Green is the new Black: Part 4 of 4: Beauty

Through this four part series we’ve touched on sustainable design issues ranging from energy use, to materials, and to healthy environments. But an often overlooked element in sustainable design is beauty. Why is beauty important, and what makes it an element of sustainable design practice?

The most straightforward answer to the first part of this question is that people respond positively to things that are beautiful. A recent study on the human brain’s response to architectural beauty suggests that we enter into more meditative and contemplative moods when exposed to buildings of exceptional design quality such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water or the ancient Pantheon in Rome.

So why not use that to our collective advantage when it comes to sustaining our environment? It’s not too much of a leap to suggest that we tend to preserve and protect the things we find beautiful. By harnessing this tendency, we can prolong the life of our buildings and protect our beautiful natural environments. In the United States we tend to treat our built environment as a consumable commodity. But quite frankly our built environment isn’t always created with beauty in mind. Collectively in the US we seem to have a track record of constructing buildings as cheaply as possible but with a maximum amount of square footage. It’s a philosophy that prizes first-cost and size over a long-range approach that factors in beauty, function, and the complete life span of a structure.

As discussed in the materials part, materials that are beautiful tend to be ones that last longer, and that develop personality and patina as they age, characteristics that we value! But these attractive materials also tend to cost more, with the result that they are less likely to be incorporated into a design based on a first-cost analysis. When taking a long-range view though, these same materials almost always win out in the life-cycle cost comparison. They end up being less expensive to own and maintain, and outlive and outperform less costly, less attractive materials.

An example of utilizing a pre-existing roof structure with skylight.SALA Architect David Wagner

So there’s a financial argument to be made for beauty since beautiful materials last longer, but there’s also the notion that beautiful buildings will be preserved by us. We’re much more likely to tear down an ugly building than one that is cherished and loved for attractive materials and magnificent detailing. The rise in investment in historic districts and historic main streets is a testament to how sustainable strategies can include redeveloping existing infrastructure rather than tearing down or building new. The embodied energy in old buildings is a vast resource that communities are realizing they can tap into.

This bathroom is making use of an existing window opening within an original brick masonry.SALA Architect David Wagner

That should be a key lesson to us. The investment put into high quality, good design –in other words beauty- will not only pay off in the immediate enjoyment of the homes and buildings we create, but will also pay dividends down the road as new owners continue to preserve, maintain and invest in well-built, beautiful buildings.

A pre-existing structure with new siding and garage addition.SALA Architect David Wagner

The next logical question is what makes a building beautiful. That, I think, would make a great next blog post. Keep tuned in!