Tuesday: Unity and Sustainability

Yesterday I brought my class to Unity Temple for the announcement of this iconic landmark’s listing on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered List for 2009. As a Trustee, I got to make the announcement. It is a challenging issue, because Unity Temple is threatened not by demolition, but by deterioration. Moreover, it has a congregation that has spent $750,000 on maintenance in the last five years plus the separate Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, which has raised $3 million for restoration during the same period. The problem, however, is even bigger, and the building needs a national and international community to save it. Village President David Pope offered a compelling analogy: the local community of monks that used Angkor Wat did not have the resources to preserve it.
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I stressed the international significance of the building – how the Schroeder House in Utrecht, the Dessau Bauhaus and the Farnsworth House would not be possible without Unity Temple. It really is a stunning place and every time I go I discover something new and wonderful. I quoted Alice Sinkevitch who in the AIA Guide called it “a transcendent work, bound to the earth and open to the heavens.” Gunny Harboe described the architectural challenges: failing plaster and concrete in the roof systems, exacerbated by some bad repairs and the fact that reinforced concrete just was not very well understood here in 1906.
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The building has made it 100 years. The question now is the next century and whether we can find the resources to save it.

Our class toured the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio after lunch and then it was back downtown for Doug Farr’s lecture on Sustainable Urbanism, which was well worth it. He has written the book on the subject and over the last dozen years has built a practice that stresses not only green designed buildings and historic preservation, but the “integrated design” of the new planning, which stresses a systemic analysis of buildings, landscape, and human conduct. His biggest point is that we are still used to thinking about sustainability and green as a product choice, when in fact technology in all its marvel can only accomplish half of the goal. The other half must come from altered human conduct. And humans are problematic. You produce a more efficient car, and humans drive it more. Produce a more efficient house, we make it bigger. The net gain in terms of emissions, energy use, etc. ends up being nothing. Doug showed a funny slide from The Onion newspaper where the headline said a majority of Americans favored public transit for other people. It is like building highways – the more you build, the more they drive. Farr’s goal is to get us driving like we were in 1970 – maybe 4,000 miles a year. Driving was fun then. Now we drive over 10,000 miles a year and it is a chore. He compared it to drugs and alcohol – you do it a few times and it might be fun. You do it a bunch and it is a debilitating addiction.

And the way we design buildings is code-driven, which is ultimately lawsuit-driven. Our building codes are designed to protect people from fires and structural collapse, issues which affect a few thousand lives a year. Meanwhile, up to half a million people a year die from obesity – Americans add a pound a year after age 30. A simple walk to a train station or up a few flights of stairs could halt that trend. Again, Farr had a funny slide showing an escalator going up to a fitness center.

At any rate, Farr is a national leader at looking at the interrelationship of these issues. LEED began as a checklist for buildings and for the last five years Farr chaired LEED for Neighborhood Development, which is developing a more integrated approach to development that addresses these issues. The LEED ND guidelines have been studied by the Center for Disease Control and found to also promote more healthy living.
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And there is a preservation angle as well. As we began to drive more, we devalued buildings and the landscape. Their details and appearance just didn’t matter the faster you drove, and especially as driving became a chore and addiction rather than a treat and a joy. It isn’t just that we devalued historic buildings – we devalued ALL buildings.
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To promote change (and his book) Farr has bumper stickers that say “Your SUV makes you look fat” and buttons reading “Sex is better within 1/4 mile of public transit.” Women prefer the stickers and men like the buttons. Doug gave me a button.

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