The Essence of Sustainability

I believe that sustainable architecture goes so much further than just specifying bamboo flooring and using recycled content.  Sustainability is creating a modus operandi that replenishes itself, making the system stronger and more intelligent, without any part of the system deteriorating.  The more you implement the system the better the system becomes, and the better everything else affected by the system becomes as well.

This all-encompassing view of sustainability is referred as the triple bottom line, where the parts of sustainability include the three P’s – People, Planet, and Profit.  In the book Cradle to Cradle (McDonough and Braungart) the parts of the triple bottom line are referred to as three E’s – Equity, Ecology, and Economy.

Equity (Planet), Ecology (Planet), and Economy (Profit)

Equity (Planet), Ecology (Planet), and Economy (Profit)

The basic questions that comes from this triangle of sustainability, which essentially provides a guide for measuring the level of sustainability that’s attained, are the following:

Ecology – Does the product return to a usable or biodegradable state?

Economy – Can we make it and sell it for a profit?

Equity – Are employees treating one another with respect?

From these basic questions there derives a group of secondary questions that are a combination of each of these parts:

Economy | Equity – Are our employees earning a living wage?

Equity | Economy – Are men and women paid the same for the same work?

Equity | Ecology – Are employees and customers safe making and using our products and services?

Ecology | Equity – Is our production safe for the local and global communities?

Ecology | Economy – Are we making effective use of our resources?

Economy | Ecology – Are we being efficient with our use of resources?

Architecture provides both a service and a product.  The service entails the process of solidifying concepts and ideas into a design solution that is both functional and pleasing.  The products include the final built construction as well as the tangible items used to convey the design solution, which includes the paper for the drawings and everything else used in an architectural office.

Building construction uses approximately 40% of the raw materials used and consume upwards of 40% of the energy generated.  Materials from buildings through demolition and renovation are also responsible for almost 40% of the materials sent to landfills.  This is the aspect of sustainability (Equity) that most architectural firms use to define sustainability.

Without any attention to the other parts of sustainability, Ecology and Economy, an architectural firm can not sustain itself as a business that hires and keeps the right people and does not have the ability to turn a profit, thus becomes unable to create more sustainable architecture.


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