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The elephant in the room – of sustainable architecture

Elephant in the room

“Sustainability in Architecture”: Under this heading guests from the fields of architecture, real estate, research and politics have discussed as part of the event series “Elephant in the room” at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design (ABK). Among other things, they talked about the meaning of the term itself, the right adjusting screws and the question of where the symbolic elephants can be found in the room of sustainable architecture.

It is a diverse group that has gathered in the glass cube of the ABK. A mixture with potential for controversial discussions. Besides Dr. Anna Braune (Head of Research and Development, DGNB), Stefan Behnisch (founding partner of Behnisch Architekten), Caroline Thaler (co-founder of Architects for Future), Jan Theissen (freelance architect, AMUNT), Christian Holl (publisher of the online magazine Marlowes), Rainer Ganske (managing director of the Böblinger Baugesellschaft) and Michael Conz (FDP) are part of the panel. Matthias Rudolph, Professor of building technology and climate responsive design at the ABK and member of the DGNB Executive Committee, moderated the discussion.

Everyone here agrees that sustainability is a fundamental part of sustainable architecture. A brief look at the current world situation, the advancing climate change and our finite resources are sufficiently powerful arguments. However, although the concept of sustainability is currently omnipresent, it is not easy to grasp. Even the introductory question “What is sustainability?” offers very different answers and potential for discussion.

Sustainability – what does it actually mean?

Few people really like the term. It is too broad, too abstract, too passive. In his opening statement, Christian Holl already gives the impetus to understand sustainability as a verb – not something static, but a process. The “active” idea finds broad approval.

With a view to “sustainable buildings”, the descriptions and ideas of the panel guests, who each have different points of contact with the topic, become more concrete. With reference to the DGNB, Rainer Ganske emphasises right at the beginning the relevance of a holistic view of the entire life cycle of a building – whereby at the end of the day, in the best case scenario, with regard to the use of resources and energy, there should be a zero.

For Dr. Anna Braune, transparency plays a key role in sustainable building.

For Dr. Anna Braune, transparency plays a key role in sustainable building.

And Anna Braune points out that sustainability means satisfying the needs of all people. Especially in a global society we must ask ourselves the critical questions in every project, such as: Where do the resources come from? What are the production conditions? Are the products free of pollutants?

“We must learn to think more freely again”…

Theissen adds a further perspective. With a view to future sustainability, he focuses in particular on the changeability of buildings. For him, structures must be designed to be open for use and preferably have several lives.

Behnisch also warns to keep clichés out of the debate and not to lose sight of the goal because of all the details. “We must be careful not to consume more per day than the earth produces on that day. That is the ultimate goal.”

But even for THE sustainable building there is no patent remedy. Especially not if we look for it exclusively in the past. For Behnisch it is clear that it cannot be the solution to adapt what has been handed down and develop solutions from what is already known. “We must learn to think more freely again” is an plea to dare to create completely new structures in order to develop sustainable solutions.

Where to start

The questions about the right adjusting screws in particular led to discussions. What role does politics play? How can the topic be brought more to the universities? How can the topic be brought to the attention of clients? What role do “elites” play and what contribution can each individual make? – Questions that could not be conclusively clarified in this round either.

Sustainable architecture and its five little elephants

What the discussion shows is that there is a great need to talk about the basics, despite the current omnipresence of the topic. After more than an hour and a half, both panelists and the audience still seem far from having reached the end of the debate. Nevertheless, Rudolph gives the floor to Holl for a short keynote speech – on the symbolic five little elephants in the room of sustainable architecture, which are clearly there but nobody really wants to see:

  1. Technology does not solve problems: On the contrary, technology requires the use of energy, it creates rebound effects and causes supply problems. Moreover, architecture assumes that new technology makes everything more and more attractive – a fallacy.
  2. Technology hides the fact that sustainability is a problem that can never be finally solved: The idea that there is a long-term stable state is an illusion because we are changing the world through our actions. Correspondingly, we also have to ask ourselves again and again what we understand by sustainability.
  3. Sustainability is not an “on-top”: Sustainability cannot be added to new buildings or to existing buildings. Sustainability must be systematically considered from the very beginning.
  4. Sustainability must be negotiated: There must be an ongoing dialogue about what sustainability means for us.
  5. Architecture is never finished: we should move away from the idea that architecture is a finished work and has “reached the peak of its quality before the user comes”. Conversion and reinterpretation of architecture offer great potential – this includes adding and taking away. Architecture must be able to change.

The group reacts with thoughtful silence. Stefan Behnisch nods approvingly and notes: “Nothing to add.”

Filed under: General


Levke Maria Kehl works for the DGNB as an editor in the PR, Communications and Marketing department. It is particularly important to her to present topics in an appealing and entertaining way and at the same time to prepare them in a way that is appropriate for the target group and channel. Driven by her keen interest in the topic of sustainability, she joined DGNB as a working student during her communications management studies.

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