No Construction Is Good Construction

Tel Aviv University's Porter School of Environmental Studies has a golden opportunity to apply the very environmental principles it seeks to teach. The school can spark a revolution in the approach to green construction and the environment in general if it just withdraws its proposal to build a new building for itself and puts away the construction plan that was just selected in a design competition and publicized this week.

By acting so courageously, the school would set an example for all the good and beautiful things it advocates. It would set an example of environmental protection, conservation, reduction of an ecological footprint and of environmental responsibility education and in so doing, would be making history. The way things seem now, the temptation to build is greater, and the building will go up.

Construction of any stripe entails environmental damage even if it is "green," as the school is meant to be. The condition for new construction, as the greens know well, is a vital need for it, which is doubtful in this case. The school itself was established about eight years ago and manages well without its own building.

It has even registered quite a few accomplishments, as explained by professional development director, architect Arie Nesher, who is working feverishly to put up the new building.

It is the first and only school in its field in Israel for advanced degrees in environmental studies; it combines academic research and practical work and promotes environmental thinking in different sectors and is involved in many other things.

Even today, the school is not homeless. It is housed in the Gilman Building on Tel Aviv University's campus, relatively comfortably and with reasonable conditions. It's always possible to want more, but from there to a new building is a long way; especially when it comes to a school of environmental studies.

The school has wanted its own building since it was founded and went ahead and organized an international architectural competition to choose someone to design it. The winner of that competition was an Australian architect who was foreign to Israeli environmental conditions. It was only a matter of luck that the university experienced a financial crisis, among other things, due to excessive investment in nonessential construction, and the plan was frozen. With the recent launch of an economic recovery plan for the university, a green light was again issued for the construction, as ironic as that may seem.

The school's new building is supposed to meet American and Israeli standards for green construction. Architect Yasha Grobman of the firm of Axelrod-Grobman, one of the winning entries in the current competition (along with Chen Architects and Yossi Cori's Geotectura Studio), explained that to get certification for a green building standard, hundreds of requirements must be met and the planners are striving to do so.

But none of the requirements cited by Grobman included the prerequisite to first ask who even needs this building, if it is possible to manage without it and whether there other options for expanding and improving conditions, such as utilizing existing buildings and space?

The planners also did not suggest not building, said Grobman, infuriated by the question.

"The very suggestion to not build is populist," he said, "and the alternatives just cost more. Such a suggestion also impairs the nurturing of the educational side of the school and the social perspective on sustainability."

In using the term "social," Grobman says he is referring to social gatherings of researchers in the building's atrium, which he thinks will also be open to the general public.

The educational impact, as Nesher sees it, lies in the building's design as a technology lab of sorts and "in its strategic location" atop a hill above the Ayalon highway. He says this may result in it becoming an icon, "so that 300,000 cars traveling there will say, 'ah, what is this building?"

These are certainly very loose interpretations of the terms social and educational, which basically seem to be whitewashed words designed to cover up the desire to build and the urge to leave a mark at all costs. The competition to design the building drew some 40 architectural offices, including some of the leading ones in Israel. Nesher was surprised by the impressive response.

"It's amazing," he said, "because it's a relatively small building and a green building requires more work because there is not a lot of experience in the field. The conclusion is that the subject has apparently surfaced on the agenda today and every architect wants to get into the environmental niche."

The response was indeed large, but it is not the environment that is so appealing to the architects, but the desire to build. And the niche of green construction is today the most promising and still relatively available.

In general, there is a sense that awareness of green construction and the fate of the earth has not slowed down new construction for nonessential needs, as it should have done.

Perhaps even the opposite is true. It seems that under the guise of environmental criteria and green building standards, the chance of every square meter of nonessential construction being built has only increased.

It is enough to agree to install some photovoltaic cell on the roof or recycle a few drops of air conditioner fluid to water the potted plant on the balcony in order to more easily obtain approval for green construction, and even be considered a loyal friend of the earth. Amid the hubbub, the fact that saving a few percentage points of energy with green construction is lost in the chaos given the hundred percent wasted on it in the first place.

The point of these remarks is not to advocate an end to all construction, but to present the option of non-building as the utopian horizon of green construction. For the School of Environmental Studies, the decision not to build has to be the default and not just the utopian option.

Tel Aviv University recently set for itself a goal of becoming "a green campus," Nesher says. Canceling the construction plan would be a small step for the university and the School of Environmental Studies, and a giant leap for the environment.