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?