Thoughts on construction law from Christopher G. Hill, Virginia construction lawyer, LEED AP, mediator, and member of the Virginia Legal Elite in Construction Law

What Is Sustainable Design Anyway?

Noisette RoseThis week, Musings welcomes Cindy Frewen Wuellner, PhD, FAIA, architect, urban analyst, and founder of Frewen Architects Inc. Cindy teaches at the University of Houston Futures Studies Graduate Program. She is currently writing a book on the influence of social technologies on the design, construction, and use of 21st century cities. She can be reached at 913-961-1702 or on twitter as @urbanverse.

The Noisette Rose – A Triple Bottom Line Approach

For the Noisette Development in North Charleston, SC, via a collaboration of BNIM and Burt Hill Architects, we created a framework called the Noisette Rose. Based on the Triple Bottom Line concept, project goals combined concerns for Prosperity and People as well as the Planet. The Rose signifies the qualifications and rates the success in meeting those criteria as radial arms around the circle.

The Noisette Rose effectively illustrates the complexity of sustainable design. While LEED and other models establish minimum standards for energy use, waste management, and so on, many experts consider sustainability environmental criteria along will not achieve sustainable development. The Noisette Rose and Triple Bottom Line method describe that larger vision.

What is Sustainable Design?

Several organizations have defined sustainability in the spirit of the Triple Bottom Line,

  • United Nations: Development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” They added the three mutually reinforcing pillars of economic development, social development, and environmental protection.
  • US Office of Federal Environmental Executive: “The practice of 1) increasing the efficiency with which buildings and their sites use energy, water, and materials, and 2) reducing building impacts on human health and the environment, through better siting, design, construction, operation, maintenance, and removal — the complete building life cycle.”
  • USGBC: Certification defines “green building” as primarily environmental components and identifies five areas – site, water, energy, materials, and indoor environmental quality.
  • Cascadia Green Building Council: “A built environment that is socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative.”

In other words, while USGBC has focused on environmental “green building,” several other organizations embrace social and economic terms as well. Consequently, it seems likely that sustainable development in coming years will extend beyond strictly environmental concerns and include all three areas of the Triple Bottom Line.

What Will That Mean to Our Practices?

The broadened goals warrant even greater clarity and precision in metrics, and ultimately establishing appropriate jurisdictions for compliance. Like the Noisette Rose, the value of each goal will be judged by how carefully we define excellence and track performance, and how effectively the combined criteria create true sustainability.

If environmental performance, being the most readily measured, is covered by building codes and regulations, it removes the question of the short-term marketplace. Similar to other life safety mandates that are the foundation of building codes, everyone plays to the same minimum standards. While individual heroics suffice for pushing knowledge during innovation, only mass adoption creates true environmental change. Voluntary efforts will always fall short.

As building owners, design professionals and users are discovering, we no longer can imagine sustainable design is achieved at occupancy.

The built environment no longer sits passively as a collection of boxes for shelter; experts, owners, and users collaborate with buildings and cities everyday to achieve environmental, social, and economic goals. The aggregation of individual choices determines performance.

True Green

Based my sustainable design work, research, and analysis, I am writing a series called True Green. A number of public challenges highlight the shortcomings of our current practices. Those questions range from inadequate energy performance and design conflicts to green washing and user complaints. These reactions are healthy so long as we respond and improve our practices. In particular, a lack of well documented, shared data and user education emerge as weaknesses.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” It’s our collective job to make certain the well remains full. If we can do it forever, it’s sustainable.

Cindy and I welcome your comments below. Also, please subscribe to keep up with this and other Guest Post Friday Musings.

What Is Sustainable Design Anyway?
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11 Responses to What Is Sustainable Design Anyway?

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  3. If we take seriously a concern for balanced sustainability, we will be very careful about adopting in code form things that are good ideas for the general welfare rather than directly tied to health and safety. As part of a rural community for over 30 years, I have observed the growing weight of code requirements when dealing with existing buildings in a permanently stressed rural economy is to block the ability to do any upgrades for fear of losing “grandfathered” status, leaving us with less than desirable built infrastructure (but hey, we’re used to it, we’ll make do).

    Another of the ancillary impacts of expanding the reach of codes is a growing disrespect for building codes in general. I hear this disrespect in the community and have observed the impacts. I blogged about it at http://blog.seattlepi.com/forthright/archives/181140.asp Green codes are directed at general welfare, not life safety. Nobody will die because a building uses a little more energy or water than a baseline case for a similar building. I’ll repeat the quote with which I closed my blog:

    “If you have ten thousand regulations, you destroy all respect for the law.”
    Sir Winston Churchill

  4. Hello Sue: thank you for your comment. I understand the need to be mindful of over-regulating, good point. From your article and comment, you would not care if the legal mandate came in the form of regulations or codes, is that correct? They are all problematic. You prefer individual choice to achieve sustainability.

    You and I agree completely on the need for sustainable design and also on the critical role that users perform in conservation. I too began my career during the first energy crisis.

    As I see it, where we differ is in urgency. You think no one will die if we don’t build sustainably, and I disagree. I think people already are dying due to increased weather events, high energy demands, lack of potable water, and pollution. It’s not just one building at a time; we have to aggregate the energy use, etc, from a district, a city, the whole country.

    So how do we achieve that? There is any number of options that could make us build more sustainably – codes, regulations, incentives, higher energy costs, and so on, all which warrant consideration. The only one that doesn’t work is 100% volunteerism – at least if you use our current cities and buildings as a case study. Our cities are energy hogs despite those early warnings. They are designed on cheap energy.

    You are concerned with existing building owners, and rightfully so. Existing building owners deserve to be able to use their buildings. Their compliance must be proportional to their new investments. As energy costs rise, all owners/users are going to value efficiency strictly from a cost standpoint – they will thank us for saving them money. However, high energy use is not just an individual economic choice; it has community consequences.

    I appreciate that you are frustrated by the barrage of rules; I agree. But better building practices are not just more rules; its consolidating and codifying rules we are already using. We already comply with codes, zoning, ADA, and so on for every building, and LEED or similar certifications for many of them.

    I think eventually we will build sustainably. Someday these arguments will be behind us. The question is how do we get there?

    best regards,
    Cindy

  5. I’d love to keep the conversation rolling but I am about to leave on 11 days of a 19th century vacation – will have no electronic communication for the first time in years!

    Food for thought until I return after mid-August: a Facebook friend just posted the following:

    FACT: more people are killed by falling coconuts than by sharks.

    Now I haven’t fact-checked this factoid myself, but it is an example of how poorly we assess risk when making decisions on life safety. I know for a “fact” (slippery things that they are) that a building that is not upgraded for improved exiting, or structurally repaired to better handle snow loads, or modified for handicapped accessibility by adding decent handrails to the stairs is less safe in more immediate terms than one that has not had its energy usage trimmed.

    The leading cause of death in my rural county is injuries resulting in hospitalization due to falls. I respectfully disagree that energy codes fall into the same category as those involved in better resisting gravity. Perhpas we could pick this debate up again when I am less distracted by packing 🙂 I’ll check back when I return.

  6. Thanks Sue for your reply, especially since you’re packing for a different century! Sorry I’m not going too, actually.

    Those are crazy statistics! The Death of Common Sense deals with those kind of stories too. And if you look through it, more than half of the examples are related to the construction industry, with special attention to codes and OSHA. I think abatement on vent pipes through sloped roofs was one of the times I was exasperated. We had them removed and bagged by ppl in space suits, as required.

    My perspective on sustainable building is based on the big picture, not so much one incident, or building, or county at a time. What are we all collectively contributing, and where do my actions fit or influence those numbers? What can I do?

    Lets pick this up when you are back; safe travels.

    Or if anyone else wants to pounce on these ideas, I am happy to see if we can find some common grounds or define our differences.

    Since Chris is so generously willing to host and lend us his platform, I am willing to keep the conversation going.

    best,
    Cindy

  7. Sustainability has become a frequently used word when we talk about being environmentally friendly. However, you are right that sustainable development needs more than just sustainability environmental criteria is definitely insufficient. Be it building a house, house extensions or loft conversions, we need to take a look at the wider picture and try to understand how our actions impact the environment, and how we can take care of all the factors involved to make building more sustainable.

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