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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Sustain life and do no harm Print E-mail

ImageArchitectural ethics for beginners.

Ethical questions can be complicated, but they can also be very simple.

Doctors, for example, take a simple oath to protect life. Getting the detail right can be something of a balancing act, but the fundamental question is easy enough for even a lay person to understand. "Does this medical action enhance life?"There would be a dramatic change in the built environment if every architect also took a simple oath to protect life. Put another way architects could pledge to "sustain life and do no harm". In one move this would resolve much of the current confusion about sustainability.When we first introduced the term "sustainability", some thirty years ago, we were talking about life, with particular reference to the life of the planet.

ImageAt that time there were global changes of awareness. At Stockholm in 1972 at the first global environmental conference we were concerned about problems, and how to solve them. Avoiding pollution or providing potable water were difficulties to be overcome. This was the scientific phase of the environmental movement. Very soon everyone realised that it was not so simple. Everything was interconnected and the balancing act was very delicate indeed. This was the Gaia phase. Health came to mean much more than antibiotics.

Perhaps for the first time architects began realising that architecture is a violent act. Architecture is normally a brutal assault on the fragile ecosystems of the planet. Architects do a great deal of harm.

The perception that designers are heroes who solve problems moved to a realisation that designers more commonly create problems for others to solve. Architecture as a whole was seen as a problem, not a solution. The role of sustainable architecture was to reverse that situation.

It became clear that architects were plundering the world's resources and destroying life just as ruthlessly as anyone cutting down the Amazon jungle or fishing oceans to extinction. Put bluntly the buildings we live in are the primary cause of global warming, not the cars we drive or the sheep in our paddocks. Unless there are radical changes architecture will bring an end to life as we now know it. You cannot have a fur coat unless you first kill the fox. You cannot have our typical award winning architecture unless you first kill the planet. Architects thrive on all the wrong role models.

ImageThe term "sustainability" quickly became corrupted as architects sensed, quite correctly, that the concept challenged the existing architectural order at a very fundamental level.

Rather than working through the ethical issues, and enjoying the challenge along the way, the architectural profession went into damage control mode.

There was a global architectural sigh of relief as the ethical crisis was averted. Now architects could talk of sustainable growth, sustainable development, and sustainable everything else. Very soon the oxymorons meant that no one knew what anyone was talking about. By leaving life out of the equation all the difficult ethical questions had been avoided. It was architectural business as usual, but with an interesting new and profitable twist.

The linguistic confusion was compounded as entrepreneurs wondered how they could make money out of sustainability. It was the perfect scenario. The idealism sweeping the world could be turned into dollars. In Vancouver in June 2006 there were two meetings. Ten thousand people gathered at the United Nations World Urban Forum to ponder how they might save the planet. In another part of town a very small gathering of businessmen pondered how they might profit from the surge of idealism down the road.

ImageThe new corporate universities also wondered how they might make money from sustainability, while carefully avoiding any ethical issues which might present an intellectual challenge to their funding sources. Sustainability graduates are now well versed in fashionable answers but almost unaware of ethical questions. The sustainability literature focuses on design excuses such as triple glazing rather than design solutions such as going outside to sit in the sun. A fortress mentality pervades.

Because sustainability is too intellectually demanding "autonomy" has become the soft option. Autonomous buildings are not the same as sustainable buildings. A sustainable building produces a surplus even when all the environmental costs of the building itself are taken into account. Life on the planet is sustainable only when there are surpluses. Human beings are totally dependant on the surpluses produced by nature. Saving energy or saving water is always useful, but titivating and tinkering allows universities to avoid the real intellectual challenges.

The architectural crisis of thirty years ago has now been completely neutralised. After hesitating for a moment we are now back on the road to extinction.


The NZ Herald explained recently that naturally a sustainable building would cost more, but that the cost would be recouped by savings over time. It did not mention that the real environmental cost of the new sustainable buildings is now more than the old unsustainable buildings. Managing the resource while fishing the oceans to distinction does nothing to affect the end result.

The depth of denial within the architectural profession is made clear by the new 142 competencies which architects are expected to have. Not one of them reflects any awareness of the debate which has taken place over the last thirty years. Anyone taking an overview would have to concede that the architectural profession seems determined to make itself irrelevant. Designing better dredges to make more profits from selling more scallops only brings us more quickly to the time when there will be no scallops.

The recent decision of the NZIA Council not to adopt a Code of Ethics lest architects should be sued for not complying with the Code seems to suggest that architecture is whatever you can get away with.

We have been getting away with architectural violence for a long time. On paper, in our legislation and in our policy documents, that era is at an end, but in practice the architectural profession is locked into damage control and denial.

If architects took an oath "To sustain life and do no harm" all this would change.


Architects, as people, love life and they live it to the full. They are passionate, enthusiastic, idealistic, romantic and inquisitive risk takers. They have a sense of humour, an appreciation of philosophy and history, and a quirky sense of the absurd. When everyone else is being overwhelmed by boredom architects scour the world with guide books knowing that if they are only tenacious enough they will find architecture somewhere among the dross of the built environment. They never give up.

Great cities are alive and they want to live too. Why should they not be great company, just like architects? Great cities burst with energy and the blood pulses in their veins. The role of the architect is to sustain that life while at the same time doing no harm to the city.

The process of architecture is too often violent to the city. Long before people begin to beat up either each other or their children architects have already established a pattern of violence in the life of the city.

Architects see themselves as plastic surgeons reconstructing unfashionable lives when they might do better to celebrate the life they have been given. The real problem is that the market potential of cosmetic surgery is far greater than in any other field of medicine.


If architects adopted an ethic of doing no harm to the city they would protect the stories, the culture, the traditions, the archaeology, the volcanic cones, the birds, the trees and the beaches. The ambience and sense of place of the city would remain as strong as ever after any intervention. Architects would weave their magic, enhancing whakapapa and carrying it through to future generations. Sustaining, enhancing and enriching what has been passed on to us so that we in our turn might pass it on to other generations gives meaning to life.

Architects like to think they do these things already, and awards and glossy magazines carefully turn a blind eye to violence. The true costs of the new "sustainable architecture" are never mentioned.

It is of course not enough for only one group in society to decide to respect the sacredness of life. The role of architects is not only to take the lead but also to convince everyone else to take the oath. Every person, before they begin to build, and every client, before they even walk in to an architect's office, needs to ask themselves "Are my actions going to sustain life and do no harm?" The role of a professional is to have a commitment to the environment as a whole which extends far beyond the demands of an individual client.

Obesity, for example, is much more than just a medical problem. Obesity is an architectural problem. Obesity is a society problem. Obesity reduces our ability to be fully alive. An obese building which is autonomous and complies with every known performance code as well as using zero energy and recycling all its own waste remains an obese building. Sustainability is something else.

To continue the medical analogy we all understand that it is important to get priorities right. Confronted with the victim of a traffic accident we know to check breathing or stop bleeding before we worry about broken limbs. To say that splinting up limbs is better than nothing rather misses the point. If the patient dies it makes very little difference.

The sustainability problem for architects is that they are being presented with thousands of things they ought to do, but no overarching principle to make it possible to set priorities. Saving energy can be good but sometimes it is the last thing an architect should be thinking about. Green roofs do not make green architecture. Uninsulated buildings which build community and strengthen the relationships between people can actually produce surplus energy.


Above all else sustainability should be seen as an adventure. Sustaining life is a positive, not a negative. It is often said that the only truly sustainable building is the one you do not build, but this idea is based on the premise that all buildings necessarily destroy life. Turning that reality around to measure sustainable architecture by the surplus it produces is our contemporary challenge.

It is fortunately not as difficult as solving the perpetual motion problem. Sustainable architecture is not mean. Life is generous in its fullness. Sustainable architecture cannot be measured. No one has yet succeeded in measuring life. Sustainable architecture is fun to have around, just like people who give back to life more than they take from it.

Sustainability does not need to be incomprehensible. If your building "sustains life and does no harm" then you get the green tick.

Tony Watkins


This paper was presented for Architecture Week 2006 in the Britomart Centre on 10 September 2006.


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