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Sustainability Redux

forest-light-900Any building should now, and always, be desirable; therefore, we should be in the business of making desirable buildings. There is some value in appreciating a job well done, and pleasure in the recognition of others; however, if it is truly a desirable building, it will be evident. Clear manifestations of acute judgment, successful measurement, and skillful craft will always be preferred over timid, uninspiring, useless results.

Generations and cultures have always gravitated to well-made things both as objects of desire and as targets. The embodied vitality is often representative of a glimpse into the possible future excellence of human achievement. For the current generation, there is a great deal of talk about “green buildings” serving as the vanguard of the future.

Is “sustainability” the future? How is it defined? And is “sustainability” synonymous with the highest ideals of constructed excellence? The definition of sustainability for the building trade is not as elusive as one might think. It can be as simple as reaching a break-even point for your operational budget. The nebulous part of defining sustainability is how you choose to limit it. How many variables do you include in your definition?

If I were a fatalistic individual I would claim “everything is connected to everything else”; however, this general philosophy does little when helping to make an effective decision. The trouble is that if you decide to choose solutions based on every possible variable, you likely end up in a kind of logical stasis. If you overthink sustainability (or anything else in life), you normally end up making no decisions at all. Occasionally, sustainability variables can contradict each other, creating irreconcilable tensions.

Among the business of sustainability professionals there are several leading groups which seek to prioritize facets of green building. They all have unique definitions, and different ideas about how people should do things.

Above all remember that green building certifications are a tool. Nothing more. Like any other tool in your toolbox, some are more appropriate for a given task. If you wish to pursue green branding, then shop around for which one suits your situation. In addition, like any other tool: you should realize the tool or become it.

The risk of not fully realizing the green building rubrics is falling into the trap of “Greenwashing.” This generally occurs when people highlight a single aspect of a project (or object) as ’green’ only to use it as a marketing device. The label loses it’s genuine-ness through overuse and dilution.

Amidst the multitude of scoring rubrics and marketing ploys there is one highly effective and memorable way to think about sustainable building principles. In 1997, a German parliamentary commission on the protection of humans and the environment presented the concept of environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social sustainability. As a vehicle to explain the further details of environmental, economic and social criteria they visually illustrated the three categories as three columns. This Three-Column-Model of sustainable development postulates that balance can only be achieved when environmental, social and economic goals are implemented simultaneously and with equal priority. These three aspects are therefore closely intertwined. These regular guideposts are an excellent vehicle to articulate what’s important in any project.

What often goes unsaid is that the principles so skillfully articulated by the 1997 commission, were actually a footnote to a much older idea. Historically, the concept of sustainability in relation to the environment was developed in German forestry. It was first developed in the 17th century to limit the number of trees that could be cut down for firewood to the number of trees that could replace them. The German word for sustainability is Nachhaltigkeit. It was first mentioned in an 18th-century treatise on forestry by Hans Carl von Carlowitz, meaning that trees should not be removed from a forest at a faster rate than they could be regrown. The English translation in this context was sustainable yield, and the current use of the word covers a much wider range of activities. The underlying stratagem behind the 18th-century treatise is this: every wise forester wants to maximize his profits without sacrificing his future.

There are a few variations to the idea, but they generally fit this format. I prefer to think of this idea in terms of the ability of an idea to stand on its own. The fewest number of ‘legs’ an inanimate object needs to stand on its own is three. The tripod, anciently used by Roman architects to set the scene for a new city, had three posts joined together. This important ritual helped form the basis of our understanding of the building arts.

James Ruhland, III


James Ruhland, III is an Architect in our Roanoke, Virginia office. He is LEED BD&C certified