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Indexing Sustainability

Finding answers to large-scale questions on urban development.

By Ben Schulman for AIA Architect

Indexing-Sustainability Photo

In the latter half of the last decade, designers Joyce Hsiang, Assoc. AIA, and Bimal Mendis began discussing a comprehensive sustainability metric for urban development. At the time, sustainability was a nascent ill-defined movement meant to measure certain performative aspects of the built environment—namely, the buildings themselves.

Hsiang and Mendis were thinking on a larger level. “How do you make sense of metrics that inform sustainability beyond the scale of buildings?” Hsiang asks, describing the initial impetus for what became their paper, “Indexing Sustainability: Defining, Measuring, and Managing the Performance of Urban Development.” Their collaborative work (produced with Daniel Markiewicz, AIA, and Ryan Welch) was the 2009 recipient of the AIA Upjohn Research Initiative grant. The grant provides material support up to $30,000 for projects that “enhance the value of design and professional practice knowledge.”

Hsiang and Mendis are currently faculty at the Yale School of Architecture, as well as partners at Plan B Architecture + Urbanism. Up until 2008, both had been working in Amsterdam at Rem Koolhaas’ OMA.

“There was a lot of rapid development in the world from 2003 to 2008,” Hsiang says. “We were working on all these large-scale projects that forced large-scale questions.”

Hsiang and Mendis were part of master planning and project teams envisioning cities-within- cities, such as OMA’s proposal for London’s White City competition, intended to repair the frayed urban fabric from the city’s core to Heathrow Airport. Approaching such projects required looking past “the problem of answering a project brief and normative design purview of an architect, and looking at the social, political, and economic context,” Mendis says.

By 2009, now settled at Yale, the two leveraged a grant from the Hines Research Fund for Advanced Sustainability in Architecture to flesh out their question and began in earnest to build their gauge. Their research started with digging into the historical framework of sustainability, tracing the practice of resource management back to the 18th-century German bureaucrat Hans Carl von Carlowitz, who was focused on maintaining an abundant supply of timber to power the mining industry.

The research followed the path of sustainability through the Industrial Revolution and into the modern age, looking to “deconstruct and create a language of sustainability,” Hsiang says. To understand sustainability broadly, there was first the need to understand the syntax used to describe its indicators. Hsiang and Mendis also performed an audit of the existing sustainability indexes, from quasi-governmental United Nations and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indexes to more exacting corporate indicators that measured “the costs per infrastructure.”

Over 670 indicators were analyzed to produce a composite index that synthesized the language of sustainability and the way in which it was being measured. “We wanted to create a methodology to address the balance between [this language] and systems that were descriptive or perspective,” Mendis says.

Indexing-Sustainability Photo

“When everyone is measuring everything, it makes it impossible to measure anything,” Hsiang adds. “What we drew were essentially standards.”

They also created a spatial ordering of the data, a way to visually represent the interrelated characteristics of sustainability and how individual metrics fit into and inform large-scale systems design. “These are abstract issues that are difficult to see,” Mendis says. “But by showing it spatially, the act of visualization is a way to realization and to influence policy.”

Their work has taken numerous forms since the awarding of the Upjohn grant. The paper morphed into what became “City of 7 Billion,” an exhibit that uses data to reveal the world as one vast dynamic interconnected place. It has been displayed in cities and programs, including the Hong Kong–Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism, Chengdu Architecture Biennale in China, and 2011 Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi. Most prominently, the duo received the 2013 AIA Latrobe Prize for the exhibit, a $100,000 award to further realize the work behind their research.

Meanwhile, outside of their teaching and other professional commitments, Hsiang and Mendis use lessons learned from the project to lend expertise to governments facing increasing environmental threats. “The Upjohn,” Hsiang says, “was the first phase of what has become, in many ways, a life project.”

This article was originally published in ARCHITECT in May 2017.

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