Saint Gobain Debate Final

This is it. The final arguments are up on the Saint Gobain Debate Site, along with guest comments from Jon Bootland. The voting is still neck and neck so please make up your own mind.

I believe this debate has been really helpful in flushing out issues that we in construction must address. The debated question is somewhat ambiguous and the arguments deliberately provocative. We’ve received terrific contributions, which have extended the argument beyond what the debaters could have managed. The voting has been neck and neck throughout, which suggests that opinion really is divided.

Re-reading the arguments and contributions, there is one thing that stands out for me: the confusion over what sustainability actually means. We have debated various sub-sets of meaning but still have reached no useful definition of what a sustainable building is.

We’ve discussed rating systems which focus on impacts of constructing and/or operating a building. But these don’t address whether a building will be a benefit or a burden to society. Whether it will be loved and endure, or be hated and demolished. Whether it promotes wellbeing amongst its occupants and users. Local plans address some social and economic issues, but do not address indicators such as ONS’s national wellbeing or BRE’s societal cost of poor housing.

It is hard to evaluate these intangible, checklist unfriendly, issues. But we must confront these truths if we are to make the transition to a sustainable construction industry.

Most certainly we need to improve our understanding of building performance and the prediction models so that they better reflect actual outcomes. We must improve the education and skills of construction professionals and equip ourselves to tackle these issues. Then we must improve our communications in order to present truthful information about building performance in a useful way.

These however, are simply the business improvement actions required of a progressive 21st Century industry. Merely doing what is necessary will not transform us into a sustainable construction industry.

We should not delude ourselves that the transition to genuinely sustainable construction will be easy or cheap. It will require conviction and commitment.

Would a simple definition of a sustainable building be useful anyway? I think not.

Sustainability does not arise from a label applied to buildings. Sustainable is not something you do, sustainable is something that you are. Sustainability is an ethos, a thought process. Sustainability informs everything you do.

Creating ‘sustainable’ labels incentivises us to strive towards that particular goal, often at the expense of other significant issues. As long as we persist in labeling buildings using checklists, we will promote cherry-picking from a limited range of issues, glorifying a few good features to conceal the bad.

Delft University compared environmental rating systems and discovered that it was toughest to get a high score under BREEAM. This should be a mark of excellence. Instead it means that LEED has become the system of choice as it is simpler to gain the highest rating. The effort that should go into sustainable design has been diverted into effort to find the lowest hurdle.

To become a sustainable industry, we need to apply our professionalism and our imagination to eliminating all which is damaging or degrading.

We need to identify all possible harms that could arise from construction, operation and inhabitation of buildings and work to eliminate them.

We need to strive for Zero Harm. Zero Harm to the biosphere that makes life possible on this planet. Zero Harm to our fellow humans, including those as yet unborn. Of course my dream of truly Zero Harm construction is practically unachievable. But surely it is our duty as 21st Century professionals to get as close as we can.

Construction is good at managing risk. Why can’t we apply the same processes to managing harm?

Rather than using sustainability checklists that only address the common features of buildings, we would create harm mitigation plans bespoke to each building project. The development team could clearly demonstrate their understanding of the true range of possible impacts and the measures that they have taken to mitigate them. Such an approach also provides the essential flexibility required for design compromise, which is lacking in some of the checklist ratings.

If Sherlock Holmes were alive today, I am certain that he would concur: “When we have eliminated all possible harm, that which remains must be sustainable”. Isn’t that worth striving for?

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