Sustainability. Has ever a word been less stirring as a rallying cry to inspire a revolution?
“Give me liberty, or give me death!”
“No taxation without representation!"
“Remember the Alamo!”
Those are resounding man-the-barricades calls to arms.
And yet, there can be no denying how effective the appeal to sustainability has been.
Furthermore, no other approach can claim to be as warranted for our spinning blue orb at this unique moment in its epic journey through space and time.
It first gained currency as the proposed proper answer to the climate change dilemma.
The great majority of scientists believe the population of mankind has expanded, and industrial endeavors have accelerated, to the point where steps must be taken to alleviate and repair damage to the environment.
The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) was established in 1993.
In partnership with the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), the USGBC quickly established four levels of environmentally-friendly design excellence – basic certification; silver; gold; and platinum − for new structures and communities according to how well they incorporate materials and practices that promote longevity, reduce life-cycle costs and put a halt to harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
It also established accreditation for professionals working in the field.
A Relevance beyond the Physical World
As a philosophical construct, sustainability’s relevance has since moved beyond the physical sphere to capture the imagination of the public sector as well. This bears elaboration.
Most sovereign governments, especially in the developed world, are contending with aging populations. An expectation of heavy future demands on pension plans, health care provisions and other social services is already restricting how aggressively politicians wish to pursue fiscal policy.
Debt, consisting of expenditures that routinely exceed tax and other revenues, is a threat to become overwhelming. At least, that’s the argument that underpins the thinking of the Freedom Faction, formerly known as the Tea Party, in the U.S.
In large measure, it’s also the explanation for the financial crisis that developed in Europe, beginning in Greece, but which soon engulfed other southern boundary nations as well, including Italy, Portugal and Spain.
The total responsibility for economic stimulus now resides with monetary authorities, which is to say central banks. With respect to government finances, sustainability has become synonymous with ‘austerity’.
Irony in Construction’s Present Pre-occupation
There’s irony in the construction sector presently becoming so pre-occupied with sustainability.
Surely no other portion of human endeavor, throughout history, has recorded such an enduring and commendable record in achieving this goal.
Numerous examples can be cited, but three of the most apparent are the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China and the marvelously preserved gothic cathedrals of Europe. Rome’s Colosseum hasn’t withstood the ravages of centuries quite as well, but it’s still gloriously shabby.
The construction industry has correctly – and for the most part, voluntarily − climbed aboard sustainability’s band wagon, in its most recent iteration, for the success it can deliver in saving energy, water and other resources.
And, yes, money.
To What Degree, Sustainability?
The question is often asked, by the media, to what degree has the construction industry embraced sustainability? The move to LEED (i.e., Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification has proceeded with such speed and determination that there are now estimated to be nearly ten billion square feet of space world-wide complying with the more ambitious standards.
In the ‘about’ section of its website, the USGBC says LEED is certifying 1.5 million square feet of building space each day in a total of 135 countries. And that there are currently 54,000 projects participating in the LEED program.
There’s a much bigger story, though.
An easy figure can be provided to describe the extent of the shift to a more caring and responsible construction market approach, on the part of all its participants, from the investor/owner community through designers and suppliers.
It’s virtually 100%.
There’s little that’s being constructed today that doesn’t incorporate some portion of new design techniques; improved building materials; and additional security and safety protocols.
CAD-CAM and BIM are evolving into 3D headset visualizations that facilitate the engineering and problem-spotting process.
And in the realm of building materials, there are ripples in the patent pool continuously.
Among the latest innovations and efficiencies, to name just a few, are:
More readily-available and cheaper solar panels to generate electric power;
Floor-to-ceiling windows that allow in natural light but are glazed in such a manner as to limit heat loss during winter weather, but retain coolness in the summer season;
A radical departure from the century-old incandescent form of illumination to vastly more energy-efficient light emitting diode (LED) and compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs;
Rooftops that don’t just keep out the rain, but accommodate gardening;
And walls that are ‘living’ in the sense that they are composed of plants arranged vertically and in patterns that are eye-pleasing.
Bulwarks and Well-Being
Sustainability has often been equated with the ‘GREEN’ movement. In the world of 2015-2016, however, there are no longer single dimensions. Rather, and trying not to be too cute about it, there are implications that have ramifications which lead to side effects.
Climate change is causing severe weather disturbances seemingly everywhere. In such a context, sustainability demands that dams, levies and building foundations and superstructures be constructed to withstand the impacts of hurricanes, tornadoes and other ‘whirlwinds’ of previously unknown intensity.
Let’s not overlook the ‘wellness’ factor.
Buildings that foster better health are favored by employees.
There are HVAC systems that focus on improvements in indoor air quality and a quieter acoustical performance − in other words, a more comfortable sound level.
And filtration that removes pollen and other potentially upsetting microscopic particulates.
A happier worker is a more productive worker. Employers who want to hire and retain the best staff will more likely attain that objective if they can assure workplace satisfaction.
This isn’t altruism. Sustainability can be a selling or marketing tool used by developers to lease their properties.
Where Next, Sustainability?
Where next, sustainability? There are inklings already apparent.
Through a happy confluence of circumstances, the next phase will almost assuredly feature ‘artistry’.
There’s a body of firms with a need to attract a highly professional tier of specialized workers.
Many of those same enterprises also have the deep pockets, full of cash, allowing them to experiment with cutting-edge workplace designs.
Apple’s new head office in Cupertino, California, has the appearance of a flying saucer and will feature banks of solar panels on the roof to provide power.
Amazon’s Denny Triangle project on the periphery of downtown Seattle will employ a closed-loop water delivery system to both cool super-heating computers at a call center next door and provide a nice interior climate for its own desk workers in cubicles and offices.
For its new headquarters in Mountain View, California, Google has adopted a sprawling flight-of-fancy design that will forego stairs in favor of undulating floors.
Filmmaker George Lucas is planning a Museum of the Narrative Arts in Chicago that eschews edges on its exterior, instead insisting on interesting and sweeping curves.
Data centers throughout America are being located in park-like settings, filled with vegetation and quaint pathways that promote walking, biking or taking rapid transit to work.
Those are all ‘steps’ (so to speak) towards limiting and reducing fossil-fueled tailpipe emissions.
Artistry and ‘Starchitects’
Of course, to achieve these worthy GREEN effects will require the participation of an engaged and informed design community.
Thankfully, there have already been numerous fortuitous parings of progressive owners with those among AEC firms most committed to a renewables future.
Several of those most illustrious and high-profile design professionals have already been awarded a sobriquet or nickname or title that captures their emerging celebrity status − ‘Starchitect’. (You know who you are.)
The progress so far, as outlined in this article, is merely prelude to a universal stage-presence for sustainability.
In fact, let’s turn this subject on its head. What’s not to like about sustainability?
Due to its importance for the survival and prosperity of all the people on planet earth, that most unlikely of rallying cries, − sustainability − with varying degrees of acceptance, has managed to garner seven billion adherents.