Redefining Sustainability through the Lenses of Three Resource Philosophies
In 2022, members of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs established goals for Sustainable Development. It was observed that sustainable cities and communities, and irresponsible consumption and production are among the most critical problems that the world is currently facing (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2022). The common root of this issue derives from overconsumption, the condition in modern society where the needs of individuals are surpassed through the overproduction of goods and experiences. Architecture, both as a good and as an experience, has fallen into the same pattern as other commodities, being overproduced and overconsumed. As an opposing philosophy, sustainability calls for combating the negative effects of these practices, by minimizing the exploitation of the environment for resources and optimizing current practices in both production and consumption realms. Sustainability, in the scope of architecture, can benefit from the lessons of three philosophies originating in Japan: Mottainai, Kintsugi, and Sakiori. These concepts are linked to the ideas of respecting the resources already available, modifying the already existing resources, and reusing old resources to create new ones. These principles apply to the scale of architecture where old buildings and materials are not discarded but rather recognized as valuable resources that can be reutilized to create sustainable architecture.
The need to adopt these principles resides in the fact that the construction of new buildings has an immense negative impact on our environment, air and water pollution, and an increase in landfill waste. According to the UN’s Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction 2021, the building sector accounts for 37% of energy-related CO2 emissions, with the building construction industry accounting for 10% of global CO2 emissions (UN Environment Programme, 2021). Thus, the critical moment that defines the level of a building's sustainability is its construction period. To create a meaningful impact on the global environment it is necessary to address and minimize the resources used and to adopt sustainable practices during the construction period. Resources and fuel are used to produce new construction materials, transport them from their source to their destination, and install them as parts of a new building. The renovation and repurpose that Mottainai, Kintsugi, and Sakiori call for, use only a fragment of all these resources to create new spaces, as the main structure and materials are mainly already in place. When comparing structures of the same energy performance levels, savings from reuse are between 4 and 46% compared to new construction depending on building type, location, and energy efficiency level (Preservation Green Lab, 2011). Thus, the application of the Mottainai, Kintsugi, and Sakiori principles which recognize the value of the existing buildings and materials decreases the negative environmental impact inherent to new construction that uses solely new materials.
As a philosophical principle, Mottainai translates to ‘essence’ and refers to respect for all resources around us (Whiting, 2021). Commonly used to refer to avoid wasting food, the Mottainai principle is also applicable to gratitude towards all resources, such as nature, clothes, objects, and architecture. Old buildings are seen as waste and are often discarded and demolished to create space for new and “improved” buildings. The principle of Mottainai comes into play when the old buildings are not seen as waste but rather recognized as an important supply already available to us.
With the use of architectural imagination, many damaged buildings can be recycled and transformed to serve similar or different programmatic purposes. Several post-war restoration projects such as David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum utilize the principle of Mottainai by showcasing how even the most severely damaged buildings can be repurposed and reused to continue to serve the public. This project employs the ruins of the previous museum that was severely damaged in World War II as a base structure for a new museum with architecture that celebrates the juxtaposition of old and new. Instead of demolishing the ruin and building a new and “improved’ structure, the architect acknowledges the damage and uses the old structure as an architectural framework into which he mindfully inserts selected new elements such as the redesigned central staircase. The repurposed damaged elements and the new interventions complete the museum's aesthetical and experiential composition. The Mottainai principle of recognizing the value of the resources already available to us came into play as the project puts most efforts into restoring, preserving, and reusing the damaged materials wherever possible, while new materials are introduced only in unrepairable areas with the highest levels of damage. In this manner, the project drastically decreased the negative environmental impact of the construction process by minimizing the amount of new materials that needed to be produced, transported, and installed.
Kintsugi is an ancient Japanese art of fixing broken pieces of pottery with gold. The main principle of Kintsugi is, rather than discarding the broken artifact and producing anew, to celebrate the unpredictable beauty of the damage (Whiting, 2021). Kintsugi is associated with the common architectural practice of retrofitting and renovating elements of pre-existing buildings. According to the Buildings Performance Institute Europe (BPIE), the renovation will play an essential role in reaching the 2050 decarbonization goals for the EU construction sector (Mjörnell et al., 2014). It is of crucial importance that the renovation projects are performed sustainably with an emphasis on decreasing the negative impacts on the environment through energy efficiency. In the restoration projects, new elements introduced into the existing buildings act as forms of Kintsugi, or allegorically the gold that ties together the broken pieces.
In the context of sustainability and energy efficiency, the practical examples of Kintsugi construction elements that upgrade already existing architecture are improved insulation/envelope systems, green energy-generating mechanisms such as solar panels, modern energy consumption monitoring systems, etc. The renovation of the residential area in Dieselweg - Graz in Austria provides evidence that the Kintsugi principle can be applied to architecture, where old, damaged, and energy-inefficient buildings are renovated through a careful addition of selected new elements. The buildings of this neighborhood which were originally built in the 1960s were facing severe deterioration due to lack of maintenance, while their energy efficiency was low due to lack of proper insulation, thermal bridges through balconies, and reliance on heating through single heating devices which run on fossil fuels and oil. The renovation concept relied on two factors: improvement of the thermal envelope with the usage of prefabricated facade modules and implementation of solar energy technologies. The combination of these two strategies lowered the building’s energy demands by around 93%, increasing its energy efficiency and elevating it to the standards of a passive house. The renovation design uses prefabricated glass panels in various shades of yellow to clad the entire building, including the balconies, which eliminated the previous issue of thermal bridges. The new envelope system uses the concept of a solar comb to trap the sunlight that falls through the glass to passively heat up the interior spaces during the winter months (Miloni et al., 2011). In this manner, the new technologies that were introduced to the old structure as a part of the renovation efforts act as Kintsugi as they tie together the pieces of the old architecture while elevating it to the new standards of modern sustainability.
Sakiori refers to the Japanese art of reusing pieces of old fabric to create new clothes. In this process, old and new fabrics are woven together to create new designs where beauty is derived from the unusual juxtaposition of the used and new (Whiting, 2021). The principle of Sakiori comes to play when old and new materials merge to create new spaces that will sustainably serve generations to come. Sustainable architecture prioritizes reclaiming materials already in circulation over manufacturing new materials and using resources, fuels, and energy for their production, transportation, and installation. Recycled materials from different buildings such as reused concrete, metals, plastic, wood, and, popularly used, recycled shipping containers can be used to create new designs when merged into compositions with new materials.
Gallery of Furniture by CHYBIK+KRISTOF is a good example of the innovative usage of recycled materials in combination with new materials. This project uses 900 old plastic chairs to create a geometric envelope system that layers over the glass façade. This imaginative usage of already existing materials saves energy and resources both during and after construction as the façade system acts as a shading device that passively cools the building in the summer months. The resulting architectural composition is imaginative, practical, and imbued with the same beauty that the principle of Sakiori is based upon, that of the old and the new juxtaposed to create a cohesive fabric.
The aforementioned principles make a common call for appreciation of the existing and for its renovation. Although some professionals might argue that renovation is not the most energy-efficient process due to the fact that a new generation of sustainable buildings is far more energy efficient than the old buildings, some sources estimate that it takes around 80 years for the energy efficiency of the new building to balance the negative environmental impact made during its construction period (Lloyd, 2018). Thus, instead of building anew, it is far more energy efficient to renovate the existing and introduce certain energy systems capable of improving the energy efficiency of the buildings, elevating them to the modern standards of sustainability.
The modern construction industry uses immense amounts of new materials and makes a devastating impact on global CO2 emissions, air and water pollution, and contributes to the increase of landfill waste. Thus, to make a significant positive impact on our environment, it is necessary to address the resources we use to create new buildings. Mottainai, Kintsugi, and Sakiori are philosophical principles that represent the essence of sustainability in a built environment, in which already existing buildings and resources are respected and utilized as tools to create sustainable and energy-efficient architecture. To minimize the number of resources and energy used in the construction period, it is necessary to first search for what materials are already available, in order to then proceed to incorporate them in innovative and creative ways, generating a newly built fabric; one that is efficient, beautiful, and above all else, sustainable.
HANA CICEVIC & DANIEL ABRAHAM GANDICA
Hana Čičević is an architectural designer currently living and working in New York city. She graduated in 2022 with a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Florida where she also did her undergraduate studies. In her final year, Hana focused on topics of post-war reconstruction and how architects can reshape the ways in which the communities inhabit damaged spaces, about which she wrote a master research project. She is currently working on projects based in New York City in affordable housing and education and is developing an interest in sustainability.
Daniel Abraham Gandica is a project specialist based in the city of Orlando, Florida. Originally from Maracaibo, Venezuela, he graduated in 2022 with a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Florida, after completing his bachelor’s degree in architecture at the University of Central Florida. In his last year, Daniel turned an eye back home and focused on vernacular indigenous architecture, the way in which communities can adapt and overcome to the challenges posed by sea level rise, and the possibilities of hydro-generated urbanism. He currently works in the sector of data centers architecture. Some of his interests include medieval history and architecture, and mapping.
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