[I had hoped to get this review posted at one website or another that gets a bit more traffic than my little blog, because I think this is a pretty good book. I’m posting it here, but if you’re interested in using this review elsewhere, drop me a line.]

Book Review: Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide – David Bergman

David Bergman’s “Sustainable Design” is a slim but information-packed book on sustainable design that is accessible enough for a general audience and, at the same time, remains engaging for more experienced building professionals. Far too many books on sustainability lean toward the bean counting, number-crunching side of things, and sustainability is simply a scorecard. Bergman, however, sees things in a wider perspective. More than many other books on the subject, this a sustainability book for designers rather than for accountants.

The book is extensively illustrated, with graphics to explain general concepts, diagrams to show how certain systems operate, and renderings and photographs of project concepts and completed buildings that incorporate the principles of what Bergman likes to call ‘ecodesign’ and show what these buildings can look like.

Topics are covered in brief, but with good explanations of the key features that they offer, and noting how they can offer benefits when used in a building. This book strikes a better balance between introducing the concepts and giving the reader an understanding of how they might be implemented than many other books tackling the same subjects. It won’t replace further reading and deeper research into a particular topic for a full understanding of how it might be implemented in a particular project, but it gives a clear explanation of how various systems work and what makes them sustainable.

The chapters are laid out to address the major themes of sustainability and the built environment using categories that will be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with LEED. (Site Issues, Water Efficiency, Energy Efficiency, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Materials closely match the major point categories in LEED.) However, the book doesn’t handcuff itself too tightly to LEED. Energy Efficiency is divided into two chapters, separating Passive Techniques and Active Techniques. There is also a chapter on Labels and Ratings, which delves into evaluating measurements of sustainable claims for products and for buildings, and a coda on the Future of Sustainable Design.

Throughout the book, Bergman often points out the trade-offs behind different choices. Sustainability is never a black-or-white choice, and the reader is often reminded that there can be drawbacks as well as benefits, and that no solution is right in all circumstances.

“The objective is not necessarily to create completely self-sufficient buildings. Off-the-grid buildings are useful in remote areas, where the environmental and economic costs of bringing in power or fuel may be prohibitively high, but in developed areas, maximum efficiency may be more advantageous than self-sufficiency. Is on-site renewable power environmentally preferable to, say, a remote wind farm or tidal power? This is another example of an ecodesign question that does not lend itself to a single answer.” (p 67)

Good basic design fundamentals and concepts, such as surface-to-volume ratio for a building, are also discussed in this book. While this is not a factor that any green building rating system explicitly considers, it is certainly a concept that plays a vital role in a building’s relative energy efficiency.

The approach Bergman brings to the book is that of a working architect instead of that of a generalist author (or of a committee), making it more direct. Whether the reader’s perspective is that of a designer or a client, it’s less abstract. For example, when talking about something like lighting options, he notes some of the drawbacks to fluorescent lighting such as not being able to be dimmed the way incandescent bulbs can be. Color temperature and acceptability of lighting quality are important as well as the simple lumens-per-watt. Ultimately, sustainability isn’t about buildings, it’s about people who use those buildings.

All too often, books about sustainable design and sustainable architecture are so rooted in the immediate moment that they fail to offer much vision. They can be defensive works, aimed only against the current plight and laying out strategies to overcome the problems they see before them. Bergman’s ‘Sustainable Design’ differs by not only thinking about how to solve what are viewed as the current problems, but looking ahead to how sustainability can become a more fundamental part of all design. He hopes (as do I) that what is currently thought of as the “green building movement” progresses to being a part of “design as usual,” and that sustainability is incorporated into the design of every building as a matter of routine.

144 pages; softcover; color illustrations

Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide (Architecture Briefs) on Amazon