Sustainability is a philosophy. It’s a holistic way of living that allows the needs of the present to be met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Homo sapiens has been around for approximately 500,000 years. For most of that time, the species mucked in with the rest of the world. But then things changed.
At first, H. sapiens ate what food was available, and then learnt to farm; it sheltered where it felt safe, and then learnt to build; it explored the Earth, and then went into space. At first, H. sapiens converted calories into energy; then it used fire, and then wind, and then fossil fuel. By the middle of the 18th century, H sapiens had begun to tip an environmental balance.
It’s estimated that the temperature of the Earth has risen 10 times faster since the beginning of the Industrial revolution than at any other time during the last 2,000,000 years. This recent acceleration in the rate of global warming is a direct result of human activity. The good news is: if we were clever enough to build such an invasive economic infrastructure, and if we’re clever enough to understand what we’ve done, then we must be capable of putting things right.
The 1987 Brundtland Report (Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development) presents a case for the merging together of economics and environment in all decision making. The movement looks beyond the parameters of organisation, community, sector, or nation. Sustainable development is a philosophy built on global foundations and supported by three universal pillars: people; environment; economy.
Like a three-legged stool, a philosophy built on any two of these pillars would be unstable. Looking after the environment and people couldn’t last for long without nurturing the economy; protecting the environment and the economy at the expense of human wellbeing would be disastrous; to focus on people and the economy without a care for the environment would be to continue a bad habit.
The carbon footprint is an accounting system that quantifies the economy’s impact on the environment through the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG), which are measured in CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) units. One unit of CO2e represents 1kg of CO2 or the equivalent amount of another GHG, based on its global warming potential (GWP). Global warming potential is a value derived from a gas’s capacity to retain heat over a period of (typically) 100 years.
The carbon footprint can be divided into embodied carbon and operational carbon.
Embodied carbon, which accounts for up to 50% of the total footprint, represents GHG emissions associated with: extraction and processing of raw materials; manufacture, transportation, and assembly of a product; maintenance throughout the product’s life; and end-of-life disassembly and disposal.
In the case of a building, operational carbon is the portion of the carbon footprint that accounts for keeping the building ventilated, lit, warm, and powered.
So, who will lead the way to a fully functional circular economy? Who has the foresight and imagination to rebuild our world in a way that nurtures our emotional and physical needs and encourages a sustainable lifestyle? Who will design spaces that inspire productivity and wellbeing whilst being kind to the environment?
We look to the modern architect to choose materials with a low level of embedded carbon and to reuse what’s already there. It’s the architect who calculates a building’s environmental impact and finds ways to balance the harm with good – for example, by installing solar cells on a roof to compensate for future emissions. And it’s the architect who gives us windows and skylights, attractive stairways, and open-plan spaces.
The future of building design will be to replenish what we take. When the books are balanced, it won’t be solely about financial accounts. Just as importantly, we’ll be weighing up environmental debits and credits and restoring the equilibrium of the Earth’s unique, life- giving atmosphere.