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Energy force

Sustainability has gained so much momentum in recent times that architects simply cannot afford to ignore it. Ramon Arratia of Interface explores its many different facets and clarifies why we must acknowledge that achieving it is a team game

Across all industries, there has been great progress in sustainability in recent years. However, if we are to keep moving forward then we need to continue to push the boundaries of innovation; our existing solutions and technologies can only take us so far.

True innovation in sustainability cannot be the responsibility of one person, or a minority of people. It requires radical thinking and collaboration between businesses and individuals, and the sharing of knowledge across all sectors and industries. So, as we look to the year ahead, I believe there are five key themes that will influence the debate and help us to take sustainability to the next level.

The first of these is the discussion surrounding renewables and energy efficiency. For years we have been looking for alternative sources of energy that will enable us to maintain the standard of living that we have become accustomed to through modern technology. While this is an essential part of our approach to improving sustainability standards, far less attention has previously been paid to the idea that we can also become more efficient in the way that we live, and the way we make and use stuff.

As with many of the debates surrounding sustainability, there is no single answer; supporting renewables is good but in order to achieve significant progress we need to look at reducing the demand for energy: negawatts, instead of making megawatts renewable. People talk about feed-in tariffs for green electricity but what about for efficiency?

When it comes to sustainability, construction companies and architects have tended to focus on reducing overall in-use day-to-day emissions, rather than tackling the impact caused by products and the materials used in their construction. To make an accurate assessment, you need to consider a product’s impact from extraction, production, manufacturing, transportation and customer use, right through to maintenance and disposal. Using a life-cycle assessment (LCA) is the only truly accurate way to assess a product’s real footprint and its impact on the sustainability of a building. To do this, architects and specifiers need manufacturers to be transparent and provide data to support the credentials of their products.

Improving our systems and products relies on a genuine understanding and appreciation of the impact we are having. As such, we need to get rid of any remaining greenwash in the marketplace. At Interface, we’ve been campaigning for years for businesses to ‘cut the fluff’ when it comes to sustainability claims. The aim is to establish a transparent marketplace, which is based on measurement tools such as environmental product declarations (EPDs) that make it easy to establish the genuine, and complete, environmental impact of a product. An EPD contains comprehensive information about a product’s composition and environmental impact; it includes an LCA conducted by an independent third party that uses a standardised method, making it the most reliable way of comparing products within an industry.

There has been a rise in peer-to-peer consumption and collaborative consumption due to a realisation that what we need is to use products, rather than own them. Most of the time, our cars, second homes and drills are idle. Peer-to-peer consumption is based on the idea of reducing our reliance on new products, and instead encouraging us to trade, swap and share products and services, reducing the quantity of resources that we are consuming. For example, platforms such as Airbnb and car-sharing services like Zipcar have been a hot topic this year; although these are largely consumer models, the same principle of sharing is also still applicable and extremely significant to the businesses community. Applying this thinking into the building industry, for example, may mean you design spaces with two or three uses in mind, depending on the time of the day or season.

Although schemes like these are on the rise, there is a consensus that voluntary action will only take us so far. It is only via the use of old-school legislation that we will see significant improvement. In an economy driven by short-term financial rewards we need to incentivise and, to some extent, enforce businesses to look beyond their traditional ways of operating; we need to encourage them to implement measures that will help to minimise their impact on the environment.

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