Buildings in Plain Packages

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Image: Reuters


In April, Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd launched the world’s first health campaign that bans good design.


Research conducted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reveals that attractive graphics on cigarette packaging distract from the health warnings about the dangers of smoking. In response, Rudd is mandating that cigarette companies use generic “plain packaging” to ensure that the warnings are more prominent. The move effectively makes graphic design illegal,


Imagine a similar rule for architecture. Because buildings produce nearly half of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and use 75 percent of our electricity, they contribute dramatically to climate change and pose a serious threat to public health, especially among children—who, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, are particularly vulnerable to environmental hazards because their immune systems aren’t fully developed.


Yet, unlike cigarettes, buildings don’t come with warning labels. But maybe they should. As I suggested in my column last Spring (“Danger Signs,” Architect, April 2010), “Picture mandatory ticker-tape marquees with the number of BTUs burned (or children getting asthma, or species dying out, or forest acres shrinking) constantly ticking upward, like dollars on national debt clocks.”


Such warning signs might cause something of a stir if they were noticeable, but they could get overshadowed by the pyrotechnics of ambitious design, the very buildings that are most wasteful. “Look at the architecture of the last 15 years,” architect James Wines complained in 2009. “It's been more flamboyant and more wasteful than it's ever been before. To build any of these buildings by Frank Gehry, it takes… 60 to 80 percent more metal and steel and construction than it would to enclose that space in a normal way. So you're talking about incredible waste. Mind-boggling waste.”


Maybe the plain packaging” of Australian cigarettes should apply to American architecture. Maybe energy hogs should be required to come in humble, unassuming envelopes. There could be beauty incentives: the more energy you save, the more you get to spruce up your building.


The flip side is that communities would suffer from a rash of ugly buildings. Then again, that doesn’t seem to bother anyone now.



Comments (4 Total)

  • Posted by: tateberry | Time: 5:56 AM Thursday, January 30, 2014

    Plain is simple and simplicity is nice.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:08 PM Thursday, December 23, 2010

    .... that is....

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:35 PM Thursday, December 23, 2010

    ...for more along the lines of my post below "Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:31 AM Thursday, December 23, 2010", see my Anonymous post dated "12/23/2010 10:50 AM CST " here:

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:31 AM Thursday, December 23, 2010

    As a father/architect with two asthmatic children, I understand the importance of curbing pollution, especially air pollution, but to expedite this we have to make what I think is an essential paradigm shift which is realizing that this is a systemic big picture engineering problem, not a building problem. We should stop trying to get the tail to wag the dog, and focus on getting the world's engine changed out from a fossil fuel system to a renewable energy system. Our green buildings are garden's within the machine; if this machine we're a green machine, then we would consequentially and by default have green buildings. Building net-zero and better yet grid-positive buildings is wonderful, but we should be looking at the big picture because we are the ones who understand it, even though we might not be the ones to profit significantly from it's retrofitting.

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About the Blogger

Lance Hosey

thumbnail image Contributing editor and author of ARCHITECT’s monthly Eco column, Lance Hosey, AIA, LEED AP, Hon. FIGP, is president and CEO of GreenBlue, a nonprofit and consultancy dedicated to environmental innovation and the creative redesign of industry. A registered architect, he is a former director at William McDonough + Partners. With Kira Gould, he is the co-author of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (2007). His forthcoming book, The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design, studies how form and image can enhance conservation, comfort, and community at every scale of design, from products to cities.