Is there a place for beauty in our green building rating tools?

At its best our built environment can inspire us, so why does it often depress? Beauty is a natural complement to simplicity and efficiency, but the concept jars with our technocratic understanding of sustainability. 

Buildings must fulfil their function, but to inspire us a building must be beautiful. We recognise a building’s beauty or ugliness immediately and instinctively, and we respond. We’re more comfortable in beautiful environments, we pay more to live in beautiful suburbs and we travel across the world just to experience a beautiful city.

Beautiful built environments increase wellbeing, and this alone should justify the inclusion of beauty in our assessments of sustainability. But beauty is also sustainable, because a building that inspires us is a long-lived one. How long will something last if no one loves it?

Look at almost any pre-war building near you: a railway station, a house or even a factory. Whether you like the building or not it’s likely to express an aesthetic outlook. You can see the architect had motives above and beyond shunting trains, housing people or producing widgets. They were designing something to be admired.

With some buildings today it can be hard to see what the architect hoped for beyond a functional box adhering to regulations. Every time a federation-style house disappears from my suburb the sole design remit appears to be: enclose as much space as the plot will allow.

Separation of beauty and sustainability

Given the durability of beautiful buildings and their contribution to our happiness, you might expect beauty to sit harmoniously within the broader concept of sustainability. But beauty and sustainability are estranged. Sustainable buildings lack elegance and stylish construction is achieved through excessive use of materials such as steel.

This disconnection was highlighted by architect Lance Hosey in his book The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design. Hosey compares two separate polls of eminent architects and experts, one asking for their favourite buildings of the last 30 years, the other for important examples of sustainable design. Tellingly, none of those topping the first poll appeared on the second.

Ratings tools and beauty

Here is an opportunity for green ratings tools to raise the bar on aesthetics, as they have in other areas.

Yet the leading tools in Australia, the UK and US ignore basic considerations about image, shape and form, or pay them scant attention. In Green Star, for example, the only faint nod to aesthetics is the credit awarded for reviewing the urban design of a community. The design review might encourage improvements in the architecture and landscaping, but this alone is not going to lead to beautiful buildings.

ISCA’s IS rating does at least require the design of infrastructure to follow principles from the Urban Design Protocol for Australian Cities, which recommends that sustainable design is “visually and aesthetically pleasing as well as practical”. However, in general the protocol skirts around the question of aesthetics, preferring terms such as connected, comfortable and vibrant. The fact that even guidelines on design avoid the word “beauty”, use “aesthetic” only once and even “appearance” only twice reveals the broader hesitance in this area.

No doubt ratings tools leave out beauty because it’s in the eye of the beholder. Although there are  subjective aspects of ISCA and GBCA (for example the Innovation credits in both), there is nothing quite like beauty. But the fact that beauty is subjective doesn’t mean our opinions are random. Any difference in physical attractiveness between Brad Pitt and James Packer is purely subjective but most human beings agree on it. There are universal qualities of beauty and people are inherently attracted to patterns and forms from nature. Urban design can appeal to these predispositions and, in fact, architects have long been doing so using well-known design principles.

Some ratings tools have been bolder. The International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge includes a category (or “petal”) called, unashamedly, “Beauty”. This requires a building to:

contain design features intended solely for human delight and the celebration of culture, spirit and place appropriate to its function and meaningfully integrate public art.

The recognition of the importance of culture, spirit and place makes sense. An obvious problem with many modern buildings is that they lack distinctive features of material or design: they could be anywhere. On the other hand the concept of “features” creates an assumption that beauty is something added to a building, whereas surely it should be an emergent quality of the overall design. This would have particularly pained modernist architects such as Mies van der Rohe who proclaimed “death to decoration” in their quest for a unified and simple expression of beauty.

The WELL Building Standard (WELL), inspired by the Living Building Challenge, has a Beauty and Design “precondition” that explicitly recognises beauty affects how we feel. In line with the standard as a whole the precondition focuses on the impact on building occupants, and arguably its interior. The requirement is for:

 A physical space in which design principles align with an organisation’s core cultural values… This feature… strives to construct thoughtfully designed environments that positively impact the mood and comfort level of occupants.

The feature is supported by two “Biophilia” objectives that recognise our affinity with the natural world. They promote the incorporation of patterns from nature, as well as quantitative requirements for indoor and outdoor plants.

The Living Building Challenge and WELL schemes are admirable in trying to expand the boundaries of what we expect from our built environment. Their inclusion of beauty seems almost radical, but this is a measure of how far we have accepted the idea that value must be quantifiable. Perhaps the approach in both standards is too prescriptive. But we’re only at the beginning of this journey and shouldn’t be surprised if we don’t have all the answers.

Beautiful buildings are more sustainable because they make us happy and we preserve them. Green buildings can and should be beautiful, but too often they are soulless, relying on their use of technology to inspire us. It’s time to elevate beauty and link it indelibly with sustainability.

There’s understandable apprehension about including such a subjective feature in green ratings tools. But our judgement of beauty is not arbitrary, and we can agree ways to judge it. At least two standards are showing how this can be done.

If other ratings tools don’t follow them we’re saying sustainable can mean ugly, as long as it’s efficient.

Let’s inspire architects and engineers to design buildings that are aesthetically pleasing and efficient. The ultimate goal should be to make efficiency and aesthetic quality an inherent part of the building’s form.

Then we’ll have sustainable buildings that we never want to knock down.

Michael Lord is senior manager – environment & sustainability at RPS Australia Asia Pacific.

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  1. Should beauty be in the eye of the beholder, perhaps ‘sustainable buildings’ should be confined to the minds of the deluded. Constancy of and adaptation to change sustains nature, relegating ‘sustainability’ as traditional guilt management of built environments.