Last year I visited Pearl Harbor, site of the infamous attack on the US Navy by Japanese forces in December 1941 that was directly responsible for America becoming involved in the Second World War.
A visitor centre at the harbour acts as focal point for the historic tours on offer, and is the most popular tourist attraction in Hawaii. There are several paid-entry museums, in addition to exhibits that are open to all, meaning you could easily budget a couple of days of an itinerary to fully immerse yourself.
My itinerary stretched to half a day, so I stuck to the free displays detailing the background to the attack and its impact on Hawaii, as well as the boat trip to the USS Arizona memorial. It was a morning well spent; a fascinating, educational and moving experience that did an impressive job of conveying both the political and human context of a pivotal moment in the war.
Inspired by nature
Completely unrelated to naval forces, bombing raids or global warfare, something else around the visitor centre complex caught my eye. A single, unassuming display board, mostly unnoticed - as far as I could tell - by the vast majority of tourists:
Hardly surprising that it captured my attention, given my construction background and interest in energy efficient construction, but it was the apparent lack of interest it generated in the rest of the public that was, sad as it is to say, perhaps equally unsurprising.
Intelligent, environmentally conscious building design is communicated to the public so rarely that it was a pleasure to see it even attempted, never mind achieved in a clear and relatable fashion.
A building's worth is usually judged on aesthetics alone, despite us spending the majority of our time indoors. It is easy to quote claims of low energy use or environmental impact made during design stage, but the reporting of poor in-use performance reflects the total absence of accountability when it comes to the delivery of completed buildings.
This article, for example, mentions my ‘favourite’ example of perception vs reality. Portcullis House in London was designed to be an exemplar of energy efficiency but, in operation, earns a G rating. Otherwise known as the lowest possible rating.
Unfortunately, even people in the construction industry have become resigned or desensitised to the performance gap, so what hope do we have of engaging the hearts and minds of ‘ordinary’ building users?
There is equally little mainstream fanfare for buildings that do deliver on their promises. Every year, open days allow people to experience Passivhaus-certified buildings and hear from the people who live and work in them, but that first requires the prospective visitor to be aware of the Passivhaus standard.
Similarly, the Centre for Alternative Technology in mid-Wales is an entire visitor attraction promoting a more sustainable way of life, but I would still argue that people have to know about it and want to go. The beauty of Pearl Harbor was happening across this sign when I least expected it.
I’m willing to believe the visitor centre buildings perform as expected, not least because I found them pleasant to be inside and walk around, a welcome respite from the searing external temperatures. Comfort, however, is subjective and I can find nothing that says any monitoring takes place to confirm the design intent is met and energy efficiency targets actually achieved.
That shouldn’t detract, however, from this laudable attempt to actually engage people with the environmentally-conscious design. While more could be done - because more can always be done on this subject - I don’t believe I’m over-stating the value of this lone display, for the simple reason that I can’t think of another building I’ve visited where a similar level of effort and quality of communication has been in evidence.
Am I right? Or do you know of buildings that do a similar or better job of trying to engage with visitors who wouldn’t otherwise think about the environmental design and impact? I’d love to hear from you with any suggestions!