A giant leap forward for sustainability

Sustainability in the built environment will increasingly focus on improving the environment for the benefit of everyone.

By Martin Brown, Arup April 6, 2017

For many years, sustainability in the built environment has been focused on incrementally doing less damage to the environment. However, science points to the fact that we need to do so much more, and urgently—not only to address planetary health and climate change, but also to improve health, comfort, and well-being.

We are now heading into a new era of restorative and people-centric sustainability, a new net-positive paradigm. We are also seeing an increase in concerns around health problems caused by materials, such as polyvinyl chloride and formaldehyde, commonly found within buildings.

The built environment is often referred to as the 40% sector—being responsible for 40% of environmental impact, using 40% resources and energy, contributing to 40% waste, and, worryingly, adding 40% to the nation’s health bill.

This sheer scale of the built environment impact means that we are both part of the climate change problem and also part of the solution. I don’t believe we can improve on this impact simply by incrementally reducing, for example, our use of fossil fuels and nonrenewable materials.

Instead, we will to have to implement entirely new ways of doing things. That means rethinking business models in construction, designing for disassembly, using healthy materials, improving construction methods, introducing new certification programs, and new thinking in building management. This seems like a huge challenge, but it can be done—and is being done.

I’ve been involved with the Living Building Challenge (LBC) for several years now. It is a tough certification program, based on ecological philosophy and advocacy that addresses most aspects of a building’s impact including its influence on well-being and comfort. It requires buildings to achieve net zero energy, waste, and water consumption and promotes concepts such as biophilia, where nature and natural processes are incorporated into the built environment. Today, only a few groundbreaking buildings meet the LBC standard, but I believe that 20 years from now, the philosophy behind the LBC or the related WELL building standard will become the way we design, build, and operate buildings.

We already have the tools we need to achieve restorative sustainability—tools like biophilia, BIM, collaborative working, circular economy, and education as well as social media to share and advocate for change. And the industry is starting to change. It is warming to the importance of healthy buildings and healthy materials, for example, and even seeing buildings at the end of their life as not waste to be disposed of, but as “material farms” from which components can be harvested.

I now work with construction organizations across the UK who are developing a refreshingly sustainable and very responsible approach to construction and embracing new certification programs and philosophies.

Projects like the Bullitt Center in Seattle demonstrate that restorative sustainability can be successfully applied to 6-story city center commercial buildings, and the cement-free, straw bale buildings under construction here in the UK demonstrate alternative material possibilities.

Is this going to be prohibitively expensive? Well, that depends on how we cost and value buildings, of course, but consider that the biggest cost of a building isn’t in construction, or even in energy, but is people-related. If everyone living and working in buildings we construct could benefit from a healthy, comfortable, biophilic, and ecological sound environment, then we will see valuable improvements in health, well-being, and indeed, productivity throughout the whole life of the building.

And further, on costs, it’s my belief that if we could build Lean and cut out waste in construction—still estimated at 30%—then we could construct truly sustainable buildings for the same or potentially even less cost.

When you add all this up, restorative, people-centric buildings are the only way forward. What are your thoughts?

Martin Brown is a strategic sustainability advocate and consultant at Fairsnape and a Living Building Challenge ambassador, heading up the UK Collaborative. This article was originally published on Arup Thoughts. Arup is a CFE Media content partner.