Agriculture Reference
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into an ecologically friendly product, especially if its life cycle includes steps that
are harmful, such as destruction of habitat in material extraction, use and release
of toxic materials in manufacturing, and persistent chemical by-products that
remain hazardous in storage, treatment, and disposal. For example, simply replac-
ing the solvent with a water-based solution is often desirable, and can rightly
be called “solvent free,” 4 but under certain scenarios may make a product more
dangerous, since many toxic substances, such as certain heavy metal compounds,
are highly soluble in water (i.e., hydrophilic). Thus, our “improved” process has
actually made it easier for any heavy metals contained in the solution to enter the
ecosystem and possibly lead to human exposures.
The law of unintended consequences is ever ready to raise its ugly head in design.
There are numerous examples of building design solutions touted as sustainable
that fail to recognize and respond to the specifics of local climate. A building
project that has applied sustainable principles with the mind-set that these prin-
ciples are “universal” solutions will produce less than optimal results, if not total
failure. For example, a wind system is renewable but is not necessarily efficient.
Incorporating wind turbines without first understanding local climate and the
physics of wind-generated energy could lead to poor design solutions by placing
turbines in an area that does not generate sufficient wind speeds throughout the
The idea of a more “holistic” approach is required to arrive at complete, sus-
tainable design strategies. The notion of life cycle in the design and construction
community has too often been confined to a cost-benefit economic model of
demonstrating the return on investment that can be expected over the life of a
building. Although this approach to applying a financial model demonstrates the
return on investment of sound design choices, the concept must also be applied
beyond a comparison of the initial investment as a fraction of the total cost of
operating and maintaining a building or system to an expanded definition beyond
pure economics. For example, design decisions on how we shape our environ-
ment also include less tangible impacts on the individual, society, and ecology
that may not fit neatly on a data spreadsheet.
The critical path from building conception to completion has changed very little
over the thousands of years since humans began to shape the environment to
create shelter from the elements. The first builders harvested locally available
materials, and assemblies grew from trial and error and from observation of
the structures found in nature. Trial and error created the feedback loop that
guided the technical development of these structures. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio
is believed to have authored De Architectura ( On Architecture ), written in the first
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