Architectural Design Magazines’ Sustainability Issues and Why I Keep Buying Them

Dwell, Enki, Wallpaper, and a dozen more architectural and design magazines promise at least once a year that they have found the Luxardo maraschino cherry of sustainable building and design. And if I happen to be at an airport news stand or browsing through a bookstore’s magazine shelves at that time, I usually buy one of them. The problem is that—while I can admire the sleek building silhouettes, beautifully crafted interior designs, and breathtaking nature backdrops—I usually reach the last page with a sense of disappointment.

My main reasons for feeling let down time and again are a varying combination of the following:

To begin with, the showcased designs and sustainability solutions are typically for the affluent. Article headlines such as “Own This Sustainably Designed Malibu Beach House For $5.7M” don’t offer realistic options for the 7.5 billion or so people who want to fit sustainable design into their budgets. Similarly suggestive of my impression that this kind of sustainability is marketed mostly for the well-to-do are the typical building sizes, which by my completely unscientific, recall-based estimate seem to hover in the 3,000+ square feet.

My second reason is that the “sustainable design” shown is almost always limited to a few features instead of following a holistic, integrated concept that considers all sustainability dimensions of man-made spaces with clear, measurable goals to minimize environmental impacts. For example, there are projects featuring solar PV panels and energy efficiency measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but typically without a discussion of energy storage and never mind the extensive use of carbon-heavy concrete and steel. Other projects highlight the use of reclaimed or repurposed local materials in construction materials, while glossing over the fact that several mature trees had to give way for the building and that the interior design involves high-end furniture and appliances shipped half-way around the world. In other instances, the water saving features of a xeriscaped garden are complemented with “well-managed wilderness.” Compact and reconfigurable interior space designs reduce a building’s footprint and enable it to evolve in tandem with the occupants’ needs, but sometimes that attitude is immediately watered down when the owners are already planning a building expansion.

Finally, and perhaps worst in terms of dialing up my frustrato-meter is that the majority of showcased projects are new construction in often pristine and/or remote locations. Is it just me or does it take a certain amount of ignorance to celebrate a building’s sustainability when it is plopped into the middle of Iceland’s “wild and primordial nature,” thereby rendering mute its wildness and primordiality, not to mention the environmental impacts of the necessary roads, utilities and the occupants’ reliance on cars to get anywhere. The tendency to pair ‘sustainable design’ with untrampled nature reminds me of tone-deaf car commercials, which often feature ruggedly beautiful natural surroundings and an empty road ahead—a marketing illusion that is not commensurate with a sustainable lifestyle. The latter would be better served by renovating and reimagining existing buildings and designing in-fill projects, densifying neighborhoods to support walking, bicycling and public transit, and creating mixed-use spaces that enhance a neighborhood’s vibrancy. In urban areas, the 15-min city is something I would like to see the magazines examine through an architectural design lens. In rural areas impacted by population aging and decline, sustainable design could shine a spotlight on addressing rural blight, upgrading and decarbonizing an aging building stock while simultaneously showing how building designs can support community connectedness and access to services.

Sometimes though, I find a nugget—a small design feature or an innovation that is both creative and has outsized sustainability impact, or a decision by a project owner to intentionally follow the hard path when easier but less sustainable options were beckoning, or when a project is adapted to a site’s natural quirks instead of forcing a design preference onto it.

Perhaps these finds are the reason why I keep buying the magazines. Maybe it’s my hope that sustainable design can one day be the mundane basic premise of all building design, such that every issue is a sustainability issue and I can move on to gardening magazines.

Tanja Srebotnjak, Zilkha Center Director