In today’s business environment we have come to hear the words ‘sustainable development’ at almost every turn. The term is loosely used when attempting to communicate some form of commitment to environmental values. But have we lost sight of the original intentions of this term, and is it truly relevant anymore?I have been fortunate to have spent the past number of years deeply involved in Doctoral research into the future of the architectural profession.
In my research I primarily considered the implications of the 4th Industrial Revolution on process and product, delving into what will give our buildings continual relevance and resilience in the context of Smart Cities, the internet of things, even virtual cyberspace. In a world where the future’s solutions are presented through technological intervention, one has to ask: will architecture continue to play a role of importance in the future? The answer to this question requires investigation into a term that defines ‘future importance’ at its core. Sustainable Development, as a concept, has been with us for many years.
We would need to look all the way back to 1987, where the term was established by the UN and given a very broad, yet important definition in the Brundlant Report. In this report, Sustainable Development was defined as development that meets the needs of present and future generations. Simple, yet poignant. In 1994 the ‘triple bottom line’ was coined by businessman and author John Elkington, giving rise to the widely-known and accepted criteria: Social, Economic and Environmental. It was proposed that the consideration of these three criteria would create conditions for sustainable development. What was revolutionary about this approach was that it finally gave the masses a basis to quantify success. Each of these criteria could be subdivided, split into targets, and theoretically measured. It removed some of the vagueness and gave an abstract concept such as sustainability a ‘face’. These criteria were well-considered and broad enough to warrant application in virtually every industry.
However, in the decades that followed, sustainable development has been watered-down as a concept, often limited by association to green building and resource-efficient technologies. As it turns out, the triple bottom line criteria were still too vague to implement. It is difficult to measure or simulate social impact, but it is easier to simulate energy savings and CO2 levels. This creates the natural conditions for reliance on rating tools with a green building focus. These are extremely important and valuable, but must be considered as an important piece of a much larger puzzle.As an architect, I can sympathise with this difficulty in implementation. Embarking upon a design process that emphasises fast and effective results within short time periods, it is difficult to consider what the true long-term social implications a development might have on its immediate context, let alone how this will shape the design of a façade.
The truth is that the generic architectural process is not geared to incorporate this data at the onset, often requiring post-design intervention and development with a ‘hit-and-hope’ approach that the building will continue to do the job in the long-term. What I have come to realise is that architecture is limited by its approach to buildings as products designed for a fixed moment in time – in other words, temporal and spatial scale. When approaching architecture, archi-tects have a responsibility to their Clients to produce solutions to their brief that meet current and next-generational needs.
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