What is sustainability? Why does it matter?
Over the course of the next few weeks we will explore the definitions and principles of sustainability, the difference between green building and sustainability and explore the rating systems of sustainable buildings. This series of blog posts coincide with my course work for a Master’s in Sustainable Design at University of Florida. After 20 years practicing architecture I continue to be fascinated by the way design and architecture affect everyday living and the long term viability and success of our world. I hope you will join me as we delve into sustainability and I welcome you to challenge my thoughts and ask questions! And stick around for more topics after this series as I will be traveling to Asia and Europe to study their sustainable building practices.
What is sustainability?
First things first, let’s start with the true definition of sustainability. That way we will work from the same meaning as we progress through this series of posts each week. My “go to” definition of sustainability comes from the book, “Beyond You and Me – Inspirations and Wisdom for Building Community:”
Sustainability literally means the capacity to endure over time. Symbolically, it refers to what is of true values, what is good, genuine and resilient, which can stand the test of time. Sustainability associates with balance and equity in a comprehensive approach, which acknowledges our dependence on the health of natural systems for our survival and well- being, the limit carrying capacity of the Earth and the detrimental impact of unchecked human activities (Edwards 2005). Thus, sustainability strives for balance among the interconnected ecological, economic and social systems. As implied from the most popular definition of sustainable development.1
So sustainability is concerned with our long term, interdependent relationship with the resources we need to survive that are only found in or derived from our natural environment and resources. The idea is that we create a perspective that does not begin and end with us, but transcends to future generations – a way of thinking and living, if you will.
Why does sustainability matter? Well, the answer is that the success of our world and our species in particular depends on our careful and strategic use of the resources available to us. Because a resource is abundant to us today does not mean that our great-grandchildren’s generation will have the same experience. For example, when attending the Mag Lab open house I learned that the shortage of helium is a real issue for scientists. Helium is used in many experiments and as a source of continual power in superconductor magnets. Essentially, helium powers the superconductors without the need for electricity. So helium may be readily available to scientists today, but as the demand grows the resources dwindle.
Not only are prices affected, but scientific practices are affected, too. They now have adopted ways to recapture the helium gas that is created as a by-product of scientific experiments so that they can supply their own experiments as best possible. They are creating their own supply. Now my facts about costs and supply are not definitive when it comes to helium, but the idea I wish to share is solid. The understanding of our environment and resources allows us to be able to create sustainable practices so that we use resources wisely and preserve them effectively. Sustainability matters because it is our nature as humans to create future generations and recognize that the resources we have today are just not for us, but for all.
This same idea translates into building. We must approach the development of homes, office buildings, communities, etc with the focus of creating a functional space that brings beauty to the world while making the best use of resources. According to the Ecological Footprint study conducted in 2003, if we continue to consumer natural resources at our current rates we will need 5.3 planets to sustain the 1 planet we inhabit. That alone seems like reason enough to address sustainability in all things that we do, especially architecture as we consume so many resources when constructing buildings and building supplies.
Next week we will explore the principles of sustainability from a 3-dimensional perspective. Again, I welcome you to comment below and ask questions. I hope you enjoy this post and the series I will be bringing you over the coming weeks.
1 – Quoted in “Beyond You and Me -Inspirations and Wisdom for Building Community”, Robin Alfred & Kosha Anja Joubert (Ed.), Gaia Education -Permanent Publications 2007