Redefining Sustainability

Mesa Verde Balcony House. Courtesy National Park Service,

The term sustainable has become one of those buzzwords that can easily be lumped in with granola and yoga. While it is hip to be sustainable, what exactly does this entail? Does buying green stuff like a hybrid and re-useable shopping bags make me more sustainable? Or is it about buying less? But isn’t that bad for the economy? Being sustainable is supposed to be good for the economy, right? What happened to the green economy?

Sustainable and it’s related terms like green and eco-have been made so ubiquitous that it becomes difficult to tell what is sustainable and what isn’t . We hear a lot about green-washing. So much of what is green actually isn’t.

Add to this confusion a much larger problem. We are now living in what many in the sciences are calling the Anthropocene in which “humankind has become a global geological force in its own right.” An example is how humans have negatively impacted the nitrogen cycle that is central to our continued existence. The solution is a combination of “restraint and, where necessary, direct intervention aimed at bringing all sorts of things in the Earth system…close to the conditions pertaining to the Holocene.”

When scientists redefine the epoch we live in it’s time to collectively say “Uh oh.” This seriously gives new significance to what it means to be sustainable, doesn’t it? As if climate change wasn’t enough of a paradigm shift, now we are talking about everything. Of course, as we learned from Al Gore, the climate is pretty much everything.

To bring some clarity to the subject, I spoke with someone who actively promotes sustainable strategies that transcend eco-trends. According to architect, Mark English, AIA, “Sustainability is about common sense.  It isn’t a movement, a reaction, or a philosophy.  It’s simply about doing no harm, making thoughtful choices, and being concerned with the impact of your actions over time.  It is essentially a conservative approach to life and building.”

The first task is to clearly define different types of sustainable strategies. Most commonly, technological or “additive” approaches like PV panels or water-tube cooling and heating are used. However, such elements are not always effective. Says English, “PV panels for instance are a great thing, but using them to offset wasteful energy use is foolish… It’s the Prius effect, the conspicuous expression of non-consumption.” This is exacerbated by a “preoccupation with fashion and style [that] is as pervasive a problem in architecture as it has always been.  Even ‘Sustainability’ is now a style. No one asks why a Platinum LEED 8,000 sq.ft. house should ever be considered sustainable, let alone built.”

A second set of eco-strategies are passive, and not coincidentally, are also cheaper than technological ones  It is possible to address lighting, and cooling/heating of air and water through, for example, roof overhangs, awnings, adjusting wall-thickness, and window placement. Says English, “[professionals should] be instructed in, and expected to understand, basic passive heating and cooling concepts.  Untrained people all over the world ( Mesa Verde, Mali etc.) know this, so should we…a Passive Home may be a polemic exercise, but [it can] also eliminate the need to spend money on energy use.” Moreover, “It’s about not wasting. Dollars and cents are understandable by everyone.”

Copenhagen waste-to-energy plant/ski slope. Courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group

A third set of strategies involves generating and recycling, such as generating energy, recycling gray-water and replenishing groundwater. One example is Bjarke Ingels’ proposed waste-to-energy plant in Copenhagen which will also function as both ski slope and tool for educating people on the city’s carbon footprint (every time a ton of CO2 is released, the plant produces a smoke ring). Another example is a rear-ventilated glass wall system embedded with micro-turbines powered by a heat updraft to generate electricity.

Southwestern University School of Law Library. Courtesy Altoon+Porter

Finally, there is the issue of building itself. Adaptive re-use, as in the Southwestern University School of Law Library by Altoon+Porter, can satisfy both practical and historical preservation goals. It also results in one less major building project. Indeed, “The most sustainable home is the home not built- the second most sustainable is the home that lasts hundreds of years, and because of it’s good design, is adaptable through the ages,” notes English.

Thus, while human activity is a major source of change during this epoch (whether or not you agree that this should be called the Anthropocene), there are integrative eco-strategies that can recycle and restore resources through a combination of restraint and judicious, creative, and technological, intervention.

Sherin Wing writes on the business and culture of architecture for and is co-author of The Indicator. She is a contributor to and She also researches and writes on architecture in developing economies. She received her PhD from UCLA in the Humanities and co-authored the forthcoming book, The Real Architect’s Handbook: Things I Didn’t Learn in Architecture School, with Guy Horton.

Categories: Uncategorized