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Turning Green: Educating the Public about Sustainability

bridges vol. 11, September 2006 / Green Buildings Focus
by Susan Piedmont-Palladino


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"May have changed my life," writes a visitor in the comment book at the National Building Museum's current exhibition, The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design. Much as curators like to think that their exhibitions change lives, it is rare to hear it put so succinctly. Yet, on page after page, visitors offer their thanks, often augmented with an implied "at last"- at last green is becoming mainstream; at last we can see how to make a difference; at last architects are making houses green and beautiful; and from the baby-boomers, at last ideas that were important 30 years ago are becoming important again. Ideas once marginalized as "back to nature" movements or "solar architecture" have been transformed into "green" architecture, which nestles under the broader concept of sustainability.

What is sustainability? Sometimes it seems we have invented a complicated term for something that has characterized building for thousands of years, yet sustainable technologies are not new. The classic definition of sustainability dates back to the 1992 Earth Summit, the United Nations Council on Environment and Development conference in Rio de Janeiro: "Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." Sustainability is a complex concept, not a new style of architecture and, interestingly, none of the principles enumerated at the Earth Summit mentioned architecture in particular. It is a true cultural shift, requiring each discipline and profession to employ its unique tools to enroll the general public in effecting change.

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When activists in the '60s chanted, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem," they were rallying individuals to act, often in opposition to institutions like government agencies and universities. Today, many of the most successful efforts to move the public from the problem side to the solution side originate in those very institutions, now collaborating on initiatives to turn the public green through legislation, incentives and, most important, education. Recently, policies and events from several of these arenas have succeeded in sparking the public's imagination. The US Department of Energy launched the Solar Decathlon in 2002. The National Building Museum has opened two of three planned exhibitions on sustainable building, Big and Green: Toward Sustainable Architecture in the 21st Century in 2003, and The Green House in 2006. And the city of Chicago vowed in its 2003 Central Area Plan to become the "greenest city in the nation."

How are we living?
A century ago, the Commercial Club of Chicago decided it was time to imagine a new kind of city. They enlisted the services of Daniel Burnham whose aphorism, "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood," is so often quoted that it has lost its own blood-stirring power. A closer look at the Plan of Chicago, commissioned nearly a century ago in 1907, reveals a prescient sense of what makes a livable city: "The people of Chicago have ceased to be impressed by rapid growth or the great size of the city. What they insist on asking now is, How are we living?" Many cities are asking that question again. How are we organizing our communities? How are we building? Can we imagine a sustainable world? The vivid and evocative watercolors and aerial perspectives that illustrated Burnham's Plan of Chicago provided a vision of the future to a skeptical public. Burnham should have elaborated further: the drawings, models, and images of the plans stir our blood - just as exhibitions and architectural demonstrations offer today's visually sophisticated public a new vision of the future.

The future in the nation's backyard

"Someday when I have a house I want it to be green."
- Anonymous visitor, Comment book, The Green House

palladino_the-solar-villageOn September 19, 2002, the first Solar Decathlon houses began to rise on the National Mall in Washington DC. The Solar Village, as this temporary neighborhood was called, quickly became one of the most popular destinations on the Mall. As the name implies, the competition comprised 10 separate contests, ranging from purely technological to holistic evaluations of architectural quality and livability. By the close of the three-week event, over 100,000 people had visited the 14 small houses designed, built, and explained by the Decathletes: architecture, engineering, and design students from across the country and Puerto Rico. The brainchild of Richard King who leads the US Department of Energy's (DOE) Photovoltaic Research & Development Team within the Solar Energy Technologies Program, the Decathlon follows the success of the Department's sponsorship of the Solar Car Race. King hoped to refocus the application of renewable technologies from the rarified world of high-performance cars to the quotidian world of laundry, hot showers, and home heating. He also wanted to encourage a broader cross section of university students to explore solar technologies, and a broader cross section of the public to see their potential.

palladino_kids-at-the-solar Although undertaking a Solar Decathlon entry is labor and resource intensive, more universities want to compete than can fit in the Solar Village. In 2005 there were 18 entries, including Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, the first entry from Europe. For the 2007 competition, 20 schools were accepted, with Madrid's European entry now joined by Technische Universität Darmstadt. The 2007 competitors include not only public research universities, but Ivy League schools and community colleges. The Solar Decathlon represents a compelling paradigm for what architecture students need to learn in the 21st century and how they can learn it. Even more important, it takes research out of the laboratory, away from the enclosure of the campus, and brings it - and the researchers themselves - to the nation's backyard.

Exhibiting best practices
"Thank you for this exhibit. It gives me hope in my future career. I will be graduating next May
and designing 'green' for all of my career."

- Anonymous visitor, Comment book, The Green House

A Solar Decathlon can only happen every few years, and while it lives on in a Web site it has a short life on the National Mall. The exhibitions at the National Building Museum offer a different opportunity for the public to see what is possible. Big and Green attracted 35,340 visitors during its five-and-a-half month run in 2003, and The Green House, which opened in May 2006, has already welcomed 43,629 visitors. At that rate, over 150,000 people are likely to visit before the show closes in June 2007. The public is hungry for green. The National Building Museum has made its advocacy of sustainability clear. In fact, Executive Director Chase Rynd recently reminded the staff how critically important it is for the institution to "always think green...always, from now on." Noting that the Museum has now established a reputation as an authority on sustainable design and practices, he wrote "it is imperative that we live up to that reputation... Let's prove that we really do care about the health of this planet. Recycle. Conserve. Use bicycles and Metro, not to mention your feet." In the fall of 2008 the Museum will open the third in its green series, focusing on the largest and most complex piece of the sustainability puzzle: the community. A green community needs more than green buildings. The exhibition will focus less on the buildings themselves than on how they relate to one another, how the connections among them foster healthy living, how material choices for streets, sidewalks, parks, and even roofs, make the difference between depleting or recharging natural resources.

"I want a house like that when I grow up! It helps the environment."
- Anonymous visitor, Comment book, The Green House

At the National Building Museum, design professionals, scholars, aficionados and fans, as well as the casual tourist, read the same text and gaze at the same artifacts, interpreting at palladino_youth-program-at-their own levels of understanding. While most exhibitions are not directed specifically toward the young, they are actually the most important audience members. In 1909 when the promoters of the Plan of Chicago wanted to ensure that their visions would be fulfilled, they looked to the younger generation. "Wacker's Manual," named after Charles Wacker, chair of the Chicago Plan commission, was an educational publication aimed directly at the city's eighth graders. Businessman Walter Moody, the Manual's author, chose that age group because he felt they were old enough to understand relatively complex issues, but still impressionable. Many of the youth programs at the National Building Museum are directed at this same age group. Since 1993 the CityVisions program has brought together design professionals and junior high school students from the inner city to "become active participants in shaping their communities and neighborhoods." Like the baby boomers who carry memories of Earth Days and environmentalism into current leadership positions in architecture, planning, and public policy, these youths are learning principles of sustainability and stewardship that will help them assume these roles in the future.

Change takes time
"Wonderful. Bring this exhibit to every state - people need to see what is possible, what is good
for nature and beautiful at the same time."

- Ella, from San Francisco, Comment book, The Green House

One common definition of design is "the act of changing the present situation into the preferred one." It is such a simple sentence and yet such a complex task, understanding the present situation, envisioning a preferred one, and figuring out how to get there from here. That requires imagination. Rare is the individual whose imagination is sparked by a policy statement or a change in the tax code, but an exhibition or a visit to a real solar house can change behavior, even lives. Our role, as educators and curators, is twofold: to show the public that change is possible and to provide them with the information they need to make it happen. The popularity of the Solar Decathlon, the attendance at the National Building Museum's green exhibitions, and the tradition of support for visionary planning in cities like Chicago, all suggest that more people want to be part of the solution rather than the problem. Change does take time. The seeds of photovoltaic science were sown in 1839 by French physicist Antoine-César Becquerel, yet more than a century would pass before the development of the photovoltaic cell allowed architecture to utilize the sun for its heat as well as its illumination. Turning the public green is a little bit like turning copper green: it may take a long time and a lot of exposure, but the resultant beauty and resilience are worth the effort.


The author of this article, Susan Piedmont-Palladino, is an architect and an associate professor at Virginia Tech's Washington/Alexandria Architecture Center. She recently joined the staff of the National Building Museum as a curator.



Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Statement of Forest Principles, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (1993) http://www.un.org/geninfo/bp/enviro.html

Burnham, D., and E. Bennett. Plan of Chicago. Chicago: Commercial Club, 1908. http://egov.cityofchicago.org and http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org

The Solar Decathlon, http://www.eere.energy.gov/solar_decathlon

The National Building Museum, http://www.nbm.org




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