To define what 'a sustainable building is' appears a huge challenge, the topic is so broad that it cannot be succinctly captured in a memorable sound bite, but that’s not to say that existing definitions aren’t useful.Here, Jon Chadwick, Associate at Associated Architects, offers his interpretation of the term ‘sustainable building’.
In 2005 the UK government's sustainable development strategy defined five principles for sustainable development, which were later adopted in the national planning policy framework. These principles include the need to balance 'living within the planet's environmental limits' together with consideration for the creation of a 'just society' and a sustainable economy.
How this can be achieved and measured is less clear. A range of environmental evaluation tools such as BREEAM and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) have emerged as a way of benchmarking and demonstrating good practice. These processes are frequently derided as being box ticking exercises but these tools are all underpinned by a common understanding of the core issues that impact upon sustainability, which global consultancy Arup summarises as 'carbon, water, materials, climate change, community and the environment and operations'.
The breadth of each of these individual topics makes prescriptive solutions impossible but the general consensus about the key issues means that these existing definitions are both valid and useful. Construction professionals must therefore apply and share their knowledge to help clients understand the implications of their decisions across the whole spectrum of factors that go towards making buildings that can justifiably claim to be sustainable.
As a society we are not going to meet the future environmental challenges simply by constructing a plethora of new buildings regardless of however ‘sustainable’ they are deemed to be. Of course it goes without saying that all new buildings should strive to minimise their environmental impact but they can only be deemed truly sustainable if the project considers all other factors relevant to the building’s function – for instance the site location to avoid an over reliance on unsustainable modes of transport.
Of equal importance when assessing how to minimise environmental impacts of buildings is acknowledging the need to raise the performance of the existing building stock – in many cases, when all factors are considered it may be more beneficial to update or adapt an existing building than build from scratch. New buildings should also strive to provide flexibility for future reuse – ‘the long life, loose fit’ mantra should be prevalent. Putting matters of energy use and accessibility to one side for a moment, the model of the Georgian town house demonstrates the principle that a building can have many uses throughout its life – single family home, separate apartments or workplace without needing drastic changes to its external appearance or structure.
It’s unrealistic to expect a single definition of ‘what a sustainable building is’ to encompass in detail all of the issues that need consideration, but existing definitions, used in the correct context, are useful to summarise the objectives and highlight the key issues to be addressed in order to achieve them. We have to understand that there are multiple elements to defining a sustainable building. It’s how we apply these elements to a project that determines the usefulness of the definition.