Love in Sustainable Design

by | August 19, 2013 4 Architecture, Sustainability

I’ve been passionate about good design and inspiring places most of my life.  Over those years and the centuries before, styles and fads have come and gone, ideas about what good design is, and ways of building things have all shifted significantly.  Without delving too deeply into the reasons, it seems fairly safe to say that cultural value shifts driven by economics and technology have been the primary drivers of that change.  It’s also become obviously clear in recent decades that the impact of our expanding population and its increasing demand for resources to fuel economic and technological growth are leaving profoundly deep wounds in the ecological systems of the planet.

I’ve been wrestling with these realities a lot lately; reading the perspectives of authors like Bill Mckibben, Wendell Berry, Shane Claiborne, and Kathleen Dean Moore regarding the moral implications of our societal and personal actions, and have considered the shifts in my own opinions about what makes good design and good places.  You see, I live in a pretty ordinary neighborhood, in a suburban context marked by mid-20th century auto-oriented strip development.  It’s obviously nothing like the great places in the world – your sunny beaches, mountain lakes, Italian vineyards, or even the great cities like Paris, Amsterdam or New York – and it’s not enviable by any stretch.

Yet somehow, I really like it, and so do a lot of my neighbors throughout the community so much so that they’ve moved away but then returned to it and are investing their retirement years here.  Don’t get me wrong, nobody thinks it’s perfect and in fact we have many thoughts and desires about changing it.  The point is, people young and old are starting to care enough to spend a lot of time and energy to make that change happen.  We’ve come together and begun to form real connections and a sense of community behind it, and I can’t help but to ask, why here?  Some places have real aesthetic beauty, or a near perfect climate, lots of action, or a rich historical fabric that seem to be magnetic.  No doubt those things are what make some places easy to love, but that’s not the case here; there must be something more to it.

If it’s a question of what makes something lovable, then let’s think about it for a moment in terms of human relationships:  some relationships have certainly emerged from surface attraction such as aesthetic beauty or exhibition of wealth, but since many of us aren’t all that inherently beautiful or rich, I hope there’s other means; that love arises out of time spent, a learned understanding of deep and subtle qualities of personality and character.  Perhaps it even requires patience, hard work, and dedication to the process that is learning to love.

Author and philosopher Wendell Berry frames this conversation in terms of affection and speaks about relational love and love of place almost interchangeably.  In his view, affection is a form of love for the land – the place one dwells – that is based on time, experience, quiet observation, and a sense of awe and wonder that can be developed as one contemplates all the forces of time, nature, man and machine and their impacts upon the formation of a place.

If so, could the same hold true for the places that created the framework of our lives?  or is love reserved only for the pristine places where the evidence of human degradation is not yet obvious, or for the built places that have become magnetic due to centuries of investment, care and hard work?  If that’s true, why then do so many of us live in places shaped only by our present-tense throw-away culture where there is very little preserved of the landscape or heritage infrastructure that has made other places so lovable?

These seem like big questions, but a few thoughtful glances at American culture should reveal some answers.  Many of our choices have been built on the ideals of a growth economy and the hope that “more and better” will result in a better life for all of us.  This has led to decision making focused primarily on what makes current economic sense and the resulting mandate to create new stuff to replace old stuff in the name of growth.  It has profoundly shaped our built environment in the US, and over time has eroded the depth and breadth of other decision factors involving beauty, art, heritage, equity, health, and many other ideas about place that reflect human values and identity.  It is these deeper qualities that serve to draw out our affections, and reveal a deep love that people can share for a place and maybe even each other.

How then do we respond as designers?  I think it means a transition from fast-paced production of spaces that meet immediate needs and aesthetic preferences, to a slower and more thoughtful exploration of meaning; essentially a transition from logic and profit driven action to an emotional and maybe even spiritual one.  From this standpoint, the construction of a place or a building requires dedication to knowledge gathering, time getting to know a place, its community and its past.  It requires humility, honesty, and an openness to invite multiple perspectives and community.

At the scale of a building, it requires a genuine sense of empathy and understanding for the users, the development of a narrative that’s visual, historical, meaningful, both of the moment & timeless.  That buildings will be more directly expressive of our values and what it means to be human, not just now, but with a circumspect understanding of our infinitesimal place within the greater arc of time and space.  If this idea of love were the underlying value in the things we choose to build, could a circumspect view through the lens of love profoundly reshape our process?  Indeed a love for each other will mean that love flows into what we create, along with a deeper understanding of what it means to create and the impacts of that to not only the users and beneficiaries, but also to the local and global community of people and ecology.

This might cause us to ask further questions: could love for people, like the elderly and the stories they hold of generations past result in more wonderful and inspiring forms of housing for them?  Does a deep sense of empathy and grief for the sick and dying allow us to make better hospitals? Can we care about kids such that we develop a deeper understanding of how they learn and mature in society so that we can make better schools or invent entirely new environments for education that engage entire neighborhoods in the process of learning together?  Can we get to know our community and its needs so deeply that we work to make spaces that draw us together in beautiful new means for connection?

Perhaps understanding is the essential root of this new affection.  Maybe we just need to slow down and notice the emptiness of our common places, but also the budding potential of beautiful possibility pushing its way through the sidewalk cracks.  Maybe we’ll start to see the still beating heart beneath forgotten streets, buildings, neighbors, and to hear the longing there to become more, to find expression.  Then once we’ve noticed, let ourselves get caught up in the sound, in hope for something better, in understanding of inherent nature, and allow an unfolding deeper beauty to express itself through the design interventions to which we give form.

In this light, the results we seek might not always be shiny perfection that conceals all blemishes, but perhaps a revealed honesty about what we’ve touched and broken in the past.  That each project will wrestle with the realities of past and present, polluted and scarred, and seek to uncover the beauty that comes from experiences both good and bad; again much like the human experience of life, our mistakes and triumphs, and the deep joy that comes from being honest about both.  In the same way that life connected to others is richer than alone, perhaps a more inclusive approach to making places will yield much deeper experiences of them.

This will inevitably be a messy process, one requiring us to be patient, tolerant, even loving to people and places which don’t at first appear to be lovable.  We’ll have to meet our neighbors, invest our time and energies into places close to home, places we want to care about.  And we’ll have to be students first: students of nature, students of history, students of the people all around us.  We’ll have to welcome and seek out the wisdom of others who don’t think like us.  And most of all, we have to design with people, and not for them.   To intimately understand the very life of the materials – the bounty of nature, with which we wield our pen strokes.  To love it, and to be thankful for its contribution to the making of places for people.  We will no longer consume and command.  We will work humbly, patiently, and in honor of all things of which we are but the tiniest of parts.

Our designs will simply uncover an inherent beauty drawn from the nature of things, from our human past, and the more ancient arc of time that has shaped the geology, climate, and ecology in which we must build our future.  We will ask tougher questions of ourselves, and the objects we choose to build with the resources we have left.  We’ll restore and improve what’s already built, remembering past choices, and maintaining a richness of memory that has made the cities of Europe and Asia so lovely.  Nature is no longer a means to our own ends, but our lifeblood.

Culturally, we must divorce the motivation for design that’s about short term financial gain and realize that current functional needs are only one of many considerations, and that the infusion of purpose and understanding are essential.  We will realize that we must create only that which is beautiful and lasting, and no longer borrow from our children’s future to fulfill our present desires.

“It is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.  Obviously there is some risk in making affection the pivot of an argument about economy. The charge will be made that affection is an emotion, merely “subjective,” and therefore that all affections are more or less equal: people may have affection for their children and their automobiles, their neighbors and their weapons. But the risk, I think, is only that affection is personal. If it is not personal, it is nothing.”

“We are at a critical point. We have a very narrow window of opportunity to get it right, and to get it right, we first have to imagine a new world, story by story. Historically that’s what human beings use to explore our place in the world: we tell stories about it. Sometimes they’re scientific stories. Sometimes they’re philosophical stories. Sometimes they’re songs or movies. Sometimes they’re fables or morality tales. We need to tell new stories to describe who we are in relation to the land, to honor what’s been lost, to help us understand our kinships, to affirm what we care about, to explore the difference between right and wrong, moral and immoral.”

“We can find the ongoing strength to do this work if we keep in mind that it is powered by love.”

Nathan Burton


  1. Nate, I love this. Thanks for sharing what’s on your heart. Congratulations on your licensure!

  2. This is more beautiful each time I read it. Like little pieces of it find new niches to sink into in my spirit. <3

  3. I love this article. Thanks

  4. Shelby Schroeder says |

    Thanks, Lennon!

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