumers have responded by making Apple one of the most profitable companies in history. The question is whether compelling design supports or undermines sustainability. Does attractiveness merely help boost sales, or does it create things of value and joy that reduce waste, energy, and resources?
Architect and author Lance became President and CEO of GreenBlue in September, 2010. He has over two decades of experience in sustainable design and strategy, and he has worked with some of the world’s leading companies to advance sustainable innovation.
Until 2009, Lance served as Director with the renowned pioneer of sustainable design, William McDonough + Partners, where his clients included Palm, SC Johnson, NASA, and Google. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, he has been a winner of the Michael Kalil Endowment Smart Design Award and a Resident of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, and he has been featured in Architectural Record’s “emerging architect” series and Metropolis magazine’s “next generation” program.