Glass buildings kill birds - architects must act!

| 1st December 2013
Glass offices, Canary Wharf, London. Photo:  Cristian Teichner /
Glass offices, Canary Wharf, London. Photo: Cristian Teichner /
Horrified at the giga-scale death of birds caused by collisions with trendy expanses of plate glass in modern buildings, James Fischer calls on architects to bring an end to the needless slaughter - and "save a billion birds"!
To state the obvious, 'a bird flies into glass, and dies'.

Architects can no longer be content with mitigating the effects of buildings upon biodiversity from afar. The time has come to assume courageous leadership and abandon ignored, yet heinous, practices.

Many cliches haunt architecture, yet it would be a mistake to suggest that the sustainability movement of the past twenty or so years had been merely an episode in greenwashing.

No, architects responded well to the call to reduce the green-house gasses, to attend to the impact of materials on human health and to reduce the energy consumption inherent to the products crafted in the professional advice sold to clients. Such advice was not of course always heeded, but architects did place sustainability at the core of professional practice. And now, one must ask at what cost this came, and what cost is now necessary in its wake.

What was the point of sustainability in architecture? Sustainable architecture may have many ancillary and monetary benefits for a client, from the demand for a prudent and efficient economics to reduction in the social costs of a toxic environment and the inherent productivity that a healthier environment affords.

Yet finances do not complete the account of the public architectural interest. The public lives. Living on earth involves very specific ecological contexts. These contexts imbricate inanimate resources (the chief of which being soil, not oil), flora and of course, animals.

Biodiversity an "architectural problem"

Animals. The animals. The animals in contexts: urban, suburban, rural and remote. The animals are not of course simply 'an animal', but a biodiversity without which the public could not exist. Could not live, could not think, could not breath, could not eat or love. There is no economy without biodiversity, no money, no finance, no 401K. And there is no health, safety or welfare of the public without biodiversity.

Biodiversity is an architectural problem, a problem for architects and one necessary to address. This will sound strange to the architect. Architects in European and American traditions do all they can to exclude the animal from architecture and the proximity of architecture. The horror that bats, mice and spiders bring to the western home, or the bear in the backyard for that matter, is not without consequence.

Even within discourses of architectural sustainability, biodiversity is something dealt with remotely in the retreat of architecture. Of course we save wild-places, out of political site and out of political mind, lamenting their gradual disappearance. Yet we attend to habitat degradation only remotely, laudably withholding greenhouse gases and deciding rather to deal locally in the procurement of materials.

Wildlife, or rather the death of wildlife and subsequent ecological death, is therefore not only disavowed, but deferred to others in responsibility. The modernist movement had its international component, with regional creativity fostering novel approaches to the dialogue on and about what architectural space could be. The same is now needed to confront the biodiversity pressures created by what it is we call architecture, or rather in more direct and confrontational terms, habitat degradation.

To state the obvious, 'a bird flies into glass, and dies'.

This may seem like a circuitous route to take to introduce the pending crisis our talk aims to solve, that of the billion or so bird deaths caused by architectural windows in the United States every year. Yet it is impossible to understate the legal, practical, theoretical, professional and political challenges that architecture faces on this specific issue.

Architecture, or rather wildlife habitat degradation, might very well be forced to confront many similar issues of biodiversity loss and species 'take', but bird-friendly design offers one route into solving a problem that will otherwise, if left unaddressed, severely and negatively impact that which architecture is legitimated through licensing for: protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public.

To state the obvious, 'a bird flies into glass, and dies'.

Many will laugh at the suggestion that killing a single bird matters. Many will feel insulted at the suggestion that as professionals, they must not do this or rather, that as architects they must not advise others (clients, builders) that it is acceptable to kill a single bird. This despite the mandates of every organized and persistent religion on the planet to avoid senseless and meaningless killing for pleasure.

And make no mistake, the death of birds by architecture, by installment of bird-killing windows, is an aesthetic decision. We will suggest alternatives to bird-killing glass to end this short article, abundantly listed by others across the internet too, but first want to offer a short Buddhist parable (though in America we could cite commentary from Christian sources too, of the Franciscans or indeed, Gospel itself).

It is important, unfortunately we think, to have to underscore the terrible consequences in motion from the death of one bird, in nearly everyone's memory, to that of the billion or so birds dead yearly in the US from window collisions, actively forgotten.

Every action has its consequences

Such forgetting, or even accepting ignorance, is no excuse. First recounted in the Record of Miracles of Good and Evil Karmic Retribution in the Kingdom of Japan, compiled by Keikai in the year 787 C.E., we find an interesting parable. Quoting the translation of Donald S. Lopez:

"Once there was a bhiksu [monk] who lived in the mountains and practised sitting Zen. Every day at his noon meal he would give some of his food to the birds. The birds, therefore, always flocked around him. One day after the bhiksu finished his meal, he cleaned his teeth, washed his hands and picked up a pebble to toss.

There was a bird on the other side of the fence where the bhiksu could not see him. When the bhiksu threw the pebble, it hit the bird on the head and killed it. That bird was reborn as a boar, which lived on the same mountain. One day the boar happened to climb a ledge above the bhiksu's hermitage and dislodged a boulder while grubbing for food. The boulder fell down and killed the bhiksu. The boar intended no harm. The boulder killed by itself ...

"If even an unintentional act [i.e., the bhiksu's killing the bird] results in unintentional retribution [i.e. the bhiksu being killed], then how much more so will murders that are accompanied by evil intentions generate baleful retribution! ... Doing good and setting one's sites on bodhi [enlightenment] is the behaviour of one whose heart is awakened." Lopez, p. 26.[1]"

What architects do matters, although one might say that the public does not need enlightened architects but rather only an end to the slaughter. The unintentional death of not one, not a hundred, not a thousand, not ten thousand, not a hundred thousand, not a million, not ten million, not a hundred million but a billion birds a year in the United States alone.

One might say that the negligence of architects in dealing with the problem is cause enough to revoke licensing laws as irrelevant. Certainly, architects have spent far more time worrying about protection of title than protection of biodiversity in blogs and literature, though this of course may change. We will leave that aside for now, and instead focus on the aesthetics of bird-killing design.

Buildings without glass?

As a rule of thumb: design without glass. It's the glass. Use less if at all. Glass kills birds, and by eliminating so many effects ecosystems near and far. Birds migrate. Birds taken out in our suburbs and cities cannot provide ecological services. They no longer replenish the soil, distribute seeds or pollinate plant-life. They no longer control pests, nor serve as food for predators.

The absence of birds has wide ranging effects, and is caused by glass. Use none as an architect, or learn how to modify it so it does not. It is not difficult, nor costly in the least. Demand that your clients build responsibly, and find legally remedies to back the courage of an architectural conviction.

So-called 'modern architecture' made a mistake in embracing transparent and reflective glass dogmatically. The discipline remains entrenched in this mistake, and to call it anything less than that would be reprehensible.

Window glass kills birds. Yet there is more to architecture than the irresponsible wrapping of spaces in reflective and transparent glass. Glass itself can be rendered relatively (RELATIVELY) safe for birds by sticking to the 'handprint rule', meaning the provision of exterior patterns to obscure reflectivity and transparency, with openings no larger than a handprint, achieved by exterior frit, films or other marking devices.

With a good architect, designing with less glass actually improves daylighting performance and visibility. Poor architects, unworthy of the name perhaps under licensing laws that demand public health, safety and welfare, simply rely on wrapping pre-given volumes of space in stock products, creating what will inevitably be a glarefilled, contrasty and heat trapping space. Or, what is worse, will select stock windows that take no account of this problem.

Perhaps we are ending on a call to arms, and I will try myself to be the architect. (I am licensed in New York State, and perhaps have been too silent). I know that the demands upon the architect are such that courage is sometimes difficult.

I challenge window manufacturers to address this, knowing full well that they are aware of the problem (highlighted by the esteemed and eminently ethical advertising of a window cleaning product, which depict birds laughing at people walking into glass doors cleaned thereby).

Bird-friendly windows

Every window sold in the United States should be treated to be bird-friendly, or designated as unfit for external use. Patterns to the external hand-print rule ought not to be something applied solely after the fact, but included on every single product sold. Or, glass panes within these products should not be transparent but translucent, stained glass or similar effects.

If this sounds extreme, consider that DDT was thought to be a necessary fact of life in the 1960s. It no longer is. Window glass is having a far greater effect on bird populations than DDT. Window manufacturers, more so than architects, can end this environmental, spiritual and professional crisis. And like any challenge, the call for birdfriendly windows by manufacturers would increase their own profits.

Think of the variety possible in bird-friendly windows, patterned or customized glass. All that is needed perhaps, is a little prodding by architects, or a demand by and educated public that its own environmental interests are looked after by whomever is willing to accept the challenge.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Contact James Fischer at Save a Billion BirdsTM! / The Zoological Lighting InstituteTM We will discuss all possibilities.

The Zoological Lighting Institute Supporting Photobiology Research and Nocturnal Habitat Conservation.


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