I almost hit the tree.
It was sometime near midnight and I was out prowling the Carmel center in search of something interesting. I walked down into Gan HaEm, just above the Haifa zoo where as a child I had wondered over the majestic wild animals which I now recognize as barely conscious souvenirs of their wild selves, stuffed into cages about ten sizes too small to accommodate any but the most stunted of souls. In a primary, emotional way, this zoo is everything that sustainable design is not. It’s a place where complex, beautiful and valuable ecosystem treasures are wasted for the half-assed benefit of largely oblivious human beings.
But, only meters from the green bars of the zoo’s front gate, as I ascended towards the thoroughfare of Shderot Hanassi, the sidewalk narrowed between two wrought-iron fences, and flowed around something. It was a huge cyprus tree, standing in the middle of the sidewalk like a tourist pausing to stare up at the tops of the high-rises. Everybody would just have to go around.
This is the right idea. Sustainable design is not just the mitigation of ecological damage by lessening the damaging outflows of pollution, sewage, or carbon from inevitable development. Sustainable design should, from stage one, be about design; specifically, it should consider and respect the local environment. This does not mean leveling an entire valley with bulldozers, then making sure to add skylights and waterless urinals into the subsequent office buildings. Real sustainable design is about using the valuable resources of the local ecosystem (natural drainage, wetlands (for effluent treatment), heritage trees or habitats, shaderows and natural wind-blocks, beautiful native flora and geomorphology) and building around nature, not on top of it. In this overlooked pocket of urban Haifa, decades before the term Sustainable Design was coined, some prescient architect was told to build a sidewalk where a tree was, and decided that between the two of them, the sidewalk would be the one to get out of the way.
Smart (read:green) builders these days have a wide selection of efficient appliances, bathroom fixtures, heating and cooling systems, water recycling mechanisms, electricity sources and biodegradable or recycled building materials to choose from. With all the new technologies on the market, lets not forget about how much of the Sustainable Design process occurs before a single blueprint has been drawn.