Thursday, April 23, 2009

Can Prefab Be Green?

This house, designed by Scott Spect Harpman of uArchitects, generates its own electricity, collects and stores rainwater, and processes its waste. It's shipped to the site on two flatbed trailers and can be erected in less than a day. The design fulfills the goals of green building. Or does it? I appreciate the attempt, but to say this a house is attuned to nature is to be caught in a fragmented view of ecology. Like Le Corbusier calling houses "machines for living," I call this house a "machine for mining natural resources." It efficiently takes and gives back the energy and matter needed for human dwelling, but is misses essential connections that make a nature sustainable, living ecosystem.

Reflecting on the way nature does prefab points out the disconnect between this house and vital ecology. An apple seed, for example, is a prefab component produced by nature. All seeds manufactured by an individual apple tree have a similar shape and contain the information needed to make new apple trees. Once the seeds arrive at their sites, they interact with the particular qualities of the soil, air, sunlight, rain and groundwater of those sites. The seeds also interact with the plants, birds, insects, humans and other creatures they find there. To survive and grow, the prefab apple seeds adapt to the conditions they find on the ground. This shapes the overall form of the tree and the qualities of the apples it produces. A prefab apple seed planted on the Iowa prairie and one planted on California coast encounter very different environments. They share the same DNA, but the local relationship turns them into different creatures. Would an apple tree grow at all in Panama or Antarctica?

I don't get this idea that a building is green without engaging a direct relationship with its location on earth. What makes a particular spot on earth a living place includes the geology that formed the terrain, the geometry of the sun's path across that specific latitude, the plants and animals that live in that watershed, and many other factors that make a Tahitian island different from Vancouver Island and a Greek Island. Architecture that is truly green is not born in a factory and dispersed on trucks. It is born from its site and grows in response to the land, sun, plants, animals, water and other neighbors it finds there.

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