Today’s post was written by François Lévy, an architect, author and professor. Lévy maintains a blog, Sustainable Architecture, which he describes as a collection of short and thought-provoking essays on sustainability and architecture. Lévy resides in Austin, Texas with his wife and three children.

As an architect and a concerned citizen, I am frequently required to evaluate the cost of a particular technology or artifact, and then voice my opinion or advise a client as to its value. Cost accounting is typically framed within the context of manufacturing or production. In this model, all contributing costs are determined (by one of several competing methods) only up to the moment a manufactured item is produced. Thus contributing expenditures are the sole determinant of value; cost accounting is hence inherently historical. Furthermore, it is inherently consumerist: in its particular analysis of the cost of production it implicitly treats the artifact as relevant only through the production process; afterwards consideration for the artifact is discarded in effect by neglect. At no time are the costs of the consequences of the artifact considered. In order to shed some light on some of the implicit difficulties in measuring cost, let’s look at a couple of seemingly innocuous commonplace technologies.

When we think about the environmental impact of an automobile, we tend to think of the car alone, as an object. But there are in fact two technologies at play: the technology of the artifact itself (the car qua particular machine), and the technology of the “ecosystem of carhood.” By the latter inelegant term I mean its embodied energy (the extraction, processing, and manufacturing of natural resources) and the consequences of its utility (in the form of hydrocarbon consumption, roads and the complex economic infrastructure, including sprawl, which support this particular form of mechanized personal transportation). The individual may enter a power relationship with the particular artifact, but is de facto helpless against this “ecosystem of carhood,” as that system controls, or at the very least heavily influences, her regardless of whether or not she individually owns a car.

As another common example of the limitations of cost accounting, consider weighing the merits of maintaining existing overhead power lines as opposed to running them underground (the grammatically unpalatable “undergrounding”). Such an analysis would inevitably point to some of the difficulties with calculating true costs, such as accounting for an artifact’s embodied energy and consequences. One can compare overhead and underground electrical distribution system’s relative reliability, but it becomes difficult to calculate relative lost productivity attributed to outages, not to mention lost billing opportunities to the utility company, and emergency repair costs. But where cost accounting fails utterly is in valuating qualitative factors like aesthetics, because these dimensions are social. In some cases individual utility consumers are unwilling to pay reasonable but significant sums for underground service, but in others communities regularly pay on the order of $1M per mile for conversion to such service. Collectively consumers seem willing to pay what individually they reject, even if the cost per distance is the same or similar.

In the end, cost accounting is only about, well, cost, and is not concerned with an artifact’s value. Any method for evaluating cost that relies solely on historical production data, rather than a community consensus of an artifact’s phenomenological context, will tell an incomplete story. An analysis of cost treats artifacts as objects (as in, “objectification”), pigeon-holing them as phenomena disassociated from their use, whereas considerations of value postulate that artifacts are meaningful as experiences in their broader social and environmental context. Cost is therefore not sustainable because it alienates artifacts from the environment; value is sustainable because it contextualizes artifacts as having agency within the larger environment.