The Sustainability Ticket

  • Building Design Expert
  • 8 years ago


Sustainability is one of the most over, misused and misunderstood words in the building design vocabulary. So what does it mean?

If a building is designed to be sustainable, does that mean it has been designed to be there forever – I give you ‘the Pyramids’.

If a building has been designed using materials that the manufacturer has promised to be sustainable. Does that mean that over time erstwhile quarries will self rejuvenate much like a bottomless cup of coffee? – Maybe not.

Sustainable design is an out and out misnomer, so let’s forget the building, and let’s forget its constituent parts, and let us focus on the changing environment and eco-system in which we live on this planet. Whether past american presidents believe it or not, Man’s interaction with his environments have and are proving to be the catalyst for that change. Our built environments having one of the most significant impacts. If we can reduce that impact then our environments will become more sustainable.

It has often been said that the most sustainable building is no building at all. It therefore follows that the most sustainable product is no product at all. From that we can deduce therefore, that all buildings, and their constituent parts have a varying tendency towards sustainability. No building or material is, or can be truly sustainable. They can only be more sustainable. There may be a pattern emerging here.

‘Sustainability’ is a word too often thrown into conversations, by designers; articles by writers, and not to mention advertising copy by building product marketers, who seem to believe that by calling their products sustainable, this increases their kerb appeal to the average architectural specifier. To anyone who has the remotest concept of the base criteria that govern and, or define sustainability, this can and does have a beguiling impact which at the very least causes one to question what in fact are the sustainable qualities of this particular product (even if it has none). Attention is drawn, awareness is raised, and the marketing department have done their job. That’s ‘job done’, as well as the product credentials will allow. In truth the majority of said products have changed little (if at all). All they have gained in many cases is a shiny new ‘sustainability’ badge.

What has come out of this process is a willingness by the building product manufacturers to up their game on the environmental front, by ensuring that wherever raw materials can be recycled, – they are. Packaging and palleting processes are reinvented to target zero waste to landfill, and reduced embodied energy in the marketed product. Such awareness of environmental impact is actually cool, and we know what marketers would give to remain current!! Having said that any other solutions are fast becoming socially unacceptable, and manufacturers not making a noise about embarking on the race down the extra green mile will be left tied up at the start.

Let us not lose sight though that these processes orbit incessantly around the product or material which has been inevitably extracted from the ground in its raw state. The process of materials extraction is by no means sustainable; so when the next clay tile manufacturer trumpets their new roof covering, the brick manufacturers layout their new range of walling, and the concrete block manufacturers remind us that the public feels safer within four traditionally constructed cavity walls. At the same time all are claiming they have cracked the sustainability barrier. What they really mean is that they have cleaned up their act on manufacturing processes; possibly reducing product embodied energy, possibly reducing waste and increasing recycling, and maybe reducing the energy requirement for production. All could be contributors towards greater environmental sustainability. As could manufacturing improvements that increase the product, or material quality and performance. Reduction of the lifetime maintenance requirement will lead to greater environmental sustainability by default.

Of course this is a double edged sword for manufacturers, who on the one hand are trying to do everything to reduce their carbon footprints, and their general impact on the environment. However, it is not in their absolute interests to develop products that do not require any maintenance, and do not ultimately require replacement.

That said, quality is undoubtedly the way forward. The throw-away society has acquired recycling bins, and filling them is becoming de-rigueur. The Sustainability Ticket schedules design and construction principles promoted through the likes of BREEAM, Passivhaus and Code for Sustainable Homes. Achieving ‘BREEAM Outstanding’, or ‘Carbon Neutral’ is not the point. The point lies with the means to reaching these pinnacles; recognising, appreciating and implementing them in a manner most appropriate to the building use, and the environment in which it is to exist.