What is sustainable architecture?

Sustainability is important to me. Hopefully it’s important to you too. But it’s not until you really stop to unpack its meaning that you realise what a huge word it is. In this article, at the risk of sounding self-righteous and alienating everyone, I’m going to explain to you what I think sustainability means.

The whole premise of my practice is to design beautifully crafted, sustainable buildings. But sometimes I wonder whether it is an over-simplification to label one building as sustainable and another as unsustainable. Can a building be sustainable? It is after all just a collection of inert materials. Isn’t it only when you add people into the mix that there is a need for sustainability? The everyday processes of living and working? Aren’t these the things that determine whether the building is used sustainably? I certainly think so. It’s not the fact that it has a 5kW solar array on the roof.

You might think the distinction is slightly pedantic but actually I think it’s very important. What it means, is that the notion of building a sustainable building - that process of making a bunch of decisions about materials, heating, ventilation, all of it - is at best just the tip of the ice-berg, but more likely it’s a fallacy.

Sustainability, or rather, to live sustainably (or to lead a “considered life” as it is often termed) is not a simple matter of making a few decisions at a discrete moment or period in time. It is a life-long endeavour. It is about considering the long-term impact of every move. You don’t get to say you live a considered life because you live in a Passivhaus when the rest of your life-decisions are unsustainable, in much the same way as living in a period property can be entirely sustainable.

I’m all for taking sensible measures to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions and I take that part of my job very seriously. It’s a big part of the puzzle, but it is just that; a part of the puzzle. What troubles me is the idea that sustainability can be achieved with such apparent ease. It’s an approach that is fatally flawed; an example of how we as a society, prefer short-term sticking-plaster solutions to problems that are extremely complex and difficult (if not impossible) to tackle effectively. And worse, in a lot of cases, an example of clever marketing; “Buy this and you’ll save the planet”. The challenges that demand we move to a more sustainable way of life are much deeper-rooted than that.

Electric vehicles, or EVs make for a good case-study. Compared to an old internal combustion engine they reduce carbon emissions and air pollution. Sounds great, but this is an example of what I refer to as ‘greenwash’. What if we look at the bigger picture and really analyse what is happening? There is the rather obvious question of how the electricity is generated. Then there is the embodied energy that went into getting that car onto the forecourt in the first place; the raw materials have to be extracted from the ground, transported and processed, then those processed materials have to be transported again, and manufactured into cars, and finally the cars are transported to the salesroom. As a consumer society we’re constantly under pressure to replace cars every few years (manufacturers often citing lower emissions as justification). It’s only when you look at it on this level that you begin to realise how much this process - a process that is almost always labelled as ‘sustainable’ - continues to exploit the earth and fails to take a long-term view. It is in fact utterly unsustainable!

If you just bought an EV, don’t take this as a personal attack. My point is that ‘consuming’ cars is never going to be a sustainable option, no matter how environmentally friendly the manufacturers claim they will be.

At this point you’re probably in one of two camps. The first has probably already decided I’m a nutter and closed their browser window after the first paragraph. If you’re in the second camp, you’ve stuck with me because you can see my point (even if you don’t like it, or don’t entirely agree with it). Unfortunately, I’m not clever enough to have all of the answers - I wish I was. All I can do is a) try to live my life as sustainably as possible b) encourage you to think really hard about your lifestyle choices, and c) try to run a practice where the idea of sustainability underpins everything, so that those choices perhaps become slightly easier. To that end, I have a few guiding principles that I try to adhere to with my work:

  • Use locally sourced good-quality materials

  • Use passive strategies to control human comfort

  • Design buildings that are meant to last by making them re-usable, flexible, adaptable, and/or relocatable

  • Economise on the quantity of material used

  • Reduce waste through strategic setting-out

  • Reduce the number of layers/operations to construct an element (e.g. a wall)

  • Make building elements perform more than one function (e.g. a wall could also be a bookcase)

  • Minimise circulation space (or make it large enough to perform another function)

In the end, architecture is simply a backdrop against which our lives play out. I can’t design a building that makes you live sustainably any more than I can choose what you’re having for dinner. You’ll have to do the hard yards yourself. However, if I can make a truly sustainable, considered lifestyle even the slightest bit easier for you to achieve, then I’ll take that as a win, and that is what I aim to do with every project.

PS Perhaps a more accurate tag line is “beautifully crafted architecture for a considered life”.

PPS I’m not a nutter. I’m actually quite laid back.