The term “sustainability” has been given several definitions over the years. In 1976 Robert Stivers described sustainability as an economy “in equilibrium with basic ecological support systems.” In 1987 the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
And there are many more. Some revolve around the idea of ecosystem “carrying capacity,” or what population size can be supported indefinitely with finite available resources. Other definitions look at incorporating externalized environmental costs into our decision making, or improving sociopolitical conditions, like education, the empowerment of women, and social justice — goals upon which sustainability is often predicated.
There are, however, no universally accepted definitions of sustainability. The reason is that sustainability exerts its meaning across too many human and ecological contexts of varying scale and scope, objectives and time horizons. I think Blake Ratner is probably right to call sustainability a “dialogue of values that defies consensual definition.” Sustainability is, in many ways, an ongoing and deeply revealing exchange with ourselves: What do we value? What are our human ambitions? What are our constraints?
In this short story I’m interested in examining sustainability in its most talked-about context in the U.S.: sustainable construction, or green buildings. (In other parts of the world sustainable agriculture would be at the top of the list, or sustainable cities — much bigger-picture stuff than isolated buildings.)
What constitutes sustainability in modern green construction? According to U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED framework, it’s usually specific design decisions and technology improvements that can be more or less enumerated in a checklist. The LEED guidelines have been instrumental in popularizing and attempting to quantify the benefits of sustainable construction. Beyond the checklist, I will argue, there is an even bigger challenge that designers, architects, and other decision makers need to confront if sustainability is our aim.
Here I will discuss longevity. Looking at sustainability as a function of longevity is one way of coming to terms with the elusive goals that companies, institutions, and communities expect of their green construction projects.
Longevity as durability
On the surface, longevity usually means durability. It can mean making something that’s so strong, sturdy, and resistant to fatigue that it’s bound to last for a very long time. Churches are probably the best example. Churches were built of field and quarry stone. Wood components, like arches and ceiling braces, were made of enormous wood beams. These days, you don’t see a lot of church building going on.
What you do see getting built in and around cities are shopping centers, multi-unit apartments and townhomes, and office buildings. But as I stroll through downtown Oakland, California and nearby Emeryville, and gaze up, I can’t help but think that, 100+ years from now, it won’t be the chic apartments for the eco-conscious or the impersonal big box retail stores that remain standing. The buildings that remain will be skyscrapers.
Skyscrapers are, partly out of necessity, sturdy and long-lasting. They aren’t intended to be temporary, and often require years (even decades) of planning and construction. They’re designed to withstand the jolt of earthquakes. They’re high-density. They’re almost always centrally positioned within existing city bounds and close to transit. Because they are costly to build and situated in higher-cost, space-constrained downtown locations, skyscrapers are far more likely to be renovated and retrofitted than knocked down and rebuilt. Some skyscrapers are even critical pieces of a city’s identity, like its skyline or what shows up on postcards.
I think it’s safe to say that skyscrapers will almost always be the last to go. To be fair, a skyscraper’s ability to endure is probably intertwined with economic realities and supporting city infrastructure as much as the strength and durability required of its construction. Nevertheless, skyscrapers just might be among the most sustainable buildings if only by virtue of how long they stand to remain standing.
What might overturn a skyscraper’s designation as sustainable is its enormous energy requirements. Exceedingly tall buildings typically feature inoperable windows. Instead of opening windows when the outside temperature is right, massive climate control systems and high-pressure air handler units are used to deliver heating, cooling, and ventilation to different parts of the building. In order to ascend or descend a tall building, elevators are usually the only way to travel. Besides calculating the ongoing energy and water expenditures of a skyscraper, we also have to consider the energy required to produce a lot of cement, glass, and steel.
Not even the most sustainable structure can undo the wrong brought about by poor urban planning. In Dubai, for example, ignoring ecological realities of the arid Gulf has made it achievable to construct the world’s tallest building and an extravagant metropolis in the middle of a desert. Owing to the fact that Dubai requires perpetual air conditioning, desalinated water, automobiles, medium-haul air travel, and cheaply available oil just to survive, the presence of skyscrapers only makes matters worse.
Skyscrapers are also expensive and, more often than not, geared toward traditional business and financial institutions. On the other hand, highly iconic skyscrapers can serve as a symbolic axis or center for non-business oriented institutions.
But even if skyscrapers are sustainable in the green construction sense of the term, they can’t be counted on to provide other aspects of culture, ecology, street-level navigability, and storefront vitality that contribute to a livable and loving community or city.
Longevity as recyclability
Longevity can also mean recyclability. Buildings are more than just a one-time assemblage of materials. Buildings in operation constantly produce waste — energy waste, occupant poop waste, worn-out stuff waste. Some of these things can be captured and recycled.
At the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, the remarkable building where I had worked as an undergraduate student, the idea of “waste” has been turned on its head. The Living Machine, an on-site wastewater treatment facility that mimics the cleansing processes of natural wetland ecosystems, purifies all wastewater produced in the building and recycles it. Interface brand carpet tiles, which at the time of construction were pretty revolutionary as far as carpeting goes, allow for easy section-by-section replacement and are recycled into new tiles once they have worn out.
Recyclability has serious drawbacks, though, including that energy, water, and sometimes new materials are still required to recycle and recreate something. Plus there are downcycling effects, as William McDonough and Michael Braungart explain in their book Cradle to Cradle. For example, “When plastics other than those found in soda and water bottles are recycled, they are mixed with different plastics to produce a hybrid of lower quality, which is then molded into something amorphous and cheap, such as a park bench or a speed bump…” With this in mind, recycling seems more like merely postponing the inevitable trip to the landfill.
Realistically, not everything is going to be recycled. So, at the end of the day, although a building’s recyclable characteristics are good indicators that it is “greener” than most buildings, those recyclables may or may not extend the life and usefulness of the building. This may, however, allow the building’s materials to have another life in the form of something else, maybe even another building.
Another dimension to recyclability is a material or building component’s ability to be repaired or amended. Rather than relying on replacement or immediate recycling, certain features might be overhauled or restored to working order. Not everything lends itself to easy fixing, though. How do you fix hard-to-reach structural features? How do you fix the lack of adequate daylighting in the center of a building? Or worse, how do you fix a building that is just butt-ugly?
Longevity as desirability
As we can see, longevity is more than durability or recyclability. We humans tire of things not because they are any less useful, but merely because they are out of style. What was fashionable in the 1970s might not be fashionable any longer in the 2010s. As a result, we end up discarding useful things. Sadly, the same sometimes goes for buildings.
We’ve all witnessed it before. A major league football stadium is leveled to build… another football stadium. An indoor shopping mall is bulldozed to build… a newer, shinier shopping mall. An apartment complex is raised to build lower-density housing units. An office building deemed ugly by today’s standards is knocked down only to get replaced by a more modern version of the same thing. Buildings are, by no means, intended to last until the end of their useful lifetimes.
The missing piece to ensuring the longevity of buildings is maintaining a building’s desirability. What is desirability? It’s hard to put a finger on it, even if you’re examining just a single building type. In general, I think it is the capacity of a building 1) to be loved for its beauty and 2) to garner popularity or financial support. More than just being in vogue, or facilitating an important social or money-making function, desirability denotes something perennial and regenerative. Consider the following examples:
Even to the secular crowds, churches are often considered beautiful. They’re also popular, given that people have worshiped and will continue to worship deities for a long time. Members support churches through donations. Churches can serve important community functions, like the telling of time by ringing bells. Many churches are affordable civic hubs for social events, or safe havens in violent or economically devastated neighborhoods. They also have a dependable aura of long-lastingness about them, which can be in and of itself desirable.
Everywhere there is a theater or two, or more. Theaters the world over have a history of getting into a slump every now and then. After all, watching a live performance or a film is a luxury, and keeping a performance space or movie house in operation can be costly. But the miraculous thing about theaters is their consistent popularity throughout time, and the support of ordinary people as well as generous benefactors. Theaters, in some cases, are also very stunning to look at. Theaters have a peculiar ability to become reinvigorated after periods of economic decline or shifting cultural and technological trends.
Buildings that link us to our early heritage seem to score high desirability points. Old train stations, firehouses, warehouses, and industrial facilities — so many of these types of buildings are deemed desirable not because they are able to serve their original purpose, but because they have something that today’s modern buildings do not. Heritage buildings feature materials, artistry, and an attention to detail and form that simply aren’t found among a lot of new buildings. A cool thing about the Yankee’s new stadium is that it incorporates design elements of the original facility, rather than merely fulfilling the typical modern ballpark aesthetic.
A different take: longevity and ultra long-term thinking
Consider yet another level to longevity that transcends our current place and time. What about future civilizations? In other words, after cities have fallen to insurmountable resource constraints or disease, and human settlements have been relocated as a result of climate destabilization or in the wake of advancing ice sheets during the next Ice Age, what will remain? How might we think about longevity in ways that require us to plan for a distant and increasingly uncertain future?
The 10,000 Year Clock project by The Long Now Foundation in San Francisco set out years ago on an unprecedented endeavor to build a “monument scale, multi-millennial, all mechanical clock as an icon to long-term thinking.” The project’s website lists some guiding principles for designing things (and in particular, clocks) to last a long time: longevity (with occasional maintenance, the clock should reasonably be expected to display the correct time for the next 10,000 years despite earthquakes, bad weather, and non-malicious human interaction); maintainability (the clock should use familiar materials, make it easy to build spare parts, and include the manual); transparency (it should be possible to determine operational principles of the clock by close inspection); evolvability (it should be possible to improve the clock with time); and scalability (it should be possible to build working models of the clock from table-top to monumental size using the same design).
While differently scaled versions of the Clock are to be built, it is expected that the final monument-size Clock will be constructed underground near Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. In summary: “The idea behind the Clock is to be an inspiration for long-term thinking, to help make thinking long term automatic and common, instead of difficult and rare. It is hoped to be an artifact to connect its visitors to the future in the same way relics from ancient civilizations connect us to the past.”
“Make it easy to build spare parts,” “expect earthquakes,” “go slow” — these are excellent morsels of wisdom for those who seek to construct other things, making the 10,000 Year Clock an appropriate template for green buildings as well.
At the end of the day, longevity obviously can mean a lot of things. What the Clock tells us is that applied long-term thinking, preparedness for changing conditions, and inter-generational responsibility are the bedrock for ensuring that things survive into the future. Longevity in the sense of fostering these ideals might be our noblest of “certifications” for green buildings. It might also become our defining notion of sustainability at-large in the distant future.
Another definition of sustainability might be derived from the “seventh generation” philosophy of the Native American Iroquois, which instructed Chiefs to consider the impact of their decisions on descendants seven generations (a couple hundred years) into the future.
In Sprawl, Squatters and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues?, Archaeologist Michael Smith talks about what urban sustainability scholars can gain from archaeological insights of civilizations past. In another context Smith also writes: “The study of modern urban sustainability does not ask whether cities will fail or not, but whether a given quality of urban life can continue into the future… making it difficult to compare ancient urban sustainability (how long did cities survive?) with modern sustainability (can present lifestyles continue into the future?)”
In a short piece titled The Omega Glory, Michael Chabon reacts to the Clock and our collective failure to envision a future that is hundreds of years out.
The main image at the top of this page is from a Financial Times advertisement. It’s comprised of a number of landmark skyscrapers nestled in an imaginary isle of free enterprise—everything from the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai to the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur to the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco. The cluster is meant to depict an integrated world economy. In my mind it had stood out as a collection of the buildings that are least likely to disappear over the next few hundred years.
Originally published May 2011 in DesignBlog.