Sustainability is becoming a recurring requirement for project briefs and looks set to become the founding principle for the revised planning system. It ranks in importance alongside the functional and aesthetic needs of our clients and the communities they populate. So why is it that most building designs appear oblivious of this?
At best, the tendency is to simply badge a site as being brownfield or suggest materials that may be "recyclable" – while skilfully avoiding the point that half an acre of Amazonian rainforest was destroyed to provide them in the first place. Other designers offer bullet points and buzzwords, but without really taking them seriously, or considering how much they will cost. This nonsense betrays the shallowness of our understanding of what sustainability requires.
Beware the greenwash. There are too many examples of projects lazily claiming high aspirations without delivering. This is encouraged by the nature of design competitions, where the one-liner hook is a prerequisite for success. And even while the unsustainable reality is being built, the mask of the original story is still worn, as if repeating a claim makes it true. Proper in-use feedback would give these developers and designers their comeuppance.
The very term "sustainable development" illustrates part of the issue. Back in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, the politicians signed up to the "ongoing process" of development towards sustainability. Nowhere was there the expectation that a building could actually be a sustainability development. Sustainability is about buildings having the ability to evolve and respond throughout their lifetime. Saying a building is sustainable confuses the verb with the noun – the process with an unattainable end product – leading us to label something as sustainable today that will be obsolete tomorrow.
Planners, as key representatives of the local community, are beginning to appreciate the significance of sustainability, even if they too are often distracted by wishy-washy aspirational statements. An ability to recognise and quantify the underlying issues is required to allow the aspirations of all parties to be matched by the delivery.
Proper in-use feedback would give greenwashing developers and designers their comeuppance
Designers have access to a vast and rapidly expanding knowledge base, although the challenge remains to sort the wheat from the vast array of chaff. Perhaps too much of it falls into the "bullet point" category remarked on earlier, but increasingly there is practical feedback and good direction.
The need to make simultaneous progress on the social, environmental and economic issues is reinforced time and again. Sound progress on each aspect is of more value than a buzzword-friendly single feature design. Resource efficiency is a repeated theme. Understanding these underlying principles is fundamental to good design.
Currently we may baulk at the prospect of using 90% less natural resources than we do now to deliver ever improving prosperity and social progress. But this is where we are going and most of our designs will probably still be in use when this is the norm. Human progress has never stood still and it is in this new direction that we have to be taking our first strides.
Chris Twinn is an associate director of Arup, and a member of CABE's design review committee