David A. Gross AIA

Norman Foster’s Leadership Role in the Advancement of an Ecologically-Responsible Architectural Ethic

David A. Gross

British architect Sir Norman Foster has changed the face of global architecture with a diverse oeuvre of innovative, ecologically-responsible buildings and urban master plans. Before sustainable design became fashionable, Norman Foster’s projects demonstrated a consistent methodology combining economy of structural means, passive conditioning strategies, and a deep concern for the quality of life of his building’s inhabitants. This article identifies the origins of Norman Foster’s ecological awareness and documents his groundbreaking architectural innovations while analyzing the impact of his sustainability leadership on international architecture and the built environment.

Until very recently, conventional design and construction standards for industrial, commercial, and institutional buildings in the industrialized countries have relied heavily on the use of fossil fuels for thermal comfort and illumination. According to various estimates, one third of the global warming gas carbon dioxide is generated by these buildings. (Ivy 2005, 19) The increasing use of fossil fuels continues to exacerbate problems of air and water pollution, reduce biodiversity, and contribute to the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. Human beings are inextricably linked to the natural environment. Pollution induced environmental degradation impacts quality of life. A consistently stated goal of architectural design is to improve quality of life for people. Thus, architects are charged with the unique responsibility of reducing, and ultimately eliminating, the harmful effects of their work on the natural environment, while improving quality of life in the built environment.

“Green” building is maturing into a mainstream practice with the widespread acceptance of the perils of global warming, and the increasing insecurity of reliance on imported fossil fuels on behalf of the world’s industrialized economies. The concept of green building can more accurately be expressed through the use of the term “sustainability.” William McDonough, an architect, author and leading sustainable design advocate, states, “Typically, sustainability is used as a descriptive term for a range of cultural responses to the environmental and social impacts of economic growth. It is often defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (William McDonough)

Norman Foster has succeeded in creating a unique form of modern architecture which intends as its primary concern, to address the needs of its human occupants. These basic human needs include access to and controllability of fresh air, natural daylight and visual contact with the outside environment, and a range of social interaction spaces to foster communication and collaboration. As a consequence of this concern, ecological issues are addressed as a matter of practice in order to achieve these quality of life goals. Foster has not pursued sustainable design as a goal in itself, but as part of an integrated approach to achieve successful architectural solutions. “I believe,” explains Sir Norman Foster, “that the best architecture comes from a synthesis of all the elements that separately comprise a building: the structure that holds it up; the services that allow it to work; the ecology of the building—whether it is naturally ventilated, whether you can open the windows, the quality of light; the materials used, their mass or their lightness; the character of the spaces; the symbolism of the form; the relationship of the building to the skyline or the streetscape; and the way in which the building signals its presence in the city or the countryside. I think that holds true whether you are creating a landmark or deferring to a historic setting. Successful architecture addresses all these things and many more.” (The Pritzker Architecture Prize)

Several important influences can be recognized as instrumental in forming Norman Foster’s architectural methodology. Foster performed his two year national service obligation in the Royal Air Force, working as an electronics technician in a turf covered aircraft hanger. His early exposure to utilitarian, lightweight hanger structures and contact with the intentionally lightweight and streamlined space frames of aircraft is clearly expressed throughout his diverse portfolio of projects. The use of turf on aircraft hangers was motivated by an attempt to camouflage these structures during wartime, but became functional devices to enhance quality of life and promote energy efficiency even in Foster’s earliest designs. (The Pritzker Architecture Prize) As an undergraduate architecture student in Manchester in the 1950’s, Foster chose to make measured drawings of rural vernacular buildings, compared with the more traditional exercise of drawing classical examples. Foster was drawn to these structures for their honest expression of pure form and functionality. (Hughes 2000, 365)


Willis, Faber and Dumas building in Ipswich, England.

The raised access floor concept for mechanical services and cabling Foster pioneered at IBM was used throughout Willis, Faber and Dumas, anticipating the coming personal computer and information technology revolution.

David A. Gross / 970-901-9688 / 1631 Emerson Street 309, Denver CO 80218