Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Why are architects required to take a course focused on ecology and environmental science?

Posted 01 Feb 2016 / 0
2016-02-01aImage of what happens to architecture when civilization disappears courtesy of Michael Zawadski via Wikimedia Commons

I always end up hearing the question at some point in the semester: why do architects have to take a course that provides in-depth understanding of ecology and environmental science? Implied undercurrents to this basic question include a slew of other questions that are also sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes implied:

  • Why isn’t this course dedicated to sustainable design? After all, that is what architects should be practicing.
  • Why are we required to understand how science works when we aren’t training to be scientists? Can’t we just learn about what science produces and not worry about how that product is made?
  • Why should we allocated study time to an elective course that’s not directly related to the profession we are training for? Isn’t it against our interests to dedicate time that could be used in our studios towards electives?

I can see where this course might be a shock to a second-year undergraduate student — especially one who may have only taken a basic biology course in high school — but the truth of that matter is that my Ecology for Architects course really only provides a basic understanding of ecology and environmental science. In order to become truly knowledgable in all the science that is required to inform sustainable building practices, my students would have to either take additional coursework or do additional research on their own. But the course is carefully designed to provide an introduction to all the paths that a sustainable-minded architect would need to follow in order to become a sustainable-designing architect.

That all considered, I am sympathetic to the many origins of this question. Clearly the architectural discipline — and the kind of education it espouses — bears some responsibility for the world views of its students. In many ways architecture can be like an island unto itself. This is not to say that a lot of architects and architectural educators do not think about issues beyond building design, but those with very wide world views are in my experience the exception rather than the norm. I imagine that most architecture professors are not in possession of the basic knowledge and understanding provided in a course like Ecology for Architects, and that’s a reflection of values that they unavoidably communicate to their students. Architecture is also a highly-competitive field, and students are often made to feel that they should be spending all of their time on their studio work if they wish to become successful. This implied desire is often materially-reinforced by course workloads that practically require that students do nothing other than work in their studios. In my experience, the best-prepared students in possession of the best organizational skills and self-discipline can “do it all”, excelling in their studios, their non-studio architecture courses, and their general education electives. But very few students are so equipped, so the rest devise various coping mechanisms.

Often “the question” is only whispered between disgruntled students in passing moments of class. It is not uncommon for me to only hear this question fully verbalized in semester’s-end course evaluations. Only infrequently are students frank — and confident — enough to ask me “the question” directly. This year “the question” came up a lot earlier than usual, Week 02, in response to our first set of required reading questions. One student very clearly asked why he was being asked to spend two-to-four hours a week completing readings in scientific topics.

So I came up with the most concise rationale I could for the course’s existence:

  1. Architects create huge impacts with their designs. Civilization as we know it will cease to exist within the next few hundred years if architects do not change they way they design buildings. Architecture relies on civilization to survive; the course is about how to assure that architecture does not irreparably destroy the ecosystems upon which civilization depends.
  2. As an architect, it is important to understand how natural systems function, both so you understand where many of the resources we depend on come from and so that you can understand the full breadth of impact your designs might have.
  3. Our society will not become sustainable — and therefore will not survive — unless a good proportion of future architects not only design in a way that creates ecologically sustainable impacts but also advocate for public policies that ensure sustainability. The sort of advocacy required cannot be effective unless architects have a strong basic understanding of how ecological systems function and evolve. The rationale for sustainable policies emerges from a clear understanding of the threat that human activities pose to natural systems.

Although this rationale had been floating around in my head — and had served as the basis for my design of the course — this was the first time that I actually verbalized a clear explanation for why this course deserves to be required of all architecture students. It is valuable to explicitly verbalize the rationale for the course, because by putting a rationale on the table I can also examine its structural integrity.

Why doesn’t this course teach much sustainable design? Because in order to solve a problem you need to first understand that problem in context; the course provides context for the sustainability challenges that green architectural design can address.

Why are students asked to understand how the scientific process generates knowledge? Because in order to be able to skeptically — and accurately — assess the validity of sustainable design ideas, you need to understand how scientific knowledge is generated. There is no clearinghouse for completely reliable, value-neutral interpretations of scientific findings. An architect — or any other practitioner — who wants to infuse sustainable practices into her designs must understand how to base her ideas in sound science. That means (among other things) being able to read the primary scientific literature.

Why does the course require students to allocate consistent time to study? Because in order to become fluent in ecology and environmental science, students must engage directly and personally with these subjects. There’s not enough time in class to hand-feed students understanding, and this sort of hand-feeding is not effective education (in fact, students will notice that most of class time is spent challenging them to apply and expand upon what they learned in the readings).

As an ecologist, the rationale for broad public understanding of my field is self evident. But it is good to remember that others live in other worlds where they are exposed to other ideas and absorb other values. It is crucial that we explain to our students why taking a sustainability-themed course ought to be required of all undergraduates… but especially those who will design the future of human infrastructure.

A Minor Post, Architecture, Department of Mathematics & Science, Ecology, Ecology Education, MSCI-271, Ecology for Architects, Pratt Institute, Sustainability, Teaching

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