Saint Gobain Debate Day 4

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.

2 thoughts on “Saint Gobain Debate Day 4

  1. This is so well written and argued that I feel compelled to comment – well done. You hit the nail on the head. Alas, of course the problem is not limited to construction. We could make nearly all of the same arguments about manufactured products, for instance.

    In our sustainability endeavors, we all focus too much on the tangible, operational-level issues (such as material choices, use phase management, end of life strategies etc) without addressing some critical wider questions: “does this activity or product actually improve human development in any meaningful way”; “should this product or service even exist in the first place?”

    The question is, though, how could we create a useful building assessment/guidance/planning control system without necessitating an extensive case-by-case review for every project? Would this approach run into problems in a capitalist market environment?

    • Welcome back Adam. Did you see the remainder of my argument, where I do actually suggest that a bespoke assessment is the only way we can address a sufficient range of issues. I am really concerned that in most endeavours, sustainability has simply become checklist lip-service to public concern, regulation and shareholder value. I don’t think that we can get away without case-by-case review, but that actually is the job of the regulator. Building control officers check calculations and inspect groundworks and structure on site. Why should there not be a proper review of sustainability on the same basis. Of course this would mean extensive expansion of the regulator’s education and skill base, but this would be no bad thing to hold the industry to account.

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