The Museum of Design Atlanta’s Sustainable Shelter: Dwelling Within the Forces of Nature, on view through April 5, presents an interactive look at the history and impact our dwellings — in particular the “typical American household” — have on the environment.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, residential buildings now account for nearly one-quarter of total energy use in our country. With the effects of climate change becoming increasingly apparent, it is imperative that we explore how to conserve energy at home. Sustainable Shelter, organized by the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota, presents some ways in which this can be accomplished.
Interactive stations showcase some of the more prolific green topics, such as energy-efficient lightbulbs, low-E glass and permeable pavers. In addition, house sections allow full-scaled comparisons between typical and sustainable construction methods. Visitors can even trace the energy path of common household activities, revealing the often hidden byproducts of modern life.
The hands-on nature of these materials is compelling, providing homeowners with a “kit of parts” for green living. As a design exhibition, however, this falls flat when it comes to the greater arguments for sustainable design.
Particularly lacking is an in-depth look at the role of architecture in sustainability. One exhibit of interest draws parallels between nature and architecture, featuring examples of architecture inspired by natural forces, but it would have been more relevant had MODA added specific examples of those accommodating of the southern climate and forward-thinking housing design, such as SCADpads, homes constructed in SCAD Atlanta’s parking deck, each of which fit into a standard parking space, or the Rural Studio‘s imaginative use of materials in building affordable housing in Alabama.
In another section, scale models visualize the ever-expanding gluttony of suburbia over the past 100 years yet fail to address the role of American culture and society in shaping our physical and environmental footprint. Understanding the contribution of urban planning and zoning to the issue of urban sprawl would provide greater context to these models. In fact, relevant topics such as adaptive reuse, densification, walkable communities and public transit are missing entirely from the discussion.
Sustainable Shelter helps begin a dialogue on sustainability for the uninitiated, but it could, and should, have addressed the broader issues of sustainability along with the roles architecture, urban planning and related design fields can play in improving our human and natural environment. Plugging in an LED lightbulb may be an accessible solution for the average homeowner. But in order to truly effect positive change, we must work together to reevaluate where we live, how we get to work and what impact our everyday decisions have on the environment.