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A Lexicon of Environmental Terminology

barbara m. ross + Gary Pask 

Word infographic created using article text in

Originally published in Perspectives, Spring 2009.


OVER THE YEARS, PERSPECTIVES has illuminated and hopefully entertained, by playing with words that appear in architectural practice. Of late, members of the Perspectives Editorial Committee have noticed a new family of words, some of which are in need of an explanation. A few of these “new” words are technical terms related to natural forces, or to the properties of materials or chemicals. Yet many of the words are more potent — they may even reveal contrasting ways of thinking about design.

To help the discussion along, The Perspectives Lexicon picks up where it left off, with the fourth in its series. (For previous instalments, see Spring 2005, Fall 2005 and Winter 2005.) In this issue, we take aim at a few misleading terms and provide a few more resources for further reading. Of course, we hope to deliver the goods with a little humour, since we are all sailing along together, while trying to keep our own day-to-day businesses afloat.


GALLON — a newsletter. Named for founder Gary Gallon, not the old imperial measure, the Gallon Environment Letter (GL for short) is published monthly to subscribers by the Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment. Edited by Colin Isaacs, who generally takes no prisoners, the GL provides insightful commentary on current debates surrounding public environmental policy in Canada. Editorial in nature, the GL provides an interesting launch point for conversation, and plenty of recommended reading on topics of concern to budding “environmentalists.”


GAS GUZZLER — a.k.a “energy hog,” which could be a building. When we hear this term, we usually think Ford Mustang or Chrysler mini-van, or SUVs in general. But do we also think about our responsibility to choose what to buy, and whether to buy, buy, buy? Without the current credit crisis, the North American auto makers likely would continue selling gas-guzzling vehicles. And we would continue to buy them. Many years of prosperity have resulted in gas-guzzling choices — in cars and in buildings — for which our grandchildren, and our grandchildren’s children, will pay. It is comforting to know that some designers and design schools are incorporating a discussion about non-guzzling choices in their projects. Perhaps one day we won’t need to create a special issue of Perspectives on Sustainability, or designers won’t have to sell environmental concerns like separate options on a new vehicle. Perhaps choices respecting the earth’s ecology will be as common to buildings as the seat belt. 


GEOTHERMAL POWER…is energy generated by heat stored beneath the earth’s surface or the collection of absorbed heat in the atmosphere and oceans. It is considered sustainable because the hot water used in the geothermal process usually is recycled launch into the ground to re-charge (either to heat up or to cool down). And geothermal power plants, which can operate 24 hours a day, are immune to changes in the weather. Geothermal Power is generated in over 20 countries around the world. However, as of last year, it supplied less than one per cent of the world’s energy. The largest dry steam field is The Geysers, located 72 miles north of San Francisco. In Canada, there are approximately 30,000 earth-heat installations, providing space heating for residential and commercial buildings — the largest of which sits concealed beneath an attractively landscaped 7500 square metre (80,730-square-foot) quadrangle at the centre of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ontario, designed by Diamond + Schmitt Architects. 


GREEN REVOLUTION — A practitioner friend of ours recently was advising on the design for a new Home for the Aged. When he suggested that a somewhat “sustainable” approach might be taken, he was told by the building committee, “No way. We don’t even buy green bananas!” Clearly, the long term was not what the client had in mind. A green revolution is what many declare is needed these days, and what some even declare is already happening. But Thomas L. Friedman, in Hot, Flat and Crowded argues that all we’re having is a “green party” — and he doesn’t mean a serious political candidate — which a (hopefully short-lived) shaky economy is currently crashing.  


GREEN-WASHING — misleading marketing. The act of deceiving consumers about the environmental benefits of a product, a service, or the practices of a company comes in various forms. It sometimes involves labelling a perfectly delightful product as “Certified Organic” when no verifiable certification — or no choice in process — exists. The 100 per cent Organic Maple Syrup, purveyed in our local super-huge store, comes to mind. As a disgruntled small-scale syrup producer from northern-Ontario grumpily stated, “how the hell else can you make it?” Conversely, the labelling of a product that has been proven to have deleterious health effects — a pack of cigarettes, for example — as “Environmentally-Friendly/Organic” is another form of “green-washing.” As a further example, when we asked the landscape maintenance firm that proposed an “organic” regime of fertilizers and pesticides for the front lawn what he meant, he replied, “Organic – that means it’s carbon-based!” There was some green-washing, and it was not what we had in mind. 


GRUMPY — “morosely irritable” (OED). Grumpy is what many an architect becomes, when the curtain is lifted on the longed-for “green revolution,” revealing little progress towards a “more sustainable fit,” and a tendency to “greenwash” the “gas-guzzlers.” In the current financial winter, the solution may be to put another rapidly renewable log on the emissions tested fi re, and keep reading. A real “green revolution,” if there is to be one, presents a formidable design problem.


Barbara Ross is teaching and pursuing a Master of Architecture at the University of Waterloo. Gary Pask is the Corporate Architect for Ontario Power Generation. Both are members of the Perspectives Editorial Committee.