As you think about our overall goal of promoting sustainability and a sustainable built environment, it's helpful to think more specifically about what those words mean to you.
What Does it Mean?
Please share a brief list of the concepts, ideas, and goals that come to your mind when you think about sustainability and promoting a sustainable built environment.
- Satisfying the needs of the present, while ensuring the needs of the future This statement, to me, represents the core objective of sustainability. A building is sustainable if it is built in a way that does not compromise the ability for future generations to build a building either. A society is sustainable if it operates in a way that does not compromise the ability for future generations to enjoy their society either More so than a concept, it is a goal, the ultimate performance measure as to whether a practice is truly sustainable or not.
This is one of the first words that come to mind when I think about sustainability. Although sustainability has a lot of meanings, for the most part, people agree that it is a good thing. However, I want to then ask, good for who? If a built environment only benefits those who can afford exorbitant home prices, then it is not sustainable for those of lower income. If a built environment is carbon neutral, but effectively sections off a community so that some residents have access to certain services and others do not, it is not sustainable for those who now have to drive miles to get to the nearest grocery store whereas before it was a 10 minute walk. A sustainable built environment has to be equitable towards the communities it is serving, otherwise, an imbalance is created and having only a certain group of people benefiting greatly while others receive less benefits, or even suffer, is not a society I would want to live in.
Symbiosis refers to a mutually beneficial relationship between two or more organisms. This idea of a “mutually beneficial relationship” should be applied in the realm of sustainability too. Sustainability, to me, means the practice of symbiosis between us (human beings) and all of nature. This implies that what we create should provide a net positive for both us as humans and our surrounding environment. I think of rooftop gardens that not only provide passive cooling for the inhabitants of a building, but a means for bees to pollinate as well. I think of planted native vegetation that serve as homes for native organisms, but also reduces outdoor water demand and provides natural drainage. Outside of buildings, this would also be an overall philosophy as well. We should see nature as a being that has rights, desires, and deserves to be treated fairly. A sustainable life would be one where we live in harmony with nature, not in competition.
For a while now, due to our increasing capacity to take, make, and waste as a society, we have been operating under a linear economy, whereby nature is extracted to make products, and at the end of that product’s life, it goes to a landfill or dumped in the ocean. Styrofoam cups are a great example. If humans had a global population of 100, that modus operandi may be ok, but considering the enormous presence human beings have on Earth (now 8 billion), that is simply not sustainable. Promoting sustainability means promoting the practice of taking outputs and turning that into inputs such that “waste” is virtually nonexistent. An example of this can be found in Kalundborg, Denmark, where an entire group of industrial companies have worked together to share excess energy, water, and materials with each other, so less goes to waste. Through ingenuity and intentional planning, this practice should be replicated in all types of industries. Another example I can think of involve clothing companies that are now incorporating a “used/repaired” function in their business model, where they will take in products from consumers that may have reached the end of the life, and either re-sell it to another consumer or repair it to be used it again.
In natural ecosystems, there is no such thing as “waste”— the organism at the top of a food chain, say a lion in a jungle, will eventually die and its remains will go back into the earth to feed and support the life of even the smallest of plants. Our economy should reflect the same.
What Inspirational Examples Can We Learn From?
Please also create a list of specific projects, products, services, and features that you would recommend as inspirational examples that promote sustainability and a sustainable built environment. Which are the best of the best?
- Green Roofs
Green roofs, to me, are an amazing example of sustainability because it serves both form and function. Aesthetically, it is akin to that of a forest and likely serves as a forest for some organisms as well. However, it provides so many benefits as well, such as drainage, reduction of Urban Heat Island effect, and improved insulation. One way that green roofs accomplish sustainability in terms of the ideas I described earlier is that it is an example of symbiosis. The occupants of the building benefit from green roofs, but so does the natural environment: air quality is improved, a new home can be made for certain organisms, and it blends in with the surrounding nature too (assuming native vegetation is used).
- Adaptive Reuse (e.g. Parking Lots & Future Office Space)
Lately, there has been a trend among developers to ensure that parking lots are designed and built in a way that they can be repurposed into office space in the future. This is a great example of sustainability, because it showcases long-term thinking and avoids the take-make-waste economic model. If there is no longer a need for on-site parking, then instead of demolishing the parking lot, it can serve a different function, and therefore its lifespan increases. Ensuring adaptive reuse to prolong the lifespan, or even just increase the flexibility with which we interact with our built environment, is a fantastic sustainability feature and one that I’d like to see in my project as well.
Below are photos of the 84.51 corporate office in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the the top three floors of their parking garage could be later converted into office space.