The Five E’s of Sustainability

Volume 37, Number 3

We recently broke ground for a new campus focal point at Holmes Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center, situated on more than 500 wilderness acres in upstate New York. This complex of buildings and infrastructure—referred to as Agape, after the ancient Greek word meaning “pure love”—will support programs for children and adults to help them grow physically, spiritually, and communally.  Most important, Holmes seeks to infuse children and adults alike with a deepened sensitivity to the environment around us as well as to our connectedness as people across a spectrum of religious, cultural, and physical divides. One of its signature programs, Face to Face | Faith to Faith, joins together young adults of different faiths and backgrounds toward the goal of dissolving prejudices, preconceptions, and barriers that often keep people apart.

Architecture has an essential role to play in this, well beyond containing programmed activities. It can serve to inspire; indeed, the buildings designed for the Agape campus emulate the spiritual and physical connectedness of its occupants, to one another as well as to the world around them. The tactile qualities and visual clues offered by the buildings’ regional materials, craftsmanship, and fluid relationship between interior and exterior combine to allow architecture’s voice to join the conversation.

For nearly two decades, design professionals have been striving to build a greener world, with results that often are laudable, lasting, and definitive. Still, many of these successes reflect a model of sustainability that hovers around energy and water conservation goals. Perhaps a better paradigm of Sustainability—one spelled with a capital S—could incorporate the full spectrum of what architecture represents, using our full box of crayons and not just green. Sustainability is most commonly defined as the three-E’s: economy, environment, equity (i.e., our social and cultural investment). Rounding out the potential for a building to become a dynamic and interactive part of its community, we prefer expanding this traditional definition to incorporate five-E’s: economy, environment, equity, education, engagement.

Education is an ongoing process, informing the choices of designers, users, and stewards toward the form that ultimately emerges. If we are to give architecture its full voice we need to be clear on what it, and we, are attempting to say. After all, the choices we make in the simplest of things—light, air, color, volume, orientation, texture—may ignite an emotional response.  Education sets the stage for the success of engagement.

Religious sites by their nature embrace universalism, though generally within a regional context. Since the constancy of the sky is arguably the most universal element of all (the same the world over) it’s little wonder that both actual and allegorical skyscapes have been central to the design of sacred sites for millennia. Endless vistas allow us to be in two places at once, both grounded and ethereal, an effective way to elicit a sense of belonging and calm. As design professionals, we have the ability to dissolve barriers between a building and its natural surroundings through the use of a variety of devices including operable window wall systems, skylights, light tubes, and natural ventilation, each offering a sensuous engagement of sights, sounds, breezes, or fragrances. Regional attributes are further enhanced with thoughtful selection of autochthonous materials, available now in increasingly dynamic and expanding palettes. Indigenous landscapes enrich the beneficial effects of regionalism within a universal context when featuring distinctive flora, fauna, and water features.

Environment remains one of the greatest leveling tools architects have in seeking to connect buildings with users: the world over, the sky is blue, the earth is under our feet, and the air we breathe surrounds us. Materials sourced locally that comprise structure, envelope, and finishes strengthen these simple yet powerful basic elements. The architecture of sacred spaces allows for transcendent approaches that many other building forms do not. Beyond inducing a sense of awe, our sacred sites can help ground the people who experience them and better connect them to the world community.

Though architecture has for ages been cited as the noblest of arts, one of the resonant tag lines of our time is that architects design buildings for other architects. With sacred sites as the centerpieces of a global community, we can inspire a deepened discourse among building, place, and people, transforming sustainability into Sustainability.

Walter Sedovic and Jill Gotthelf are principals of Walter Sedovic Architects, an award-winning firm specializing in sustainable preservation.  They can be reached at: