In the formation of an ambitious five-year, DOE-funded project to reduce the energy consumption of commercial buildings (Energy Efficient Building Hub, EEB Hub), a challenging question has persisted. Does energy consumption influence architectural style? Putting the question in its original form, should more energy-efficient buildings look different and can that “look” be used to explain or enhance their performance?

The high-powered buildings of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century clearly differ from previous generations of buildings in their size, shape, and capacities, while green roofs, solar panels, and wind turbines serve as the status symbols of high-performance buildings. Just as the well-tailored suit or high-performance car may signify an individual of particular wealth or power, visible energy technologies alert the casual viewer to performance efficiencies that otherwise can’t be seen, distinguishing those buildings from conventional forms of construction.

Contemporary buildings use energy for much more than heating, cooling, and lighting. The widespread use of glass, aluminum, and plastic, for example, require tremendous expenditures of resources for their acquisition, manufacture, transport, and maintenance, but are they valued for energy-intensity or for other qualities? In hierarchical societies whose positions and privileges are based on the control of wealth, architecture can be understood as one emblem of socio-economic power. This profoundly complicates the question of energy efficiency, which is itself a technique for increasing useful power, and illustrates the deeper challenges of inquiring about architecture and energy.

The act of “reading” and interpreting the signs of architectural energy performance is a complex cultural process. Such indicators can be used accidentally, incorrectly, or even deceptively as “greenwash,” and because buildings last longer than the cycles of cultural fashion or technological change, the meaning and value of a specific indicator may shift. As a rule, contemporary architects distrust the use of explicit stylistic or symbolic strategies for all those reasons (and as a professional reaction to the excesses of post-modernism), but it is precisely through descriptions of style that policy makers, manufacturers, and the general public have been taught to understand and evaluate architecture.

The question of style has been debated since the beginning of the modern era, linked initially to the development of artistic connoisseurship and then to accounts of socio-cultural change and evolution. Like styles in clothing and cuisine, what had previously been a matter linked to specific peoples or places became a matter of choice, and then of purposeful variety, and eventually of research and “branding.” Accounts of the adoption or diffusion of new products and technologies have grown from an academic matter to the subject of marketing campaigns, while architects and architectural theorists have sought more durable arguments for design decisions, arguments based on the evolving culture of design or the role of buildings in everyday life.

Organized by

William W. Braham, University of Pennsylvania

Dan Willis, Pennsylvania State University