Sunday, July 17, 2011

Altering an Award Winner

An architectural firm received a commission by a university to install new energy efficient lighting in a series of lecture halls, including one in a building that had won a number of design awards. The university had a standard fixture it wanted to use and when the firm raised a question about its appropriateness in the award-winning space, it was told to focus on energy saving and light output, not aesthetics.

In an understandable sense of urgency on the part of many clients to save energy and reduce operating costs, some have acted as if other values, like historic integrity or award-winning design, matter less than the green imperative. That thinking has created problems before. In the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, well-intentioned designs sometimes had decidedly ugly results, which led skeptics to dismiss the energy movement as extremist. The inability of some true believers to balance energy conservation with other factors in a project, like history, context, or aesthetics, ended up working against the energy movement’s goals.

By the 1980s and 1990s, while the need to saving energy in buildings remained as important as ever, the public’s interest in it and the political support for it diminished dramatically. That arose, in part, from the rightward tilt in politics during that period, but it also came from people reacting negatively to inappropriate or unsightly alterations to buildings in name of conservation. Advocates of historic preservation even distanced themselves from energy conservation, even though saving and reusing an old building remains among one of the most energy conserving actions we can take.

In the situation described here, the overly narrow focus on energy conservation came not from the architect, but from the client. The university in this case wanted a standard solution of hanging, indirect fixtures to replace incandescent lighting in several auditoriums, looking to the architect mainly to do the drawings and specifications for the pre-determined solution to the problem. The architects raised the issue of the suitability of that solution in the award-winning building, where entry high up in the space led the original architects to recess the lighting to prevent glare in the eyes of people entering the hall. The client, however, seemed not to care about such niceties and insisted that the architects do what they had been commissioned to do.

The ethics here involves the question: how do we resolve conflicting values that all have validity and often equal importance? If ethics is to be more than just a pastime of the philosophically inclined, it should give us tools to address conflicts like this and to know what course of action to take. At the core of ethics lies conversation, and typically the best way to resolve conflicts of values entails having as many conversations with people of as many different viewpoints as possible in order not only to understand the full extent of the issues involves, but also to listen for possible solutions in the comments of others.

The architects in this case should use their professional prerogative to talk with their peers about the situation as well as with the original architects of the building. Getting as much background on the project, understanding the reasoning behind the design, and seeking out advice on how to achieve the clients’ goals without diminishing the aesthetic qualities of the space all help in making the right decision. A good general rule to follow, as Aristotle said, involves finding the mean between two extremes. The architects should insist on an alternative energy saving scheme that also preserves the integrity of the award-winning hall. Period.

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