Can Architecture Feed the World?
It has been a few weeks since we returned from EXPO 2015 in Milan and we have spent this time reflecting on all that we saw and learned. The theme of this year’s EXPO was “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” and it has provided us with the opportunity to consider the role of architecture in human health. What feeds us as a population, beyond the basic nutrients required for survival?
Air, water and food are the core nutrients and considered our basic trio. The human body can last 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food (sometimes longer).
We know that survival is contingent on access to this trio but what happens when we intake air, water or food of poor quality. We can not function at our highest potential (in all aspects of life—work, play or relaxing, even our sleep is impacted) and worse still, illness can set in. Most of us drag ourselves through each day not even realizing that we are not functioning at our best and simply just getting through—surviving. The impacts of continually ingesting suboptimal air, water and food are dragging us down, giving us that nagging headache, that cycle of sugar rush and crash and causing that afternoon drowsiness. All of these things can unknowingly distract our focus and not allow our full potential/attention to whatever task is at hand whether that be work, exercise, learning, playing with your kids or sleeping.
Now imagine if we could thrive, what would that feel like? Let’s look at that trio again:
In North America, we spend about 97% of our time in an indoor environment—car, office, home, gym, school, daycare, etc. In most cases our indoor air is significantly higher in pollutants and allergens than the outdoor air. We fill our buildings with all kinds of materials that off-gas chemicals, some of which are toxic, we then seal up our buildings to be energy efficient and often reduce the introduction of outdoor air. This causes us to breathe in contaminated, recycled air—at the office, in our homes, cars, schools, etc. We are exposed to this suboptimal air for 97% of our day. Imagine the difference that breathing clean air can have. Air that has been filtered for contaminants, air that is not recycled, air that is properly circulated within spaces to avoid short-circuiting and maximizes air changes across occupant’s breathing zones. The concepts are simple and indoor air quality has been a passion of ours since the 90s when we practiced and conducted research with Canada’s foremost IAQ expert, Tang Lee at The University of Calgary.
Water is an emerging global crisis both in terms of quantity and quality; making water conservation in all buildings of utmost importance. Let’s reuse and clean as much water within our buildings and their sites as possible. Buildings should aim to reduce the load on the municipal water infrastructure systems, many of which are aging in cities, while we replenish the aquifers. And most importantly, let’s start now, not when it becomes an unavoidable issue.
Imagine food production on a micro-scale. What if we were producing food in our homes and offices? What if buildings incorporated vertical gardens? What if our local grocery stores were producing food in gardens on their roofs? How would that taste? The food would be fresher, picked at its prime ripeness and would be making use of existing infrastructure.
These are only a few ideas, and it is not always simple, but sometimes it can be. Generally speaking, there are many factors affecting our health and it varies per individual. Layer in some of our other passions, like energy efficiency, renewable materials, thermal comfort and high performance, durable buildings, beauty, aesthetics and we could talk for hours.
But back to our first question – can architecture feed the planet? We say emphatically YES!