Defining Sustainability—Now And For The Future

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  • Defining Sustainability—Now And For The Future
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Future Thinking , Perspective
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‘Defining Sustainability—Now And For The Future’ can be found on page 34 of the 2018 edition of Perspective, a compilation of insights from members of the RLB team around the world.

As any student of history knows, the concept of sustainability is not new. It has been practiced in agriculture and forestry as far back as 6000 BC, when it was recognized that the success of future harvests was dependent upon crop rotation.

But what is sustainability relative to the man-made environment? The concept has come a long way since the early (and much criticized) Bruntland Report of 1987, which described “sustainable development” in the broadest terms, as being “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Gradually, the definition of sustainability has been refined. More recently, the National Institute of Building Sciences developed the Whole Building Design Guide (WBDG) to help architects and owners create successful, high-performance buildings by applying an integrated design and team approach to the project during the planning and programming phases. While the WBDG acknowledges that the definition of sustainable design is constantly changing, it identifies six fundamental principles:

  1. Optimize site potential
  2. Optimize energy use
  3. Protect and conserve water
  4. Optimize building and material use
  5. Enhance indoor environmental quality
  6. Optimize operational and maintenance practices

Another government agency, the U.S. General Services Administration, has been pursing green initiatives since the 1970s, and has developed a more detailed, holistic approach to the subject. In its Sustainability Matters publication, it endorses strategies that aim to reduce the total life-cycle cost of ownership and enhance occupant well-being in addition to addressing the resource concerns articulated in the WBDG.

The drive toward sustainable design is a good thing for the environment and, therefore, for humanity as a whole. However, by focusing on the metrics most commonly used to evaluate sustainable design, it is possible to overlook other important, emerging factors which should be considered when developing a building. With the intent of crafting a future-oriented definition of sustainability that responds to and anticipates the needs of an ever-changing world, four of these are examined below.

Purpose, Program, And Permanency

The first aspect, and likely the most fundamental, is the purpose of the building. Most structures today are designed with a theoretical lifespan of between 40 and 50 years. But in the context of sustainability, what are the implications of this—and does it make any sense?

I would posit that if the purpose of a building is to house a single event, say perhaps a garden party, then an acceptable design for that one-time occasion might be a tent: reusable and relatively inexpensive to erect and take down, few would contest that is both a suitable and sustainable solution. Extending that analogy to permanent structures, if the project in question is to be a national library or a capitol building, then it should be designed not with the typical life expectancy of 40-50 years, but with a significantly longer one, perhaps 100 or even 200 years.

In constructing a building to last 100 or 200 years, it may not be possible to achieve the level of LEED sustainability—as conventionally measured by today’s standards—that one would hope for. Nevertheless, it is quite arguable that creating a building that will last for two centuries is more sustainable than creating a building that lasts only 40 or 50 years because it more effectively uses natural resources; however, this reasoning relies on the building maintaining a sole, defined purpose for an extensive period of time.

Construction Quality Can Be Quantified

Another missing dimension to the calculation of sustainability is the impact of quality. We know from our studies using RLB’s Building Quality Assessment methodology that buildings which score high in quality attract higher occupancy rates and command higher rents than structures with lower quality scores. They also typically have better outcomes for the building’s occupants.

Since quality derives partially from the aesthetics and functionality of the building, it therefore follows that functional flexibility of the space will also allow a building to have multiple tenants / uses over time (and therefore be more sustainable). Of course, there are some building types—baseball stadiums, for instance—which are difficult to repurpose owing to their very specialized nature.

The Effect Of Maintenance

The third missing component of sustainability that RLB has identified is the role of long-term maintenance—or, more accurately, lack thereof. Our building-life research confirms that the quality of maintenance is directly related to the longevity of a structure. Poor, substandard maintenance can substantially reduce the tenure of even LEED Platinum construction. When a building is not properly maintained for the initial two-thirds of its life, the price of renewing that building with needed renovation almost always becomes cost-prohibitive; with the damage done, owners frequently resort to the more economically convenient strategy of replacement, which clearly runs counter to the philosophy of sustainability.

WDGB recommends that building operations and management teams emphasize ongoing training programs for facilities managers and maintenance staff in order to minimize critical system failures. If utility-monitoring equipment breaks down or is not functioning at optimal levels, it’s impossible to benchmark a building’s energy performance—a key gauge of sustainability.

The Financial Impact Of Sustainability

Finally, a well-recognized conundrum is that sustainability is difficult to monetize and, unless the value of an activity or product can be expressed in cash, it can be hard for businesses to evaluate its true worth.

If we look back to the GSA’s guidelines, we can see they measure the financial impact of sustainability at two levels: reducing the total life-cycle ownership cost of facilities and improving energy efficiency, water conservation, and reducing material consumption.

However, they do not capture more complex and nuanced elements of modern planning and design. These include increasingly meaningful factors such as worker productivity levels, achieving better ‘outcomes’ for building occupants, energy savings garnered when a building is constructed in close proximity to mass transport, and the measurable improvements in structural lifespan that arise from conscientious maintenance.

A solution would be to include a comprehensive rating of a corporation’s “green-ness” as part of its annual report. One example of this is the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Designed to be universally applicable to organizations of all types, sectors, and sizes across the world, the GRI’s G4 Guidelines require companies to disclose their most critical impacts—positive and negative—on the environment, society, and the economy. Based on this information, it is possible to generate reliable, relevant, and standardized data with which to assess opportunities and risks, and enable more informed decision-making both within the business and among its stakeholders.

In addition to GRI, there are other fiscally-focused sustainability indices, including the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. The general idea is that having measured the gamut of a corporation’s sustainability practices (including the sustainability of its assets), one can attach that rating to the financial evaluation of the business. A good sustainability rating translates into a higher stock price than for an identical firm with a lower rating. Whether this is successful in the long-term remains to be seen. Nevertheless, as an incentive for responsible stewardship of the built environment, it is a compelling start to embed sustainability into corporate valuation.