I spent the weekend of July 27-30 at an invitational conference in Austin, Texas for senior specification writers from the nation’s leading architectural firms. The conference was equal parts speed dating for architects and manufacturers and educational presentations by “thought leaders” that shared thought provoking “best practices, case study driven data and novel approaches to the industry’s most challenging topics.” The event did not disappoint.
The conference opened with keynote speaker (the first of two for this event) Jamie Dwyer, a Certified Biomimicry Professional, biologist and “Design Strategist,” who gave a presentation about Biomimicry and the firm she works for, Biomimicry 3.8. Biomimicry is described by its founder, Janine Benyus, as looking to nature for inspiration for new inventions. Ms. Dwyer began her presentation with some fascinating examples of this (none of which she or her company had any involvement with, she pointed out.) A Japanese bullet train nose redesigned to look like a kingfisher’s beak helping it go faster and eliminating sonic booms when exiting tunnels; an anti-bacterial film, for use in hospitals and other places where surface-to-person transmission of bacteria is important to avoid, inspired by shark’s skin; and a passively cooled shopping center in Africa modeled after ancient termite mounds. She had the audience’s full attention! As the presentation went on, however, the few remaining examples became less compelling—some were a real stretch. The last half of the presentation consisted of an overabundance of jargon and buzz words (“life-friendly chemistry,” “evolve to survive,” “leverage cyclic processes,” etc.) hurled at the audience to add legitimacy to an idea lacking much in the way of supporting evidence.
Specifiers are a skeptical sort. We listened quietly and politely until the presentation had concluded. And then things got interesting. The first audience question set the tone for the rest of the discussion: “How many buildings have you worked on that incorporated anything with a Biomimicry strategy?” There was an unexpected, awkward pause from the speaker as she searched for a response. “Well, I haven’t been doing this for long, uhhh, I work on a lot of projects but … I don’t have any examples of buildings I have worked on that have been built with anything biomimetic.” This was followed by a comment from another audience member, introducing himself as an attorney, who observed that what Dwyer was doing as a biomimicry “design strategist” was to bring unwanted and unintended liability to architects she works with! This brought an uncomfortable end to the presentation and offered some foreshadowing of what was to come later in the conference.
Biomimicry or Bio-Hypocrisy?
The next keynote speaker is someone that I have written about frequently, building scientist Joe Lstiburek. He gave sort of a building-science-basics presentation that started with, completely coincidentally, an example of a building that has been described as biomimetic, the Aqua Tower in Chicago by architect Jeanne Gang. Concrete floor plates that extend and undulate beyond the glazing plane give the 82-story skyscraper its unique appearance, “biomimicking” striated limestone outcroppings that are a common topographic feature of the Great Lakes region, according to Gang. Lstiburek started the discussion by showing a fin tube radiator made with square aluminum fins surrounding copper piping installed on the floor below a window. He then showed a slide of the same fin tube radiator in a vertical orientation—the aluminum fins now horizontal. The very next slide cleverly positioned an image of the Aqua Tower next to the image of the vertical fin tube radiator, matching the scale so each appeared as the same size. And voila! The Aqua Tower was exposed for what it truly is—a fin tube radiator masquerading as a green building with some biomimicry mixed in for added ooh and aw. Lstiburek has written an excellent article about it, and how this quite stunning building in appearance could have been technologically stunning as well, instead of the energy pig that it is.
Green Advocacy and Informed Consent
The two keynote presentations at the conference were the perfect buildup to one of the last presentations given. The most interesting and thought provoking of the bunch, presenter Ujjval K. Vyas, Ph.D., J.D., gave an enthralling lecture about the difference between green advocacy and informed consent. Dr. Vyas was the audience member that made the comment about biomimicry and unintended liability during the first keynote presentation. In addition to being a licensed construction law attorney, Vyas specializes in the history and theory of modern architecture and has lectured, researched and published extensively in a variety of fields in professional and academic settings including the Yale School of Architecture, European Academy of Sciences Advisory Council, University of Manitoba School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Chicago School of Architecture, and Illinois Institute of Technology School of Architecture and Humanities Department. He knows his stuff.
Vyas began his presentation with a couple of examples. The first involved a physician who, due to religious reasons, advocates against childhood vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella. The doctor steers his patient’s parents away from the vaccination, the patient contracts measles, goes to school and infects other students and teachers, and as a result one student dies. In the example given, the doctor did not present treatment options in an objective and neutral manner and, from a legal perspective, could not claim that he received informed consent from the parents. Informed consent requires transfer of information from the physician to the patient whether or not the patient makes a request for it and also requires that the physician divulge personal advocacy and distinguish it from medical science.
The second example involves an architecture firm hired by a healthcare owner for a large expansion of a hospital. The architect is hired in part based on its assurances to the owner that it has special skill and expertise in “green” building design that will result in increased occupant health due to proper selection of materials. One of the materials selected by the architect is a low-VOC floor covering adhesive. Shortly after completion, the flooring begins to come loose. It is determined that the low-VOC adhesive failed, and 250,000 square feet of flooring is required to be replaced. The architect claims that the selection of the low-VOC adhesive was done for the greater good of society and the occupants, and that the cost to replace the flooring due to its failure is therefore an acceptable outcome.
Vyas explains that, 50 years ago or so, the large majority of physicians behaved as “benevolent despots,” acting in what the physician deems the patient’s best interest without consulting the patient or even against the patient’s wishes. The concept of informed consent was introduced in the medical profession at about the same time, and is now the foundation of the doctor patient relationship in Western medicine. Vyas explained that, compared with other licensed professions, the profession of architecture does not embrace and practice informed consent with its clientele. In his soon-to-be-published article “Matching Owner and Architect Expectations: Green Advocacy and the Necessity For Informed Consent,” he summarizes:
“Given the responsibilities of the other major learned professions and their explicit duties for informed consent, the gap in any articulation of an informed consent requirement for architects begs for an explanation.”
It is important for architects to understand that much of the green building rhetoric espoused and offered up by architects as fact, is in fact nothing more than Green Advocacy. And, as Vyas so articulately explains, advocacy is the very opposite of informed consent. Vyas added that advocacy is not covered by insurance! The architect that thinks advocacy is OK, and does not provide informed consent to his or her clients, is assuming an enormous amount of uninsured risk.
Vyas states in his article:
“The long-standing model of 80 percent art and 20 percent science no longer functions well and cannot practically meet the requirements of a complex and technologically evolving field. It also does not comport with owners’ expectations. The introduction of the notion of informed consent can catalyze the architectural profession into a truly robust learned profession serving the health, safety and welfare of the public.”
He doesn’t promise that the change will be easy, but it is important, even necessary, for the long term health and viability of the profession itself.