Mending Webs

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Nina Katchadourian, Fish II, (1999). Image used courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco

Nina Katchadourian, Fish II, (1999). Image used courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco

“The Mended Spider Web series came about during a six-week period in June and July of 1998 which I spent on Pörtö, a Finnish island in the Baltic Sea. In the forest and around the house where I was living I searched for broken spider webs which I repaired using red sewing thread. All of the patches were made by inserting thread segments directly into the web, one at a time. Some times the thread was starched, making it stiffer and easier to work with. The short threads were held in place by the stickiness of the spider web itself; dipping the tips into white glue reinforced longer threads. I fixed the holes until it could no longer bear the weight of the thread. In the process, I often caused further damage when the tweezers got tangled in the web or when my hands brushed up against it by accident. The morning after my first patch job, I discovered a pile of red threads lying on the ground below the web. At first I assumed the wind had blown them out; on closer inspection, it became clear that the spider had repaired the web to perfect condition using its own methods, throwing out the threads in the process. My repairs were always rejected by the spider and discarded, usually at night, even in webs that looked abandoned.”
—artist Nina Katchadourian

The Mended Spider Web Series by artist Nina Katchadourian contemplates the relationship between the human made and the rest of the natural world. Her red threads, discarded each morning, ask how we are to act in the world in order to mend rather than tear. At heart, this is the complication of designing ecologically. Without a spider to fix our mistakes, how do we evaluate what we’ve done? How do we know what to do?

Turning directly to nature as a source of information and intelligence forms a strong theme in the sustainable literature. Scientists are now working on methods of manufacturing fibers based on the silk produced by spiders for their webs. As Janine Benyus writes in Biomimicry, “If we could learn to do what the spider does, we could take a soluble raw material that is infinitely renewable and make a super strong water-insoluble fiber with negligible energy inputs and no toxic outputs.” By considering nature as a model for processes rather than form, Benyus argues we can find the path to ecological design and invention.

In Green Architecture (2000), James Wines expands on biomimicry in relation to architecture, but he is also keen to probe the architectural possibilities in the end of the industrial age and the beginning of the “earth-centric” era. Wines describes nature as “primal, metamorphic, and endlessly ambiguous. The mission . . . is to recover those fragile threads of connectedness with nature that have been lost for most of this century.” Part of this mission is not only to learn from nature, but to realize once again that people like nature and are better off when not separated from it by the built environment.

The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by Kellert and Wilson, argues that “human identity and personal fulfillment somehow depend on our relationship to nature.” For architecture to be sustainable, it will also need to reconnect the inhabitants with the natural world outside. Biophilia poses a course of action that architects understand immediately and can choose to follow in pursuit of sustainable design. But reconnecting with the natural world does not guarantee an ecological building or development. How else might we discover what to do?

While Wines critiques the “tendency of the design profession to restrict ‘green’ to checklists of moral responsibility,” he himself includes such a checklist, which reminds us to make smaller buildings, use harvested lumber, situate buildings to make use of solar energy, and so forth. Benyus, as well, includes the “ten commandments of the redwood clan” to assist us in action. In doing so they recognize the long-standing history of the architectural treatise and a truth about how we practice.

From the Ten Books of Architecture by Vitruvius 2,000 years ago, to Le Corbusier’s Les 5 Points d’une Architecture Nouvelle of 1926, the treatise guides the designer toward appropriate action by stating a set of principles and then, often, backing them up with specific examples. Situated somewhere between guidelines and commandments, such lists feel potent with good ethics and design possibilities but are hard to translate into specific action. Most are phrased in the vocative: make nature visible, rely on natural energy flows, match technology to need, and so on. To put these commandments into practice relies on a different type of architectural text: the guidebook or handbook. Mendler and Odell’s HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design in the United States and A Green Vitruvius serve us well in bridging the gap between intention and action, general principle and on-the-ground job organization and design process. Leaving the why and what to previous texts, these guidebooks assist with organizing the minutiae of the how.

Which still leaves evaluation. To have some measure of our successes and failures, in lieu of the spider judging our webs overnight, we can turn in two directions: the accounting methods and the checklists.


In many codes, like California’s Title 24, there is a choice between the performance path, which asks the building overall to meet a performance goal, and the prescriptive path, which checks on the compliance of the component parts of the building. We can find the same characteristic division in sustainability evaluation.

The performance path delves into the complex arena of whole system performance, accounting for the entire ecological impact of a building. Conceptually, it is based in large part on the ecosystem work of Odum and Odum in the 1950s. To date, such systems of sustainable evaluation tend to inform the larger conversation rather than find use in practice in the United States. Our Ecological Footprint, by Wackernagel and Rees, is a method for calculating the amount of land and resources required to support a given development or community. Life Cycle Assessment methods (LCA) and the accounting for greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are gaining currency outside the U.S. Much of Europe, as signatories to the Kyoto Protocol, evaluate building performance in terms of carbon emissions or GHG emissions, a metric ignored or bypassed here.

The prescriptive path, in the form of checklists, tells us how to achieve each component of sustainable design and rewards us for each individually. The more parts, the more “sustainable” the design. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), developed and managed by the U.S. Green Building Council, is the most broadly used metric for sustainable building in the United States. To the same extent that LEED has enticed building owners in the public and private sectors to ask for sustainable design, it has attempted to streamline and simplify the knowledge and expertise required to use the checklist. A highly flawed system, often without respect for technical accuracy, LEED has nevertheless achieved the market transformation for inclusion of sustainable concerns in the United States building industry, which previous efforts had not.

LEED is joined in use by local evaluation systems, such as BUILT GREEN, the Colorado Residential Rating System, and Certified Green for EcoHotels. LEED is also being challenged by alternatives such as Green Globes, a web-based building performance tool from Canada reworked for U.S. application. Similarly, a number of evaluation and assessment systems have been developed outside the U.S., such as BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) in Great Britain.

Ironically, the prescriptive assessment systems such as LEED downplay the rigor and expertise necessary to achieve a sustainable building and simultaneously distance ecological concerns from design. When daylighting becomes a spreadsheet calculation, when energy flow is disengaged from thermal comfort, when the sustainable aspects of a building and site become invisible and unexperienced, bad design can be, and is now, certified as sustainable.


In 1969, Malcolm Wells published Gentle Architecture, in which he proposed that we could measure our buildings against wilderness, because we know that wilderness is sustainable. In his “Wilderness Based Checklist for Design and Construction,” positive points or negative points are awarded on fifteen measures of performance, including “creates pure air,” “creates pure water,” “stores solar energy,” “maintains itself,” “matches nature’s pace,” and “is beautiful.” Wilderness receives the maximum possible of 1,500 points.

In 1969, well before the OPEC embargo, Chernobyl, and measured evidence of global warming, and without the science of the last thirty-five years, Wells seemed far on the margins of architectural thought and practice. How could one ask a building to grow food for the inhabitants? Or store rainwater? Or provide habitat for wildlife? Better yet, why? From the vantage point of 2005, Wells’s checklist seems almost mainstream, nearly a blueprint for LEED or Green Globes.

But our comfort with the Wilderness Based Checklist is misleading. Wells is challenging us to engage in sustainable issues as a set of ends, not means; as a set of ethics, not tradeoffs; as a means of being responsible, rather than marketable. As such, his “checklist” reaches toward the “ecological sustainability” defined by David Orr in Ecological Literacy (1992), rather than settling for “technological sustainability.” Wells gathers the advantages of biomimicy and biophilia and tells us we can, indeed, assess what we are doing, both pragmatically and ethically. Above all, Wells reminds us that being beautiful is just as important as any other performance metric.

Williamson, Radford, and Bennetts make this case eloquently in their highly intelligent Understanding Sustainable Design: “Sustainable designing means taking responsibility to anticipate the wide consequences of a building proposal . . . . Rather than prescribe a limited range of sustainable building solutions, we should support an increased richness and diversity of solutions crafted in joy and care.” The most convincing sustainable design is that which we value enough to maintain, reuse, re-inhabit, and pass on to future generations. The most sustainable design must start as good design.

Editor’s Note: Mending Webs” was originally published in arcCA (Architecture California), the journal of the AIA California Council, in the fourth quarter of 2005. The entire 05.4 issue, “Sustain-ability,” is available here. Reflecting on advances in sustainable thinking in the intervening period, the author notes that, “In the years since this article was published, nature is both farther away and closer in to building occupants and design. Advances in material sciences are giving us dynamic materials than can respond to the variations in the natural world. We have become more adept at monitoring and visualizing building performance to make sure we are delivering the goods as promised. We are setting our sights higher to achieve what our clients call “beyond Platinum” performance (suggested as perhaps a “Titanium certification”). A higher bar is the growing focus on Zero-Net-Energy and Zero-Net-Water buildings that are actively addressing carbon emissions and water resources. Living Building certification and regenerative buildings that pay back their embedded carbon extend the goals even higher. More profoundly, in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and resulting nuclear explosions, Hurricane Sandy, the flooding in England and the drought in the western US, we are finally considering the need for resilient buildings and communities. And good design still has to be a baseline or no one will agree to make the investment rather than simply rebuild.”


Susan Ubbelohde

Susan Ubbelohde is a founding partner of Loisos + Ubbelohde, an architecture and consulting firm specializing in sustainable design and high performance buildings. Her projects have won 29 AIA awards, three AIA/COTE Top Ten Green Projects, and three LEED platinum certifications. She is also a Professor in the Department of Architecture at University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches sustainable design studios and seminars in high performance facades and design theory. Susan has directed research for the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the University of California Energy Institute, and the California Institute for Energy Efficiency on daylighting design, daylighting software, climate responsive design and monitored building performance. Recent publications of her work are featured in Design Informed: Driving Innovation with Evidence-Based Design and “Transparency: Literal and Sustainable” in Architectural Record.

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