Why are we still not building sustainably?

There’s something to be said about sustainability in architecture. Unfortunately, no one is saying it. Sure, the word gets thrown around a lot. But it has gotten to a point where people are just saying it to convince themselves and others that it’s actually there. It’s not!

A friend of mine likes to say that no one knows what sustainability actually means — even those who do, don’t really know how to apply it in an architectural context. The problem is we’re dreamers. Architects would love nothing more than a beautiful aesthetically pleasing building that functions perfectly and give something back to the community but the reality of it is that it’s not going to happen as long as we keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Sustainable architecture is an idea that for all intents and purposes sounds like a ‘happily ever after’. Architecture that will work with the natural world instead of against it, enriching everyone’s lives just by its presence — but the reality is: all we’ve been doing is just being passive.

Sustainability implies that we create a continuous loop where once you get it rolling, it goes on on its own. A few examples of are re-using water, filtering the used water and making sure none or very small amounts of it actually goes to waste. The same goes for heating, waste, energy (that’s a big one), etc.

So far what we have are a few buildings and examples around the world, that are supposed to be the pioneers of sustainability. But they treat these features as a kind of marketing, to increase their value, without them having a real impact. They are promoted like a statement that says to the world ‘this is how it’s supposed to be!’. It’s not.

We can all agree that as a species, we’ve reached a point in our development where there’s simply too many of us and too few resources left to keep using them in the same wasteful ways as we’ve been doing up until now. We need to at least co-exist with the world we inhabit.

In the distinction in between passivity and sustainability, to be passive means to be inert, to try not to change anything. This is a good step towards sustainability, making sure that there are as many trees present on site after the buildings done as there were before, making sure there’s grass on the roof to replace the torn out grass from the building’s footprint and even to incorporating solar panels and other energy generating devices into the architecture. Yes, these make a difference, but it stops short of truly embodying the ideals of sustainability.

The problem is that we live in a fast paced world that demands a lot for very little. Yes, we can be altruistic and want a truly sustainable architectural wonder — but the fact of the matter is it’s more expensive upfront. But architecture is a long-term investment and as far as sustainable solutions are concerned, an bigger budget at the start translates into less spent on maintainance and utilities.

We should strive to change the psychological factors that keep us from actually moving forward rather than selling ourselves a nice little lie saying everything is as good as it’s ever going to get and pat ourselves on the back.

We do this when it comes to change. We’ve been doing it for a while and we are good at it, for example: global warming, pollution, evolution. Striking them down as ideas because changing the status quo frightens us.

Architecture that’s passive is good, architecture that’s sustainable would be great. Unfortunately we have yet to see it and for all its novelty and catchiness, calling a dog a horse won’t help it run faster.

There’s a spirit of community that will come from achieving this. We’re all doing it for ourselves and the others around us and truth be told it isn’t that simple to get around but just like a balanced diet or scheduled activities that we stick to, we do it because it makes us better and pushes us forward.

Possible solutions involve the public becoming more aware of the issue, engaging in constructive dialogue with architects to better understand and possibly offer up ideas. Small steps could pave the way, a change here and there will get us where we need to go so to show you we can do it instead of taking a step forward lets take a few steps back.

Its the year 1916, one hundred years ago today, daylight savings was introduced in the UK, mobile phones are not even a dream yet and the battle of Verdun is about to be fought.

The point is that we had a whole lot less than that with just another hundred year jump back. So if we work together, imagine where we could be one hundred years from now.

The first rule to solving any problem is admitting that we have it. It concerns all of us, and one way or another we’ll have to address it. Yet the beauty of any problem is that it forces us to put our best selves forward in order to fix it, and that’s how we will shine.

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