6.07.2010

A Camel designed by committee is a camel

I'm thrilled this week to have a guest post from none other than Rob "EcoMan" Fleming. When he's not being a green superhero, Rob is an associate professor and LEED® architect and director of Philadelphia University’s M.S. in Sustainable Design, a unique interdisciplinary program that fosters collaboration and cross disciplinary work as the cornerstone of effective sustainable design. Rob has been thinking about camels...


Over the years I have found architects generally resistant to change. Starting with the huge fight against computer aided design to the bemoaning of ADA requirements, to the outright negativity towards sustainability, to the bashing of LEED and lastly, to the criticism of the integrated design process. Sometimes referred to as a design charrette, the integrated design process features groups of stakeholders working collaboratively to literally design a building (at least site location and parti). This process almost always includes the end users, community members, engineers, designers and of course architects. Over the last ten years I have had the pleasure of participating in several of these events – some moving forward like clockwork leading to a wonderful design scheme as built through the consensus process and others were more like train wrecks with battling egos and side squabbles that ultimately derailed projects. So, while the process is by no means perfect, the promise of a collaborative multi-disciplinary process is evident. In one case 40 people gathered to design a YMCA building on an underused, but much loved farm near Philadelphia. After one week of constant discussion, drawing, arguing and shouting and storming out of rooms, the client decided not to build the project. That sounds like failure, but how many times have architects spent 6 months to design a wonderful building only to find out that the project must be shelved for either financial or political or financial reasons? The charrette process worked. In another Charrette held in Center City Philadelphia, the team decided that a geo-exchange system was necessary to achieve a net zero operation. However, there was no open space for drilling. Answer: call in a geo-exchange expert during the charrette and attack the problem. The result was 6 standing water columns 1,500 feet deep right through the sidewalk on 15th street.

Over these same years I have repeatedly heard from architects, who once again are losing territory to other professions, that “a horse, designed by committee is a camel.” And then laugh and walk away. Now, let’s put that comment in perspective. It is true that the potential for compromised aesthetics and unconventional functionality can emerge from a design by committee, but isn’t that exactly what our society needs right now? We need buildings that are designed for performance as much as they are designed for aesthetics. A camel is a remarkable animal capable of traveling over a hundred miles through desert heat on one fill up of water. A horse in the desert under those conditions is dead. 20th century aesthetically driven design is basically a dead horse. We need the design of architectural camels, buildings capable of functioning on little to zero energy, buildings capable of harvesting and utilizing rain water, buildings that defy convention, buildings that may, at times look odd, but nevertheless provide some sorely needed societal benefit. This of course assumes a context for design and construction that is in effect a desert. Given the harsh realities of peak oil, global climate change, scarcity of materials and challenging economic times, can we afford to continue to build beautiful race horses designed for the sprint? Or, is it incumbent upon us to design camels to venture into the societal desert upon us and last for the long marathon? Therefore, we must embrace the integrated design process, learn about its nuances and complexities so that we can begin to find new ways to innovate and create buildings that will be both aesthetically pleasing that also bare functional fruit for years to come. “But green buildings are ugly,” is a comment I heard on Friday from a very intelligent colleague. I wonder if she really meant that green buildings are different – like a camel looks different.

And finally I wonder if camels are considered beautiful in desert cultures that rely on them for transportation. I bet if we looked really close and examined the camel with an open mind – its beauty will be apparent.