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Sustainability: today's agenda for tomorrow

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Sustainability is the order of the day; after all, nobody would want to be labelled 'unsustainable'. But what does it mean? Is sustainability a means to achieve a better future or simply a more restrained here and now? Over the next four pages, two key co

Brian Edwards argues the case for more sustainable lifestyles

Sustainable development is rapidly emerging as a new academic discipline.

It has its core values, principles, parameters and research base. As a true discipline it also touches many fields, including building design. Some argue, however, that sustainable development is merely a branch of geography, politics, planning or economics, others that it is embraced within everything (including architecture) and hence has no real boundaries or substance it can call its own. As a useful concept too, the centre of gravity of this new discipline is moving from sustainable development (as defined by the Brundtland Commission) to sustainability (as signalled by the Blair government). It is a change of focus as profound as the definitions themselves.

Sustainable development is a physical goal (in which buildings play a key part) whereas sustainability is a process. The first deals with objects, the second with systems.

Also there is the sense that the Brundtland definition, useful as it is at a global level, fails to apply universally. If sustainable development is to become relevant, society needs to evolve local principles, indicators and actions.

From definitions flow criteria, indicators and actions. But two types of indicators are needed - those which measure fluctuations in the system (sustainability) and those which measure progress towards a goal (sustainable development). Architects need both types but neither are yet fully evolved. So, actions and evaluation are currently piecemeal.

Lifestyle choice

In many ways the UK has yet to accept the agenda of sustainability, let alone the rigour of sustainable development. Few architects design to sustainable principles, few clients seek genuine sustainable design and few consumers make sustainable choices. Sustainable development may be the moral high ground, the subject of political rhetoric, the pronouncement of princes, but too few of us are willing to accept the challenge of sustainable lifestyles. This mismatch between aspiration and action seems to grow as prosperity widens. Too few projects featured in the AJ are really sustainable, even when they claim to be.

How many architects who claim to be committed 'greens'live a matching lifestyle? The choices are not easy at a professional or personal level.

What we lack is the will to put it into practice. Three main obstacles exist to the universal adoption of genuine ecological design - culture, attitude and goals.

We need to bring about a culture change in favour of sustainable practices. At present our methods of working (RIBA Plan of Work), our contract procedures and regulations, our inter-professional rivalries and our education system do not prioritise green approaches. The emphasis upon cost, accountability, teamwork and competence provides a framework for a sustainable re-orientation, but there are always other agendas. Egan does not make mention of sustainable construction in his 10 guidelines, the Building Regulations barely address sustainable design, codes of professional conduct do not place adequate weight upon environmental obligations. We cannot expect change at grass roots level without champions. Of course, Marco Goldschmied and elements of the Construction Industry Council have taken on board the challenge but it's now eight years since the Rio Summit and 13 since the Brundtland Commission reported. A lot of carbon has been added to the global atmosphere in that time.

Attitude too is a problem and here government has not provided a good example. After a decade of promoting the science and practice of low-energy design, we (society and the professions) are left with a mechanistic view of sustainable design. Sustainability has led to the reduction of architecture to tedious 'U' value or air-tightness calculations. Building services engineers have moved in, creating unnecessary science and complexity to what is essentially a simple, life-enhancing task. Certainly, we need to understand the building science and technology of sustainable design, but we must not allow scientists to drive beauty out of the equation. You have only to look through BRE case study publications of low-energy houses, estates or schools to realise the aesthetic limits of much of what is being promoted.

The spirit zone

Low-energy design by itself does not produce great architecture. The focus on energy is necessary but global warming is only part of the picture. We must retain a spiritual view of design. Energy can be measured, tracked and predicted, but aesthetics cannot. Beauty resides in the spirit not the science zone. Here we need to learn from other regions of the world.

In Africa and Asia a more sensual contract with nature exists - the result of religion and only recent exposure to industrialisation. In the north and west, the industrial revolution and scientific rationalism came early so the emphasis is upon low-energy as against spirituallyuplifting ecological design.

A few architects have learnt to exploit the potential of sustainable design to create high architecture. Foster, Rogers, Future Systems and notably Hopkins, have purported to challenge the crisis of global warming to construct true landmarks to our age. But these are not buildings which any serious energy audit would validate as exemplary projects - certainly 'product miles'and 'embodied energy'would be serious concerns - but they are structures which appeal to the aesthetic sense. And here lies a possible reconciliation for the twenty-first century architect: to use the pretext of low-energy design to justify an exciting new generation of buildings.

We've had the wrong goals. The relative sterility of energy has been allowed to dominate more immediate concerns.

For most people health matters more than energy, and for most clients the wellbeing of the workforce is of greater concern than the energy performance of its buildings. Health, both physical and psychological, should be the prime motive of sustainable design. The small windowed, thick walled, rectangular house of BRE leaflets seems to me to ignore how people really want to live. The same is true of offices, schools, hotels and airports. We need to feel healthy, uplifted by contact with sunlight and nature, able to feel the fresh breezes of natural ventilation. That is true sustainable design.

Health, personal and global, should be at the centre of sustainability. All other concerns revolve around it: energy, water, materials, pollution at a physical level; light, ventilation, space and nature at a psychological one. Architects cannot claim to be sustainable practitioners if they fail to understand the health implications of the materials they specify; the effect the spaces have upon the spirit;

the health risks imposed upon construction workers; the damage to the wider landscape; and the threats they make to the ozone layer or global warming.

Population problem

If we can re-think our targets in these three areas - culture, attitude and goals - then sustainable design would become universally adopted. And it would be the kind of sustainability which offers choice rather than the monoculture of sustainable practice often seen today. With six billion people on the earth society needs regional difference and cultural variety in its sustainability. When air pollution gives way to space pollution we need to ensure that every built artefact enhances life.

With a prediction of 10 billion people by 2050 and 2 per cent economic growth per year, there will be eight times today's resource and environmental impact upon planet earth. That is a sobering thought for the education of the architectural profession.

Brian Edwards is Professor of Architecture at the University of Huddersfield. He is author of Sustainable Architecture, Green Buildings Pay, and (with David Turrent) of Sustainable Housing. He serves on the Sustainable Futures Committee of the RIBA

Martin Pawley argues the case against the environmental agenda

The term 'sustainable development'is always defined in the terms used by the Brundtland Commission's repor t of 1987 although there are other definitions, for example Dr Peter Smith's 'Leaving the planet to the next generation in no worse state than that in which the present generation found it.'The trouble is that, as a statement of principle, this is weak.

Firstly because the term 'the present generation'is ill-defined. Does it mean everyone alive today, or every one of working age today, or everyone in a developed country today?

Secondly, since we have arrived at the millennium after centuries of increasingly unsustainable development, any solution that merely leaves things 'no worse'(however difficult even that may prove to be), is clearly inadequate.

Clearly it would be tidier to star t again, choosing an age when everything really did seem more or less 'sustainable'- say the early nineteenth century as depicted in TV adaptations of the novels of Jane Austen - and then pass laws to ensure that nothing ever got any worse than that.

The fact that 'starting again'like this is impossible illuminates the silliness of 'sustainability'; its proof must always lie in the future. Two hundred years after the event we are well placed to savour the romanticised perfection of life with Jane Austen, but by the same token we will have to wait until 2200 before we can enjoy the same perspective on our current era.


Despite its oxymoronic construction the term 'sustainable development'does convey a meaning of sorts, but in operational terms it has already been overtaken by the much more amorphous and dangerous single word 'sustainability', a word so new that it does not even appear in the electronic dictionary of Microsoft Word 2000. As a result it has innumerable meanings, all of which are unclear. In one sense it poses as a distant goal, the Shangri-la of sustainable development - the state of sustainability - in another it will present itself as a moral good. More and more commonly these days it is the battle cry of a movement with an agenda of political, social and technological change in its way as drastic as that of the Russian Revolution.

The idea that low-energy buildings are 'sustainable'and environmentally friendly, and that by building more of them we can fulfil the promises made at the Earth Summit in Rio, is simply nonsense. New buildings never save energy.

'Ecological building means not building at all, 'as Frei Otto said. In the present state of the relevant technologies there are no construction processes capable of zero energy demand or zero impact upon the natural environment and only three that can reduce present energy demand - retrofitting energy efficiency to existing buildings; putting new, efficient buildings on existing sites, and building in the gaps between buildings so as to reduce overall surface area.

It is significant that all three of these processes lay emphasis on existing building rather than new construction.

Improvements in the energy performance of new buildings, however remarkable, can have only a tiny impact on overall energy consumption. This means that they represent a waste of resources that would be better spent developing after-market products and putting a stop to the enforced emphasis on art historical accuracy in conservation work - in place of function and energy efficiency - which already constitutes a huge obstacle to the diversion of resources to the area of greatest need.

It makes little sense for sustainable development enthusiasts to speak of the requirements of new construction as though they were compatible with sus-l43 tainability. Because of the enormous backlog of the existing built environment, it can never be of more than marginal significance. Within 20 years, 60 per cent of the world's population will live in energyburning megacities, all of which will be beyond any Western democratic exercise of political power to change. Even the most draconian policy of enforced 'sustainability'in Europe will be inadequate.

Especially so because urbanisation - which populations are innately seeking to abate - is instead being encouraged, despite the concentrations of Greenhouse gases, pollutants, disease and civil disturbance it entails.

Viewed in the light of population increases, mounting energy consumption, transport congestion and breakdown, sustainable development, let alone sustainability, is truly an impossibility. As a scientific hypothesis it is as flawed as would be a discussion of the future of thermodynamics without admitting the existence of entropy. It appears to ask a question but it is a question that has no answer in our solar system and no mandate from our social system.

Nothing in either of these entities goes on forever, so where should we stand on the question, 'How should human society evolve in order to enable it to go on for ever?'

The answer of course is that there is nowhere to stand. We cannot answer such a futile question and wisely we do not even try. Instead we strive to create a consensus around best practice. That is to say we treat the resources of the earth as finite and - like a polar expedition faced with another winter on the ice - we endeavour to conserve, in effect to ration our resources, so that they will last as long as possible. A strategy that artificially creates the very conditions of scarcity that sustainable development is supposed to ward off, in place of a future open to new resources.

And new resources are an important concept here. An energy audit taken in Wales in 1000 AD, would not have included coal as a resource. An audit taken in England in 1950 would have looked forward to limitless free nuclear power (but one taken 30 years later would have seen no sign of it). An audit taken in Norway or Scotland as late as 1960 would not have included North Sea oil. Yet all these elements have played vitally important roles in politics and planning over time. Sustainability deals with the intractable problem posed by chronology and change by means of hindsight, which is a kind of philosophical insider dealing - we become judge and jury in our own trial.

'Is this project sustainable?'is a question that is already posed by planners who are no better equipped to answer it than are the architects who present their schemes for this new version of the Spanish Inquisition. The darker side of this exchange is that, like all such unanswerable questions, in terms of practical politics it can be answered by force majeure. 'Is this project sustainable?' becomes a request for a password, another way of deciding who is in charge.

The individual who decides what is sustainable is the person who is in charge.

In its present form sustainability is neither a creative nor a technical vision.

All that is known about it is that it is a good thing, supported by the highest and lowest in the land and supposed by almost everybody to require no further justification than their allegiance. In reality it is certain only of its own end - that development should evolve so that development can continue, and such finalism in the end offers no answer to anything. Or rather it offers tautologies that purport to be answers.

It has been truly said that 'We are all ruled by dead ideas, but it is only when an idea has become utterly meaningless that it can be used in politics.'

Advocates of sustainability are now firmly established in the construction industry. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will publish the results of exhaustive consultation on sustainable development so that it may be enforced. The RIBA is promoting sustainability as 'a duty for architects', insisting that ecology is a mandatory aspect of an architect's training. Before long sustainability will no longer be a meaningless word but a matter of regulation.

Martin Pawley is a columnist in the AJ and author of Theory and Design in the Second Machine Age and Terminal Architecture The second installment of this debate, featuring Bill Dunster and Austin Williams, will be in next week's issue. A conference to discuss these issues, 'Building Audacity'will be held at the Building Centre, 26 Store Street, London. See www. audacity. org or tel 07947 621 790

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