Yesterday should have seen the rebuttal statements published in Saint Gobain’s debate. However for some reason their site has not been updated, so for those of you who want to keep up, here is my second piece arguing for the motion. If this argument sways you in any way please go to the debate site and vote. Remember you can change your mind and you can vote as often as you like before 19th December.
There is no useful definition of what a sustainable building is
My opposer seems to agree that, whilst there are assessments for a range of building performance issues, there is no overall useful definition of what a sustainable building is. Some assessments focus on construction, some on building performance, some on design quality and some on health and wellbeing. But where is the definition of a sustainable building that considers all of these aspects, and also the ones that the construction industry does not dare to mention?
We have both lighted on the Georgian townhouse as an example of a sustainable typology, even though sustainability, in its current sense, could not have been further from the architects’ minds. In fact Georgian townhouses are amongst the hardest properties to upgrade to current standards of energy efficiency, given their solid wall construction, often inhabited roof spaces and, typically, conservation status. This is sufficient demonstration alone that there is no useful definition of what a sustainable building is.
But what about those issues that the construction industry does not face up to? The industry is good at optimising buildings once a developer has already determined to build. How about the fundamental decision of what and where to build? Where are the sustainability indicators for communities who’s economic life is bled out of them by (sustainably constructed) out of town malls, for Code 4 housing estates built the wrong side of bypasses away from schools and shops, for the proposed demolition of a recent exemplar superstore because of a restrictive covenant on the building’s re-use?
The Qatar World Cup stadium has already been described as the world’s most sustainable stadium on the basis that it will use solar energy to power the vast air conditioning system necessary to stop the players collapsing in an environment hostile to sporting endeavour. Is this really sustainable? Could these resources not be better deployed elsewhere? How about solar power for schools in developing nations? Oh, sorry – they’re not wealthy enough to buy sustainability.
Then consider the shocking rates of death and injury amongst migrant workers building these facilities. We must surely ask ourselves – what is the purpose of this construction? Is it a genuine contribution to human development? How have the developers, designers and contractors acted to protect the rights and freedoms of present and future generations?
In order to be genuinely sustainable, we have to consider a much, much wider range of issues than we in construction are prepared for. The complete gamut of issues cannot possibly be condensed into a simple definition or single assessment methodology. Just because we measure whatever issues first occur to us does not mean that we have necessarily addressed the germane issues.
To presume that a singular method could reveal any meaningful understanding of the relative sustainability of a hospital and an office is nonsense. Businesses have their own measures of sustainable performance and success. In commercial enterprises these involve profitability and productivity ratios, whilst hospitals measure performance in terms of patient recovery times. These key business performance indicators will not yield to the methods of analysis applied in construction. In fact we barely even speak the same language.
Still further, these business indicators do not capture the social impacts on workers and other users of their services. Where are the measures for the impacts of long hours in a stressful frontline job? How do we account for affordable housing being an unaffordable commute away from a job in the building that we have so carefully and sustainably built?
We are only just beginning to realise what it might mean to really be sustainable.
Genuine sustainable construction requires expertise far beyond that which we can muster amongst construction professionals. Yet presently, we do not appear to be prepared to accept this fact. Creating a genuinely sustainable built environment to enable sustainable change in society will take immense effort and commitment. Yet, we persist in insisting that we can do it on the cheap with our simple checklist assessments. Perhaps we shouldn’t blame the industry alone, since our political leadership also lacks any significant commitment to sustainability.
For me however, the real problem is that the very notion of sustainability has become so deeply debased in the service of finance that it no longer has any currency.
In a 2009 poll, Building magazine asked the question: “Will Sustainability Survive the Recession?” Over half the respondents reported that “clients were already asking them to drop sustainability elements”. Fortunately, Building helpfully defined ‘sustainability elements’ as “renewable energy systems and sustainable building services”.
How can an element possibly be sustainable if its incorporation in a building is subject to whim and economic fair weather? If a building is sustainable, it will bring social and economic benefits that would make it more attractive in a recession, not less. This simply reveals that, in the common perception, sustainability has become synonymous with EcoBling. As EcoBling does not deliver tangible benefits it is considered an unnecessary expense to be borne only in placation of political vagaries.
The planning authorities, whether local or national, have created this situation by their rigid insistence for on-site renewables as the principal mark of sustainable development regardless of other environmental, social and economic impacts.
Well ‘sustainability elements’ are clearly back in vogue, to judge by the recent slew of project proposals appearing in the press, but we still have no useful definition of what a sustainable building is.