Sunday, September 16, 2007


Mr. Manaugh of BLDGBLOG posted a few days ago on a joint performance by Michael McDonough and Michelle Kaufmann at this weekend's Dwell on Design conference. The "big idea" of this presentation was apparently that "conductive" materials, such as metal, should be avoided in new housing in favor of "insulative" materials. I might be slightly biased in all of this, but this seems like a crazily reductive and somewhat specious argument to be making in front of thousands of paying customers. Not only is McDonaugh simplifying the idea of sustainability to a single variable (energy performance), but he seems to be ignoring holistic strategies and even the existence of more than one climate on this earth! In addition, heat conductance is a relative value, and roof, wall, and floor construction is almost always, by necessity, an assembly, so where do you draw the line, and with which material?

My other beef seems to be that Ms. Kaufmann is supporting this argument to differentiate her (wood framed) modular construction from similar (steel framed) modular construction, on the basis of sustainability. Never mind that the first Leed Platinum home in the country is entirely steel framed.

I think that Mr. McDonaugh and Ms Kaufmann are both very intelligent, gifted architects that have contributed greatly to the idea of a sustainable, well designed environment. And I'm definitely not going to claim that recycled steel is a perfect building technology. But this presentation seems to me to be a warning shot-- the first in a series of "sustainability wars" where hype and proprietary technologies overcome the need for shared information and measured individual solutions. If we've learned anything from previous modern mistakes, it's that a single and homogeneous treatment of any problem is going to be seriously lacking in resilience and vitality. So I am making an open request to Michele and Michael-- next time you use your considerable clout to fight for sustainability, please try to acknowledge the need for a comprehensive, heterogeneous, multivalent solution to the problem. Simply saying "metal is bad" does no one any good.

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