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Architecture and Entropy

Ethel Baraona Pohl / César Reyes Nájera

Architecture and
What do we think or talk when we refer to Sustain and Develop in the last years
and for the forthcoming future? How can architects confront their work and
ideas within the paradox that any new building, any new city will inevitably
disrupt the natural ecology?

The order and disorder state

Architects often look for new ideas and technologies to improve the qua-
lity of their work and the way that it affects the environment. However is
a well-known data that the construction market has the potential to emit
more than 250 tons of CO2 per year1 and architects, as technicians, needs
to start looking for a better development of technologies and better use
of materials and energy, in order to make them more efficient. These te-
chnologies must be consistent with the environment and compatible with
nature, using materials and services without destroying them.

The ecological footprint is the measure of human demand on the Earth’s

ecosystems and construction and urbanizations have a great impact on it.
Ecological Footprint expresses the total resource consumption and waste
generation within a territory in terms of the amount of bio-productive daily activities and calculate
area needed to support consumption and waste generation, according to ecological and carbon footprints
based on the findings of
the Global Footprint Network’s website definition2. Today humanity uses
the equivalent of 1.3 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb
our waste in every field of human activities. Starting with the Industrial
Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, we started turning
resources into waste faster than waste can be turned back into resour- 1. William L. Kovacs, http://www.
ces, depleting the very resources on which human life and biodiversity html?artId=22779
depend. Also, the carbon footprint is another way to measure the impact 3.
of our activities in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced in Carbon Footprint LTD accessed Nov 10,
7:39am CST
units of carbon dioxide3. We clearly know that our lives depends on the
resources of the Earth’s natural systems and lots of studies are constantly
telling us that we are consuming the resources so fast and if we continue
consuming like that, by the mid-2030’s we’ll need the equivalent of two
planets to maintain our lifestyles.

“People consume resources and ecological services from all over the
world, so their footprint is the sum of these areas, wherever they may
be on the planet.” The Living Planet Report, 2006

1. Ecological Footprint
© Copyright 2006 SASI Group (University of
Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of

Territory size shows the proportion of the

worldwide ecological footprint, which is
made there.

2. Living Planet Index

According to WWF’s latest Living Planet

Index, we are consuming the earth’s
resources 30% faster than they can be
1.4 “25% of the world’s popula-
tion lived in cities in 1950,
1.2 50% of the world’s popula-
Number of planet Earths

World biocapacity n Built-up land tion lives in cities today”.

n Fishing ground Ricky Burdet & Deyan Sudjic,
0.8 n Forest The Endless City”
n Grazing land -Ricky Burdet & Deyan Su
0.6 djic, The Endless City
n Cropland
0.4 n Carbon

1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 05

Construction and demolition waste (C&D waste) consists of unwanted ma-

terial produced directly or incidentally by the construction or demolition

opossite: Construction waste
CC*: dpr_barcelona

this page:
1. Ecological Footprint by Component
Source: Living Planet Report 2008
2. From the state of New York 2006
CC*: Aurbach
3. Shangai by night
Searching the equilibrium
Even technicians are convinced, and lots of architects amongst them,
that soon or later science has the capacity to solve any crisis or any lack
of energy and materials; it is only a myth since it is not possible to create
energy nor matter infinitely, without degradation of the biosphere that
provides the original resources. However it is possible to find attempts
outlining practical solutions based on economics and technology that ring
attention on an environmentalist ethic as an effective solution to what is
a cultural problem.

What if we go beyond and try to restart the sustainable development

topic talking about some other theories that are useful to present new
paradigms in areas where we need to transform our lifestyles and econo-
mies to put us on a more sustainable trajectory?

In 1972, a significant event made a substantial overview about the un-

derstanding of the environmental problem. The international association
of scientists, policy-makers and business leaders known as The Club of
Rome, presented a report on the status of the world population and the
predicted chances for humanity in the future. The report, titled Limits to
Growth4, had a distinctive sense of urgency about the patterns of growth.
Also, at the same time, some other important texts dealing with ecology
were published, like the articles of Barry Commoner, Howard Odum and
Edward Goldsmith.

In this context and just before the Limits to Growth publication, in the
year 1971, Nicholas Goergescu-Roegen, a Romanian mathematician, sta-
tistician and economist, published his book The Entropy Law and the
Economic Process5. In this book he started talking about the term Bioeco-
nomics, as the study of the dynamics of living resources using economic
models and using environmental elements as protection issues related to
economics. He introduced into economics, the concept of entropy and
used the First and Second Laws of thermodynamics to explain the rela-
tionship between energy, matter and economic process.

The first law of thermodynamics refers to the conservation of energy and

basically states that a thermodynamic system can store or hold energy
and that this internal energy is conserved. The second law of thermody-
namics is an expression of the universal law of increasing entropy, stating
that the entropy of an isolated system which is not in equilibrium will
tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium
and is used to explain the phenomenon of irreversibility in nature.

When designing a building or a city, architects should notice about the re-
lationship it has with the natural environment and how they interact, loo-
king for the reconciliation between techniques and nature. It does exist
a theory which could make significant contributions to the way we think
architecture: it is the décroissance movement (de-growth), a theory that
has been related to politics and economics ideologies that advocate to a
gradual decrease in economics outputs. Décroissance supporters believe
that downscaling production is the only solution to the environmental
problems currently faced by mankind.
Proponents of décroissance argue that current economic growth is not
sustainable over the long term because it depletes natural resources and “The number of people li-
destroys the environment, and because it fails to help populations im- ving in slums is projected to
double by 2030. Since it first
prove their welfare significantly6. When we talk about economic entropy appeared in the 1820s, the
we refer to a semi-quantitative measure of the irrevocable dissipation word slum has been used to
and degradation of natural materials and available energy with respect identify the poorest quality
to economic activity and is closely related with social entropy, as social housing, and the most unsa-
nitary conditions.”
equilibrium as well. We need to work and live with the understanding of -The Challenge of Slums:
ecology as the knowledge that human beings are compatible with the Global Report on Human
Settlements 2003. UN-
balanced natural processes. As Georgescu-Roegen says in his essays, it’s HABITAT 2007
obvious that if we want to fabricate “better and bigger” products we’re
going to produce “better and bigger” waste and we can’t just close our
eyes in front of this reality. Even if we have a high developed recycling
industry in some cities, the fact is that it doesn’t exist free of waste re-
cycling, because every industry has its own wastes.

Now, a series of solutions coexist for the environmental design problem,

starting with the very typical focus on increasing energy and resource
efficiency to reduce the overall impact on the environment. Architect
William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart attack the idea of
efficiency itself7. McDonough and Braungart point out that the ‘eco-effi-
ciency’ strategy inevitably makes the assumption that some degree of da-
mage to the environment is acceptable and their Cradle to Cradle8 theory
is closely related with the décroissance argumentations in the efficiency
field. But the effectiveness of technological innovation as a source for
social and cultural change is questioned in light of the limited amount of
knowledge that we have about the environment.

Housing problems all around the
CC: Karl Mueller

7. Christian Alexander Lukachko. A Culture

of Environmentalism: An Ethics-based
Response to the Environmental Crisis and
its Implications for Architecture. Waterloo,
Ontario, Canada, 2004
8. McDonough , William, and Michael
Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking
the Way we Make Things. New York: North
Point Press, 2002.
An attempt to define architecture’s metabolism
“There is not the slightest
doubt that sustainable deve-
Under this approach our team has been exploring a way to superuse or lopment is one of the most
supracycle agricultural byproducts to develop construction materials for destructive concepts”
low cost housing projects in Latin America9. The initial approach was to -Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen

recycle these abundant by-products as cementitious matrix reinforce-

ment. After several attempts it has been noticed that a combination of
lime, pozzolana and maize fibers can be used to produce construction

At this moment is being investigated ways of implementing the material

in construction components as blocks or tiles. However it is necessary to
consider and design, from the first approach, the way the composite is
going to be managed after used as constituent of construction materials.
For this reason some efforts or the research are conducted to propose
ways of closing the life-cycle of the material. In this sense, special atten-
tion has been given to the fact that intensive harvesting methods acce-
lerate soil erosion. Fertilizers and chemicals used in the agriculture and
industry often result in the salinization and soil acidification, contributing
annually to the desertification of more than twenty times the surface
area of fertile land than nature can provide.

Soil acidity is one of the most limiting factors for development of agricul-
ture in the tropics. This acidity is in fact one of the major limitations for
maize planting. After used as a construction material constituent, it has
been noticed that due to its chemical composition, it may be feasible to
use the composite as acidity correction material in agricultural soils.

By other hand, it is intended to apply this composite in the development

of low-tech housing projects in rural areas, enhancing the use of local
workforce and strengthening vernacular constructive tradition by using
rapidly available resources like lime and vegetable fibers.

This project is an attempt to see our activity as ‘social-technicians’. It

is also a long-term experiment in order to see the possibility of develo-
ping a closed-cycled material that may represent a kind of architectural
metabolism. In this sense is recognized the fact that our profession can
be materialized due to the materials that biosphere provides us and that
part of our task is to return them in a useful way in order to reach the
equilibrium described by the second law of thermodynamics.

9. Reyes Nájera, César. Potential of Maize-

lime Pozzolana Composite to Develop Low-
Cost Housing Components. Proceedings
Ethel Baraona Pohl, César Reyes Nájera
dpr_science mayo 2009