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Tony Watkins

 ~ Vernacular Design 

Agenda 21 Print E-mail

ImageSection 1, Chapter 7, Agenda 21

This position paper alerts architects to the significance of selected aspects of the Agenda 21 document on “Promoting sustainable human settlement development” which was adopted by the New Zealand Government at the Earth Summit (The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 1992. Agenda 21 is a non-mandatory policy document.






architects are key players
It is the built environment which is primarily responsible for the global environmental crisis, and appropriate changes to the built environment are the primary way of overcoming the global environmental crisis.

Agenda 21 recognises that “In industrialised countries the consumption patterns of cities are severely stressing the global ecosystem” [7.1]

• Throw away consumer architecture is no longer acceptable, and architects must move as quickly as possible to buildings and cities which are ecologically sustainable.

Agenda 21 notes that “An integrated approach to the provision of environmentally sound infrastructure in human settlements is an investment in sustainable development” [7.36]

• The boundaries of a site no longer define an architect’s limit of concern, so that a building needs to be seen as part, for example, of the water cycle.
• The professional role of architects, which is concerned with a commitment to the environment beyond any commitment to an individual client, is more important than ever.

Agenda 21 advocates an “enabling approach” for the human settlement sector. [7.3] “Every dollar of UNDP technical co-operation expenditure on human settlements in 1988 generated a follow-up investment of 122 dollars” [7.2]

• Architecture is to be seen as a catalyst, not an end product.
• Architecture is to be seen as a means of bringing about change, not as an artefact.

Agenda 21 seeks to promote “sustainable construction industry activities” while “avoiding harmful side-effects on human health and on the biosphere” [7.68]

• The process itself of building must be sustainable, not just the end product.
• Architecture must always seek to be long-life, healthy and non-toxic.

Agenda 21 seeks to protect “eco-sensitive zones against physical disruption by construction-related activities” [7.69(d)]

• Touch the landscape lightly.
• The generated effects of the building process form part of the design brief.
• The excuse that building processes are inevitably disruptive is no longer acceptable.

The Agenda 21 objective of ensuring the “sustainable management of all urban settlements” [7.15] is in accord with the Resource Management Act.

• Refer to NZIA Position Paper 5

everyone must build
Building, like health, is the concern of the whole community. It is not appropriate for a community to delegate its responsibility for building to a building industry, any more than it is appropriate for a community to delegate its responsibility for health to a health industry.

In advocating the generating of employment through “the support of economic activities in the informal sector [7.16(b)(i)] an in seeking “to enhance the employment-generation capacity of the construction sector” [7.68] agenda 21 makes a move from building seen as an industry to building seen as a community activity.

• Community builders will need shop-front architects.

Agenda 21 seeks to “empower community groups, non-governmental organisations and individuals to assume the authority and responsibility for managing and enhancing their immediate environment through participatory tools, techniques and approaches embodied in the concept of environmental care.” [7.20(g)]

• Architects will need to develop skills in participatory building and environmental stewardship.

Agenda 21 seeks to “promote the use of labour-intensive construction and maintenance technologies which generate employment in the construction sector” and promote “the development of skills.” [7.69(e)]

• Conditions in New Zealand are ideal for the development of crafts. Architecture needs to be responsive to the massive unemployment resulting from current government policies.

vernacular is here again
The architecture of the twenty-first century will be Vernacular Architecture.

Agenda 21 envisages activities which will “establish and strengthen indigenous building materials industry, based as much as possible on inputs of locally available natural resources.” [7.69(a)]

• Increasing sensitivity to place will lead to both vernacular architecture and vernacular architects.

Agenda 21 envisages the “utilisation of local materials” and “increasing the capabilities and economic viability of small scale and informal operatives” [7.69(b)]

• Small architectural practices are recognised as being beautiful.

low-energy of course
Energy-efficient architecture is critical in resolving the environmental crisis.

Agenda 21 seeks to “promote the increased use of energy-efficient designs” [7.69(c)]

• The energy we waste is the problem, not the energy we use.

Agenda 21 seeks to “encourage development patterns which reduce transport demand.” [7.52(a)]

• Urban designers must seek not to solve the transportation problem, but rather to eliminate it.

Agenda 21 advocates the “development of intermediate cities” [7.18] recognising the need to decentralise power structures.

• The city both symbolises and reinforces patterns of power which stress the environment.

opportunities for work
New initiatives are opening up for architects

Agenda 21 encourages architects to “participate in international sustainable city networks” [7.20(d)]

• New Zealand architects could become world leaders in the development of sustainable settlements.

Agenda 21 seeks to “institutionalise a participatory approach to sustainable urban development.” [7.20(a)]

• If architects help others to improve their environments there will be a consequential increase in demand for the traditional roles of architects.

“General education programmes should be developed in all countries” “to increase builder awareness of available sustainable technologies.” [7.73]

• Architects must engage in community education.
• The NZIA secondary school education initiative is to be commended.

United Nations General Assembly Document
“Promoting sustainable human settlement development”
(Section 1 Chapter 7 of Agenda 21)

The “Earth Summit” adopted the Rio Declaration, Conventions on Bio-diversity and Climate Change, and Agenda 21, a 600 page document dealing with all aspects of the environment.

This paper highlights some of the issues of immediate concern to architects.

Tony Watkins
Senior Lecturer, Planning Department, University of Aucklnad

The above is a refereed paper and as such represents current thinking on the subject.


This Position Paper was published by the NZIA, and issued to all New Zealand architects to support the Environmental Policy of the NZIA.

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