In their new book Design for a Living Planet: Settlement, Science and the Human Future (Sustasis Press, 2015), design theorist Michael Mehaffy and mathematician Nikos Salingaros try to radically change the way people think about design. Both have worked for years with the Austrian architect and theorist Christopher Alexander, and are building on his elemental Pattern Language concept (in which design consists of a vocabulary, syntax, and grammar) to present a new, systems-based approach to sustainable architecture. ARCHITECT spoke with Salingaros about what this proposed sustainable approach will look like and what architects will have to do to design it.

ARCHITECT: This book argues that there needs to be a new approach to sustainable architecture and design. What’s wrong with the sustainable design we have today?

Nikos Salingaros: Many people are trying genuinely to design sustainable systems for the planet: buildings, cities, and processes. Some of those are going in the right direction; others are hampered by flaws in the usual approaches to design. So we are digging deep into the actual foundations of design in order to expose those flaws so that designers who really want to design sustainable mechanisms are better able to do so; many of those well-meaning designers nowadays come up with something that is not sustainable at all.

ARCHITECT: And what are some of those flaws?

NS: For example, consumerism. You have to go back to the very beginning and design a totally different system that is not consuming excessively and wasting energy. Michael and I don’t try to be polemic but we give examples of buildings and city systems that are designed to consume. And then people now say, "Well, we’re making them sustainable by putting these little things on them." OK, maybe that fixes things by 1 percent, but it’s self delusion. As long as you use particular techniques that arose when human beings in the early industrial age were drunk on consuming energy, you cannot just fix those buildings by sticking something on top. We give the example of the sustainable buildings that are built as glass skyscrapers. That’s totally ridiculous: Glass skyscrapers were designed within the framework of vast energy consumption. And yes, you can spend a lot of intelligence trying to fix glass skyscrapers, but you’re not going to do it because you’re trying to fix something that’s basically unfixable. You could add a few percentage points that make it better, but it is the whole approach to the design that has to change.

ARCHITECT: What would the architecture you’re talking about look like? How would it be different from what architectural design is today?

NS: The architecture that is going to be sustainable is more messy, and it has much more detail, and it’s harder to control—in fact you cannot control it. And it looks very traditional. When you say that to the architects of today, they pull out their hair because they have been taught since day one of architecture school to just react negatively against exactly what we’re saying, against messiness in design, against complexity in design, against evolved freedom in design, allowing the design to develop bottom up from the users.