Do New Technologies Hinder Sustainability?

As design becomes more individualized, with technologies such as rapid prototyping and CNC laser cutting gaining in popularity, a recent discussion with James Howard Kunstler made me question the sustainability of technological advances. In KunstlerCast #85, “The last major renovation of Manhattan,” posted 10.22.09, he voices suspicion about what will happen to the new generation of buildings when they reach the end of their “design life.” He claims that high-tech buildings are made of exotic, modular materials fabricated with soon-to-be outdated technology. In the future, components will either be hard to get, unavailable, no longer made, or too expensive to repair. Buildings of this generation will not be able to be subjected to adaptive re-use.

I agree with Kunstler when he says that cities are organisms that renew themselves. It is important for architects to consider how their buildings will be used once their intended client has moved on. Similar issues face big box stores in suburban communities, and surely the architects of buildings that take advantage of new technologies are better than Walmart. But, if a building cannot be maintained, repaired, or renovated for other uses, it becomes moot whether or not it is LEED Platinum.

I suppose the argument in support of employing new technologies in building design is that the technologies themselves are advancing to a point where reproduction and repair will be easier, faster, and more efficient. I hope this is the case, but I also think that long-term sustainability needs to be in the mindset of designers.