The American ethos has been to believe that we will always have “plenty of everything”: plenty of land, an everlasting supply of water, plenty of electricity, gasoline, trees and other natural resources. Of course we once thought there were plenty of buffalo, and too many passenger pigeons to count.
Since World War II American building and development practices have produced enormous sprawl, with cities and towns spreading to fill entire counties. The urban cores of many cities have decayed as development has focused on covering prime farmland with suburban housing, set upon one-acre lots.
Universal car ownership has made this possible and has been the single most important design factor shaping our built landscape. Major design questions for new development have been Is there parking? and: Are there traffic bottlenecks? A breakthrough idea in commercial design was the drive-through, opening many business operations to easy access by people within their cars.
Public transportation systems have languished as they are unable to cope with the combination of long travel distances between suburb and workplace, light population density, and American pride in car ownership. City, state and federal governments have cooperated by subsidizing cheap gasoline, building roads and extending utility infrastructure indefinitely.
Our design philosophy for decades overlooked any effort to economize: only with the oil shocks of the last century did energy efficiency begin to be an important design criterion in homes, appliances and buildings. There are still major political hurdles to overcome before reasonable fuel economy standards are put in place for automobiles and trucks.
Slowly, though, we are waking up to the fact that our planetary resources are finite, and that we must plan and build and design in a way that makes wise use of our precious resources. It is now clear that our technologies must be sustainable: they must use less energy, they must not deplete natural resources, they must not pollute the environment and their products and by-products must be recyclable or reusable.
The developing field of Sustainable Design uses low-impact materials: non-toxic, sustainably-produced or recycled materials which require little energy to process. It emphasizes energy efficiency, minimizing energy usage throughout the manufacturing process. Quality and durability are aspects of design that emphasize reducing the need for replacing products.
Design criteria of reuse and recycling emphasize that nothing is permanent, and that there is an “afterlife” to everything that is made, whether a milk carton or a building. Using recyclable materials and planning for reuse of components eliminates loss of resources into landfills. Biomimicry challenges the designer to model industrial systems on biological lines, ensuring the constant reuse of materials in continuous closed cycles.
Service substitution means, for example, that not everyone has to own a vehicle, so long as services provide for car sharing or other more efficient means of transportation. Renewable materials are to be used whenever possible, and recycled or reused afterwards.
There is a revolution underway in sustainable design and green building. The books in this section on Green Building, Sustainable Design and Sustainable Development point the way we must go to conserve resources and reduce the human impact on our environment.