Not too long ago, I was sitting in the patient chair at my dentist's office, chatting with the dental hygienist as she started to clean my teeth. This particular person had not worked on my mouth before, so we were covering the basics of "do you have kids?" and "what do you do for a living"? I did as succinct a job as I could of describing sustainable architecture with my mouth open and full of dental picks. She thought about what I had said for a minute and then said something to the effect of "so you do solar panels and green roofs?" I resisted the urge to smack myself in the forehead since I probably would have ended up with spit everywhere, but the urge was definitely there. I realized at that moment that many people outside of the world of architecture and building design only see sustainable design in terms of eco-bling.
I guess that at this point I should define "eco-bling". I tend to prefer one of the definitions that can currently be found on Urban Dictionary, which is:
Generic name given to ecological technology or gadgets that cost an amount of money that you will never get back in terms of energy saved or produced. "simply adding thicker insulation to this building will save a lot more money than the proposed eco-bling stuck to the outside."
Solar panels and green roofs can certainly have real benefits from an environmental and financial standpoint if they are designed correctly and used in the correct applications. Unfortunately, it seems like these and other highly visible or "trendy" symbols of sustainable design are frequently applied as a billboard advertisement of how green a project is rather than being an integral component in the project's overall sustainability. On one hand, I appreciate the attention that eco-bling sometimes brings to sustainable design projects by proclaiming the project's "greenness" loud enough for even the completely uninitiated to notice. On the other hand, I resent the fact that the general public is starting to equate sustainable design with these often superficial moves rather than the good design and thoughtful, contextual solutions that are required for a sustainable project to have a true environmental impact.
So, what can we do to move away from a public consciousness that only recognizes eco-bling as the symbols of sustainability? The answer is certainly not an easy one, but I think much of the responsibility rests on us as architects, engineers and designers to make sure that the strategies we employ are based on long term environmental AND financial sustainability and that as professionals we are as transparent as possible when it comes to tracking and reporting data about actual building performance. If we do that consistently then, over time, the data should speak for itself in such a way that even a five year old could see that a well-designed building with comprehensive sustainable design solutions is better and more sustainable than a "conventional" building with a bunch of green stuff growing on the roof any day of the week.