The greenest building is no building, our false craving for silence and some other stuff

As climate scientists issue increasingly stark warnings about the global environmental catastrophe that is increasingly likely within a very short time frame, Will Jennings issues a timely reminder in the Architects Journal that the greenest type of building is no building at all. And that is doubly so when the building we are talking about is The Tulip, which would clearly be a very bad idea at any time. The author takes particular exception to the glossy environmental pledges made by high profile architects when contrasted with the ugly, vacuous grandstanding typified by The Tulip.

There was a time when this building would have been judged solely on it crimes against aesthetics. Now it’s also a crime against nature, according to Jennings.

It’s great that Foster + Partners and the Berkeley Group are committed to zero-carbon buildings by 2030, but when these buildings are too often luxury-flat-as-investment-built-to-remain-empty, suggestions of genuine sustainability are further away than ever. So, if we live in an age where statements and slogans garner more reaction than the action itself, perhaps now is the time for some of the larger firms to make some headline-grabbing statements of intent and extricate themselves from iconic but unsustainable projects and modes of work.


Designed solutions?

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]One solution to the problem of long train journeys isn’t to spend a huge sum on engineered solutions but to spend a fraction of it on making the journey enjoyable[/perfectpullquote]

Part of the problem is that, if you’re a designer, engineer or builder faced with a problem, your first instinct will be to design, engineer or build it away. This can be fallacious thinking and sometimes the answer is to do something different, nothing at all or look at the problem with other eyes.

As Rory Sutherland once pointed out in this TED talk, a potential solution to the problem of long train journeys isn’t necessarily to spend a huge sum on engineered solutions but to spend a fraction of it on making the journey so enjoyable people aren’t that worried about it. As is true in offices and everywhere else, a comfortable chair, good company, a free drink and WiFi goes a long way.

We can extend this thinking into many workplace domains. One of the most talked about now is wellbeing, often linked to issues of comfort and biophilia and thereby designed solutions such as standing desks, plant walls, daylight-emulating light fittings and all the rest. Now these are good things on the whole, but they are no full substitutes for the real thing, which is most likely free and involves walking, fresh air, rest and nature.

As the never less than wonderful Maria Popova reminds us in this piece in Brain Pickings, a connection to nature is essential not just for our wellbeing but our thought processes too. She cites the author and psychologist Oliver Sacks.

As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.


A model professional

Such basic physiological needs are the foundations of Maslow’s Hierarchy, the roots and some criticisms of which can be found in this extended piece from the Academy of Management which sets out to challenge some of the assumptions we make about the most widely accepted model of motivation we have. One of the main criticisms aimed at Maslow’s pyramid in both this piece and elsewhere has always been its simplicity. The idea that we satisfy one type of need at a time is not borne out either by experience or other research. We are complex animals so the root causes of our drives and interactions and a full understanding of them are beyond such a straightforward model, useful though it remains.

And yet we retain this tendency to oversimplify complex issues. So, the debate about AI is routinely reduced to the number of jobs it will create versus those it will destroy. Tye Brady of Amazon was one of the latest to comment on this issue, suggesting in a BBC interview – not entirely reassuringly – that ‘human staff will always be needed’.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Standing in the room, which measures at roughly minus-nine decibels, you hear the unbearable noise of your heartbeat, your breath, the churning of your stomach[/perfectpullquote]

Informed commentators continually point out that the effects of the Fourth Industrial revolution will not be felt equally by everybody and at the same time. A new report from McKinsey looks at the way that gender will shape people’s experience of automation, just one of numerous factors that will create a range of outcomes, some of them unpredictable.

One of the latest pieces to highlight the lumpy complexity of it all is this from Leesman, which considers the impacts of AI based on the complexity of people’s roles as well as a related correlation between their satisfaction with their workplace and the complexity of what they do. Nobody said it was easy.

Another issue that suffers from routine oversimplification is that of acoustics. We’ve repeatedly highlighted in the past, especially with help of the very well-informed Nigel Oseland, that our response to noise and distraction is psychological as well as physical, so simply hiding away and trying to block out the din of our colleagues is not the solution it might appear.

It’s a point taken up in this piece from The New Yorker. As the author illustrates, we might crave silence, until we have it.

Microsoft’s quiet room is exclusively for company use, but Orfield Laboratories, in Minneapolis, has a similar room that anyone can visit. Standing in the room, which measures at roughly minus-nine decibels, you hear the unbearable noise of your heartbeat, your breath, the churning of your stomach. You grow too conscious of your own thoughts, your own body, the passage of time.

If this sounds like forced mindfulness, it might well be. Still modish, the idea of mindfulness maintains a large number of adherents, not least as a way of blocking out the incessant racket of modern life so we can absorb the moment in meditation. But as this piece highlights, the evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness in our complex world is scanty, and its popularity may have more to do with the Western fetishisation of Eastern mysticism than any compelling case.

Illustration: From The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes