‘Sustainability’ – is one word to be used with a care

  • Building Design Expert
  • 7 years ago

Went to see a band last night. We had heard good reports as to how they were trying to present a different face to what was becoming run of the mill. True enough there was something different about them that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Great guitarist! His fingers knew their way up and down the neck on their own, no route map required. But it was a sound you don’t often hear. The guy’s ability to play a note, then continue playing other notes using the same string, but with the first note still sounding. It was like he was able to insulate the first note from the next chord in order to maintain it. The sound was absolutely air-tight, but vented in just the right way. Talking to the keyboard player after the gig, he told me they were on the ‘Sustainability Tour’, which put it all neatly into context.

So as I have just described, ‘sustainability’ is a word that has been commandeered for use over a broad spectrum of our life’s activities. In general definition if something is deemed to be sustainable, it is replaceable through natural process at a rate equal to, or greater than its consumption. But even that definition is flawed if we dissect it:¬† Consider the words ‘natural’ and ‘consumption’. As humans, 99 times out of 100 we will consider consumption in relation to ourselves. But there is very little that is ‘natural’ about human consumption. Okay, before your eyebrows disappear over the top of your head, let me explain:

As a species we have evolved, and developed, and become used to lifestyle regimes that provide choice. That choice may be at widely ranging levels, dependent upon whether you live in a third world war zone, or western billionaire’s mountain retreat. But in every instance sustainability is coloured by human intervention; in that there is an instant transition from natural to artificial. I do not intend to let this simple blog become too intense, save to say that for millions of years our planet evolved on a natural basis. It doesn’t matter which theory of evolution you subscribe to, up to the advent of man and importantly his development of tools, evolution was governed by the survival of the fittest, and that is the key element that has altered by man’s development of materials and technology.

So, fast forward to present day. It doesn’t matter whether we refer to the poorest third world rice growers, or the most opulent oil baron, as a race we have developed ways to survive by growing our own food, farming lower life forms, finding and using all the natural resources that our planet has naturally produced, for the so called furtherance of man kind. There, that”s about as heavy as it going to get. The question¬† is, therefore, do we understand that there is absolutely nothing that is truly sustainable. There might be a few, but in general population terms this word has been fed to us as a quest for something that is always over the next hill. When we get there all we find is the next valley and another hill. So we keep climbing.

The word ‘sustainable’ is one of the most mis-used, no matter what language you speak. What happens in reality is that we have recognised that our predominant lifestyle practices of the last century were not sustainable. We have become very good at determining what is Not sustainable, but some have mistaken this ability for one that then gives us the power to make our lives Sustainable, but that is never going to happen. The big advantage in taking the key step in acknowledging the unsustainable, is the subsequent move towards the more sustainable, and the reduction in impact of the human race upon the planet.

The truth is that we can only ever strive to be MORE sustainable, and REDUCE the IMPACT of what we do as a species, upon the our planet. You could liken this process to retro-fitting a building with as much insulation as possible in order to conserve the heat for as long as possible.

The considerations might be:

  • How is the heat being generated in the first place?
  • Does the building design allow us to super-insulate, or will we be restricted?
  • What type of insulation should we use? – Do we use high performance / high impact material like phenolic foam (petro-chemical bi-product), or low performance / low impact material like sheep’s wool?
  • Does the way we insulate have any potential for long term detrimental effect upon the building fabric? e.g. interstitial condensation
  • Are there any key maintenance issues that would result from the retro-fit?
  • Would the retro-fit be cost effective?
  • Even if it is not cost effective, what is the ultimate price?

Adding insulation to a building will do little more than slow down the loss of heat, or, alteration of any temperature differential either side of an external building envelope. In the same way, the net effect of promoting a more sustainable way of living will slow down the destruction of our planet.

“but we make all our windows and doors from sustainably farmed and managed forests” – That’s good, but it’s not a panacea by any means. Imagine if all door and window manufacturers sourced their materials in this way; we would soon be at a point where the forest production line could not cope. In every case it is that point where demand out-strips supply that any resource becomes unsustainable. Returning to our original definition – we are consuming a resource at a greater rate than it can be replaced.

Slowly, but surely, we will ultimately exhaust all of our natural and derivative resources, of that there is no question. Any action we take now is arguably too late, but the best we can hope to do is like the small child who cuts a sausage into ten pieces rather than six, because if he eats each piece one at a time, they know the experience will last longer. So we can experience our coveted resources so much longer by continually finding ways to use less.

Our best friend on this front has to be the use and development of technology. As good as it is, it still lags behind where we need it to be. The call for greater sustainability is getting ever louder, and you might attract the title pessimist if you say we are simply running to stand still. Mean time the public continue to be kidded by thinking they have climbed to the tree tops when they buy their ‘Sustainable Home’. What they are not told is that it is really only a MORE sustainable home; blissfully unaware of the number of compromises made to get there. Will somebody, some day let it slip that nothing in this world is truly sustainable, and ‘Sustainability’ – is one word to be used with care?

Want to know more about more sustainable construction measures? Try The Old House Eco Handbook