The Philosophy of Sustainable Design: A New Book Predicts An End To PVC Use

Bill Walsh - July 26, 2004

A new book entitled The Philosophy of Sustainable Design has earned widespread praise by green building leaders.[1] Author Jason McLennan,[2] the Director of Elements, the green consulting division of BNIM Architects, and founder of Ecotone Design, discussed his new book with Bill Walsh of HBN. The book can be purchased at www.ecotonedesign.com.[3]

Why did you write this book?

JM: There wasn't really a book out there that put the fundamental challenges confronting the sustainable design movement into its proper context. That's what I tried to do. Give a history of this movement, and identify the contributions of the people who shaped it over time so that we understand how and why we are where we are today. It's not strictly a history though. I add my own analysis and ideas in a way that I hope would make things easier for those just getting into the field. It's something I would have liked to have when I was starting out.

I found your work unique also in the way you examine the issue of "who decides"? Who decides what is best in the face of competing priorities, when toxicity trades off against durability, recycled synthetic content vs. renewable feedstocks, energy use against indoor air quality, quality of life for building occupants vs. quality of life for the communities where building products are made?

JM: I make the point that we are overly reliant upon "experts" to quantify answers to questions, when real answers are not really possible and really call for a moral judgment. I often recall that scene in the Erin Brockovich movie where the "expert's" opinions change notably when they have to drink the water that they have deemed 'safe'. Safe from who's perspective? How much of any toxin in our water is safe? I distinguish the role of the "professional" as someone who has responsibility not only to a client, but who also assumes a larger responsibility to society through is or her contribution to the profession. Our professional judgment should be more than a catalogue of expert opinions, it is more than splitting the difference among interested parties. It is a statement of values, born of a proud legacy that we must carry forward. If something is toxic it needs to be eliminated… period.

As green building standards become more popular, some environmental advocacy groups are expressing frustration at standards that they perceive operate at cross purposes to hard won environmental policies.

JM: I can understand the frustration of environmental advocates, and do think green building leaders should pay more attention to stated priorities of the environmental movement. I do also think that environmentalists should recognize that green building movement has advanced the cause by developing systems to address various environmental trade-offs. It has also done a good job of getting large companies to accept the idea of environmental accounting and to view healthier building materials as innovations that can be marketed effectively.

That said, our movement is young and there is very much a battle for the hearts and minds of green building professionals in terms of whether we continue to push limits and accelerate the improvement, or whether our generation curbs its ambition in order to be comfortably mainstream.

I took a particular interest in your prediction that PVC would be abandoned by green builders within a decade. You really think so?

I really think so. Certainly green architects and designers are abandoning it already. As your own website demonstrates there are plenty of reliable non-PVC products out there already, more and more being introduced at every trade show, PVC-free claims are cropping up increasingly in product advertising. Less visible but no less true is that there are a lot more manufacturers developing PVC-free versions of their products for the green building market. If you have a feel for the business, you can sense the shift.


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