In the movie Monsters, Inc., the title characters extract the energy needed to run their city by sneaking out of closets in the night and making human children scream. But the novelty is wearing thin, and as the children become less scared, the community’s power supply is threatened. Our monster heroes, whose true nature is more goofy than scary, end the crisis when they discover that human laughter provides ten times the energy of a scream.
Sustainability-focused designers never intended to make people scream, but inspiring joy has not always been front-of-mind for clients in an industry where economics rather than ergonomics is the prime mover. And with many project teams working hard to push the envelope of energy performance, an “added” focus on beauty, wellness, or happiness has often gotten short shrift.
“The emphasis on technology rather than what we need to do to make this a really good habitat for people” is a huge part of the problem for the sustainable design community, argues Judith Heerwagen, Ph.D., environmental psychologist and affiliate faculty member at the University of Washington. While she was interviewing the occupants of one award-winning green building, she told BuildingGreen, “People said it was like a beautiful corpse. It was so technologically focused; it wasn’t humanized in a way that they felt was pleasant and sensory.”
Savvy designers are finding ways to create allure that dovetail not only with energy and water performance but also with tight budgets. “We’re looking for high design but good value,” notes James Timberlake, FAIA, co-founder of KieranTimberlake. “To the extent that the climate allows us to do it, we’re also making buildings simpler” by exploiting passive design principles and other low-tech strategies. “I think clients appreciate that because they’re not spending money on architectural fetishes” that don’t also provide functional benefits.
In this article, we’ll explore several ways in which the green building community is trying to bring joy back to architecture—with design solutions that also enhance the durability and performance of buildings and neighborhoods.