Sustainability, Green Building & You?

While attending the Green Building Focus Conference, one of the most interesting items I noticed was how almost all the Architects started their seminars off with their definitions of certain items. While some may have considered this as strange, (especially when you consider who their audience was) in essence it is almost a necessity. In the world of “green building”, you will run into a whole host of different definitions, where one focuses, and one’s own viewpoint.

In some cases, revolving around terms like Energy Efficiency and Conservation issues generally arise because some like to warp the actual definitions around. In the case of sustainability, it gets a whole lot murkier; because the definition is so wide open to interpretation. To boil down the bulk of the official definitions; sustainability is simply the ability of something to endure or hold up. I must admit, this is an article I have had on my plate for a little over 3 months because I was having problems figuring out where to even start, much less how to word it.

Fortunately, while attending the GBFC, Llewellyn van Wyk held a seminar entitled “Design for Sustainable Human Settlements: A South African Case Study.” Before we get to the main part of his definition of sustainability, it helps if we first understand his viewpoint and look at some of the real numbers that help define it. After you have finished going through all this, I have a little challenge for you at the end…

The Build Environment:

One of the first items discussed was the definition of the Build Environment; which comprises of urban design use, transportation, and the patterns of human activity (how they use / what they need). The last item he particularly stressed as an issue that seemingly is left out of many discussions.


The next definition was resilience; which was defined as the capacity of an eco-system to handle change without collapse. The reason he brought this one up is that he feels many of the existing sustainability “definitions” actually do more harm than good when discussing the environment. In two simple sentences, he just encapsulated an issue I have struggled to be able to articulate properly when I tried to write about it. (Did I mention this article has taken over 3 months to write?)

WARNING: If you believe that mankind is solely responsible for global warming and we are about to kill off the planet, please tuck your head back in the sand & you may want to skip to the next heading.

  • Fact #1 – the earth is not in a static state, it is always changing
  • Fact #2 & 3 – There have been 5 complete species extinction events that are known about in the last 4.5 billion years & there will probably be more before the sun and our planet reaches its end of life in another 4.5 billion years
  • Fact #4 – the carbon being released is the result of the temperature increasing and not the other way around
  • Fact #5 – We are in the 4th known cycle of increasing global temperatures
  • Fact #6 – While we maybe in the 4th known cycle, we have no idea or proof about what will happen if we continue adding to the carbon in the air (1958: 315 PPM — 2010: 390 PPM)

The Growing Population:

I think it was back in 83 or 84, the big news was that China’s population had reached 1 Billion people, and will soon be topping 1.4 billion people mark. Back in the early 80’s, worldwide we were looking at a population of a little more than 4 billion individuals. Today, that number is closer to 6.9 billion. To put it in simpler terms, the population is increasing at the rate of 72 million per year / 6 cities the size of Birmingham, AL need to be built each MONTH to handle the increase. In South Africa alone, they figure that they are 2.2 million housing units short at this time to simply house the current population and meet a very rudimentary minimum life standard.

Solving South Africa’s Housing Issues:

Currently most SA’s have to leave their current housing (including government assisted housing) at night, to get a drink of water, use the bathroom, etc… Llewellyn and others were brought in to see if they could improve on this situation. The requirements were that the house had to be 40 Square Meters (430 SF), and still come in under $8000 total. They did this by breaking the house down into five main components and analyzing each; the sub-structure, the super-structure, the roof assembly, the services (electrical, water, waste), and then the finishes. Below is a short video I was able to find on these new houses.

Sustainability & You:

When you start tying all these issues together, is there any doubt that he partially describes sustainability as the ability to expand based on growth without increasing the usage of materials? In my case as a builder, remodeler, and auditor, I tend to look more at the durability of the items, the structure, and the materials actually being used in the house. Which brings me to my challenge for all of you – What exactly does sustainability mean to you and what influences your definition or beliefs?

  • Anonymous

    Nice article, Sean. I don’t talk much about sustainability or green because those terms, especially the latter, have been so abused that they’re pretty much meaningless these days.

    If you want to pin me down on sustainability, however, I’ll say that you can’t separate it from population and energy. I believe that our current population is unsustainable, and the more we add to the planet’s human population, the more precarious our situation becomes. Once peak oil REALLY begins to kick in over the next decade, there will be no escaping the ramifications of our runaway population.

    Yeah, yeah, I know all about Paul Ehrlich’s bet with Julian Simon and how that demonstrates the resilience you wrote about. Ehrlich wasn’t wrong, though. It’s just that his timing was off because he didn’t factor in peak oil.

    So, we’ve gone beyond a sustainable population, and all this work we’re doing to become more sustainable is, in my opinion, not for the purpose of allowing us to continue doing what we’re doing, but to lessen the suffering as nature brings the human population back into balance over the next century or so.

    We’ve got to get rid of this crazy idea that we can grow indefinitely because it’s one of the most pernicious ideas we humans have ever devised. If you aren’t familiar with Albert A. Bartlett (another physicist and a^2b, like me), go to Youtube and watch his video about the exponential function.

    Or maybe I’m wrong, and we’ll all have nuclear fusion reactors to power the hydroponic gardens in our rooftop greenhouses as the robots serve us margaritas!

  • SLS Construction

    Whoo hoo, a robot serving me a margarita on my rooftop deck – sold…

    Very good points Allison & yes I had actually seen the first video in the series, I just couldn’t ever find the rest. Thanks for the link – I know have the playlist and am catching the rest. (Playlist starting on the 2nd part)

  • Green Curmudgeon

    Not to seem heartless, but the idea of an unsupportable worldwide population probably has more to do with medical life extension and eradication of certain diseases than anything else. Too many people live longer and reproduce than we can adequately sustain on the planet. Some regions are fine, others are on the edge, and still others are so far beyond their ability to support their population that it is frightening. Unfortunately, we probably need to support fewer lives with artificial means, be it medicine, food, water, etc. Maybe I’m just a heartless bastard after all.

  • Michael Matson

    Yah know… I’ve heard the whole peak oil argument for nearly thirty years now. Ever since the big oil crisis and gas rationing back in the 70s. Seems like every time someone thinks they can’t get enough gas to fill up their Hummer at a reasonable price, the whole peak oil thing comes roaring back.

    Quite frankly, I don’t buy it. Mankind is just too good at overcoming obstacles to be thwarted by the oil supply starting to shrink. (And it’s not like it’s going vanish over night.) Especially now when we’re basically sitting on the answer to the bulk of our fuel needs and just waiting for the oil supply to peak (basically, waiting for the crisis to hit) before rolling it out.

    As for sustainability… I agree with Allison that the term has been so abused it’s now nearly meaningless. It’s been co-opted by Madison Avenue. That said, my personal belief is that the measure of an item’s sustainability is inversely proportional to its life cycle. That is to say, a product with a very short life cycle made of difficult to replenish, or toxic materials (like a plastic bottle) is less sustainable than that same product made from easily renewable, non-toxic materials (like a glass bottle). At the other end, a product with a very long life cycle made of highly toxic material might end up being more sustainable than that same product made from natural resources that are hard to replace or manage that are non-toxic. (And yes, I’ve over simplified the whole subject, but this IS a blog comment. 😛 )

    In architecture, it is my opinion that they should work with environment rather than against it. I think some of the work that has been done these last few years by urban planners on reducing development impacts and improving quality of urban life has been stellar.