What Does Sustainability Mean to You?

Linked Student

Hopefully this won’t sound like a broken record, but I would like to engage with the well-known triple-bottom-line, the ‘3 E’s of sustainability’, and talk a little bit about how they pertain to a sustainable built environment. I think most people here are quite familiar with the 3 E’s: economy, ecology, and [social] equity (or sometimes referred to as ‘everyone’). In order to deem a business, building, or practice as sustainable, it needs to fulfill all of these three criteria.

  1. Economy
  2. Oftentimes people have thought that best environmental practices are contrary to economic growth and societal prosperity. However, in recent years this has been proven more and more not to be the case. Obviously, in order to prosper as a society, we want to prosper financially — so that each generation is more well-off than the last and so that our children can be afforded the same wealth of resources that we have, if not more. But we also want to be selective with the businesses we develop, subsidize, and invest in, in order to assure that our business practices align with the other aspects of sustainability. This might mean pivoting our structure and envelope designs to use more renewable materials like mass timber, or expanding the sustainability or sustainability consulting practices of engineering firms to correspond to increasing demand for such services. For many utilities, investing in technologies like coal scrubbers to reduce SOx emissions actually has a huge economic incentive, as they can make generous returns on their invested equity. Economic growth is a major cornerstone of a sustainable society; we just need to focus our efforts on creating a green economy.

  3. Ecology
  4. This point is perhaps the most obvious — when we think sustainability, we obviously think of the environment, and the preservation and protection of natural ecosystems. Obviously, as a society we need to be conscious of the food we eat and replaceable it is, the energy we use and how replaceable it is and what impact it has on our surroundings, the ecosystems we impact and how we can decrease those impacts as much as possible. But ecology is an important facet that we can incorporate into the built environment as well. Incorporating more green space into our cities and green roofs into our buildings not only promotes a sense of well-being, but actually serves to reduce urban flood damage and reduce summer heating loads as well in many places.

  5. Equity
  6. A sustainable society is one that is equitable and inclusive towards everyone. This can be interpreted on many different levels, from a national level to an individual level. This idea can apply to developed nations helping developing nations find pathways to clean energy that bypass a lot of the dirtier routes taken by previously developed countries. This can mean making sure that all individuals have access to ample food and clean water. Obviously, this goes beyond basic needs too; an equitable society is one where all individuals feel accepted, able to be themselves, and feel a sense of well being. In bigger picture urban design, this can translate to the development of community centers, of open public green spaces, of a quality education system. On a building level, we can view equity from the perspective of accessibility; making sure the building can be fully utilized by those able-bodied and not.

Examples of sustainable design

Gallaudet University, Washington DC


I had watched a video about the architectural design of Gallaudet University, the preeminent university for the Deaf community in the US, when I was taking an ASL class in undergrad, and was fascinated by the subtle ways in which the design serves the needs of its Deaf and HoH students and creates an equitable and inclusive space. For instance, the building is designed with wider-than-average doorways, to allow signers to pass through them easily while still engaged in conversation. Seating options in the building are arranged largely in circular forms, which facilitate visual conversation; and natural lighting is preferred over artificial lighting to increase comfort for those who rely on visual signs to communicate.

Shanghai Tower, Shanghai, China


In continuing the trend of posting examples of buildings that I have actually been to, the Shanghai Tower absolutely amazed me when I went; the tour of the tower itself includes many points about the sustainable aspects of this building — and there are many. The building in itself is an intrinsic symbol of the city’s rapid accumulation of wealth; every time I’ve visited with my father (it’s his hometown), there is some new skyscraper rising above the skyline. The Shanghai Tower has an innovative structural system which mitigates vortex shedding effects, reducing wind loads, and thereby reduces structural system material demands. An unprecedented 75% of the building’s construction materials are obtained locally, from within a 500km radius, drastically reducing transport emissions. The building has an extensive rainwater collection and filtration system, and has extensive green space in the areas between its inner skin and outer skin. On average, it uses 80% less heating and cooling energy than equivalent buildings.