Posted Jan 26th, 2023 in Technology, Design, Current Issues

This is Part One of a series of articles on Sustainability that will consider how a prudent decision-maker working in the built environment might improve his/her insights and capabilities.  They will appear periodically and will contain both reflections, and guides to the use of basic analytical tools. 

While perhaps the dominant theme of the early twenty-first century, sustainability is a complex topic, and open to many misconceptions and over-simplifications.  In a research project funded by the British government entitled Evaluating Sustainable Investment in an Ageing Building Stock (2002), it was found that, based on the exploration of numbers of case studies, because sustainability matters are both complex and elusive, good decision-making tools were necessary in order to deal responsibly and efficiently with matters of the built environment.  Indeed, the thoughtful person might notice many situations in which claimed sustainable solutions are, after a bit of consideration, very questionable.  ‘Greenwashing’, the representation of almost any product as being sustainable, is all too common. 

In particular, creating sustainable buildings presents the decision-maker with numerous enigmas.  Buildings are long-lived assets and subject to change over their lifetimes.  It is hard to think of a building that is more than thirty or forty years old that has not undergone changes.  Indeed, when one is encountered, it can seem almost eerie.  The future is always uncertain, but it does need to be dealt with, and how that is done is one of the most important aspects in the quest for sustainability.

For the developer, this presents many quandaries, in part because almost every building product trumpets that it is ‘sustainable’.  This means that the complex bundle of issues surrounding sustainability has to be addressed, and serious attempts made to understand the various aspects of sustainability.  Positives have to be balanced against negatives, and individual selections are entangled with other possible choices. 

What is sustainability anyway?

It is difficult – probably impossible - to aim at anything without knowing where the target is.  Asking a favourite search engine yields a number of alternative definitions, such as ‘able to be maintained or continued’, but the more ‘contemporary’ definitions still tend to bring us back to the 1987 report Our Common Future, usually referred to as the Brundtland Report: 

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  It contains within it two key concepts:

– the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and

– the idea of ‘limitations’ imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”

World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (1987) Our Common Future, Oxford University Press.  P.43.

Notice that this definition does not focus only on the natural environment, and the report (374 pages) links social, environmental and economic issues together, relative to the measure of human welfare, both in the shorter and longer terms.  This gives a sense of balance that should reassure us that the best alternative is not to simply stop doing things, or only worry, one-dimensionally, about the natural environment.  Buildings tend to be essential parts of human well-being.

The core objective is to achieve balance between economic, social, and environmental matters; and between the now, the near term, and the more distant future.  The future is highly uncertain, so any sort of analysis must inevitably include some assumptions – and allow for the uncertainties surrounding those assumptions.  The past is unchangeable, but considering it may provide useful ideas. 

Although there has been considerable refinement since the Brundtland report, the factors it identified remain worthy of consideration in any complete analysis:

1.      People are important.  Economic and cultural well-being are seen as fundamental measures of sustainability.

2.      There has to be some sort of equity between generations.  This involves either making some assumptions about the needs and desires of future generations, or creating products that give them the ability to pursue their own solutions.  What will people want in a few decade’s time, let alone three or four centuries in the future?  It is almost certain that this will be different from current needs and demands, but it would be presumptuous to try to make any detailed forecast.

3.      Technology will likely continue to improve, making now-unknown innovations available, but also probably changing the nature of needs, demands and expectations.

4.      Economic development should continue, with the world economy remaining increasingly productive.  Assuming the opposite might lead into some very curious corners. 

5.      Environmental factors comprise an interconnected maze of competing matters, but are, of course, important. 

With respect to the built environment, all three factors are almost always to be considered.  Buildings often serve both economic and cultural/social purposes, and do have environmental consequences, as they do use resources.  Any building is a compilation of decisions, ranging from the macro, such as the decision to build something, through to a myriad of smaller decisions, usually involving a variety of trade-offs.  Questions of time are involved – will a building continue to find validity in a complex and evolving marketplace?  Premature demolition is a waste of resources, and that brings up the matter of capital assets. 

Relative to resources, the concept of capital becomes part of the sustainability concept, but is, unfortunately, too often ignored when assessing a project possibility or its details.  This is analogous to business, where capital assets are employed to generate value.  We usually think of factories and productive equipment, but business assets also include intellectual property, available natural resources, management capabilities, and other skills embedded in the workforce.  Unfortunately, even in financial accounting, the real value of capital assets is difficult to assess. 

One classification divides capital into ‘natural capital’, ‘physical capital’ and ‘human capital’.  All three are required to create current and future human well-being.  Capital spans time – and we are the beneficiaries of what previous generations have done to create and husband it.  For example, people in many countries routinely use buildings and infrastructure created in the 19th century.  Human capital is the build up of skills, knowledge and capabilities that are found in living people.  It covers such difficult-to-measure things as entrepreneurial abilities and societal traits, including the ability to work productively together. 

People and organisations who build do not have the luxury of focussing only on passing on undiminished natural capital, but are in the interesting position of having to thoughtfully balance all of these things to achieve real sustainability, and benefit both current and future generations.