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When the term “sustainability” is brought up in architectural discourse, everyone seems to have a different opinion on the matter. Sustainability is wrought with controversy politically, economically, socially and pedagogically, and while the definition has shifted over time, many new branches of design have developed from sustainability with the aim of driving progressive and innovative change in the world. But what exactly is sustainability, and how do we encounter it in the architectural world?
What is sustainability?
To understand what sustainability in architecture is, we should start at the origins of the term’s ideology and reflect on its evolution since 1987. Though sustainability has, by definition been central to the success or failure of civilizations for millennia, sustainability was most recently redefined in March of 1987 with the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations on sustainable development. It was here that sustainability was described in the modern context to be “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  This definition was geared at energy production and infrastructure construction and maintenance: the two largest industrial consumers of energy and generators of pollution in the world. With the mindset that instant gratification was often counter-intuitive to the long term success of any architectural enterprise, it was the United Nation’s intent to encourage a reevaluation of priorities worldwide.
As concerns about impending ecological disasters worsen, the success of this reevaluation in practice have been mixed. On one end of the spectrum, sustainability has sparked the “green movement” in modern design, with many people accepting a moral duty to consider their actions in terms of long-term sustainability. On the other, some organizations have been accused of exploiting this sense of moral duty for marketing purposes while doing as little as possible to be truly sustainable. As the designers of infrastructure, architects are well-placed as leaders in the former - but they can also be under significant pressure to engage in the latter.
Why has sustainability become such a hot topic?
On the whole, architects have become particularly vocal and active proponents of sustainability. However, sustainability is not only approached in a large variety of ways, but is also rooted in individual agendas. Some are driven to design through fear; as evidence mounts about the negative consequences of human activity on the planet, some design “green” under the pretense of working to prevent imminent catastrophe. Others design for positive change due to social pressure:
But just as there are opposing opinions in wider conversations on climate change and sustainability, there are dissenting voices in the architecture world. A small minority oppose sustainable design simply because they either do not believe the evidence for man-made ecological disasters; but perhaps more prevalent are objections based in the idea that a moral imperative to be sustainable can eclipse other valid architectural pursuits:
How is sustainability manifested in architecture?
Being an inherently long-term, wide lens idea, sustainability has become a motivational umbrella under which a huge variety of more specific architectural trends fall - from the very small to the very large scale and from futuristic ideas such as Smart Cities to low-tech, back-to-basics ideas such as urban farming. There are now so many dimensions to sustainability that a full investigation has become virtually impossible, however 8 of the most important topics related to sustainability are discussed below:
1. Material Application and Experimentation
For architects and designers, the most obvious interaction between their work and the environment comes through the physical objects they design, and the materials used to design them. As such, one of the biggest drives in the sustainability movement is for materials which require less energy to create and do not harm people or the environment once they are in use:
2. Smart Cities
The concept of the "smart city" - a highly networked urban environment which relies on communications technology and data to create a responsive environment - has formed from a number of motivations, but perhaps chief among them has been sustainability. The logic is that with computer control, smart cities will be able to use resources more efficiently, for example by optimizing transportation networks or by dimming lights when they are not needed. However, in architecture circles at least, many are suspicious of the utopian future offered by smart cities thanks to their current ties to commercial interests:
Another objection to smart cities, most notably voiced by Rem Koolhaas, has been that the very concept of the smart city is limiting to the people who will occupy them, restricting their freedom in an attempt to provide a "streamlined" city:
However, despite these objections, the smart city continues to be popular, particularly among technology companies and politicians, and in recent years proposals for smart city projects have switched from their early tabula rasa approach to investigating how we can retrofit existing cities with smart city technologies:
3. Urban Farming
Of all the things humans have done to alter the planet's natural environment, perhaps the most transformative changes have been done in the name of agriculture. And, as the planet's population has grown and agriculture has become increasingly industrialized, concerns have been raised over both the sustainability of our current systems, but also of people's lack of awareness and understanding of those systems. One proposed solution to both of these problems has been to bring agriculture into the city - offering the chance for a less industrial, more hands-on approach to farming and connecting people once again to the production of their food:
In addition to ecological benefits, urban farming has also been proposed as a form of social fortification. Urban farming initiatives are used as a way to promote cooperation and community development. While not immediately or substantially contributing to ecological impact, building strength and camaraderie in a community allows the emotional and social structure of city to be sustainable:
4. Social Sustainability
While sustainability is often perceived in the one-dimensional context of ecological and environmental concerns, there is also significant attention being given to the sustainability of communities. Just as urban farming is often proposed as a way to bring people together, architects have the opportunity to make lasting social change. There are many ways to approach design and construction with these variable in mind from day one:
This approach to sustainability has, unsurprisingly, also been important in politics:
5. Sustainability awards
An overlooked yet ever present variable in sustainable practices is international visibility and recognition. For an initiative to be recognized today, social media and public competition often provide the headcount and crowd-sourced support necessary to implement lasting positive change. A huge number and variety of organizations have also taken on the task of hosting competitions to see who across the world can develop the most innovative, forward-thinking and environmentally and socially conscious architecture:
6. Net Zero
In the discussion of climate change, you often hear the term “carbon footprint” to refer to the carbon emissions produced by a person, object or process. In architecture, a building that is Net Zero, also known as a zero-energy building, consumes the same amount of energy that it produces through renewable means, through solar, wind, water and many more methods of sustainable energy production. Architecture that is Net-Zero is often considered to be at the pinnacle of sustainable design:
Yet with the state of human development’s impact on the natural world, scientific and architectural communities are exploring going further than zero net energy. Some designers are pushing for “carbon positive” design, which produces renewable energy on site beyond the needs of the structure supporting it:
7. Green Rating Systems
With the mass popularization of the green movement and environmentally conscious practices, came the implementation of systems geared at scoring and categorizing the level of positive environmental impact of each building. By far the leading system is LEED, run by the US Green Building Council, which scores certain measures that can be implemented in buildings in order to provide a total rating of how sustainable the building is. However, other systems for rating such variables have become popular as well:
Systems like LEED spark controversy though. Though many of the variables LEED and other rating systems categorize are important to determining a building’s social and environmental impact, all variables have widespread and overlapping consequences (both positive and negative), meaning that their point-based system is an inherently simplified way of tackling sustainability:
In an effort to possibly recouch what the changing definition of sustainability is, a new buzzword has recently surfaced: resilience. By definition to be resilient is not to withstand force without change, but rather to be able to recover or return from it. Buildings in the developed world are designed to withstand forces and to fight the natural elements with layer upon layer of fortification. Yet being able to be affected by and respond to change is what allows natural systems to continue existing and developing, so why shouldn’t the built environment do the same? Perhaps most importantly, "resilience" has been championed by some very powerful players: through the US department of Housing and Urban Development's $1 billion "rebuild by design" competition and the Rockerfeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities program (which is further supported by the American Institute of Architects), resilience has become one of the most talked-about ideas in sustainability of recent years:
Are there any problems facing the sustainable movement?
Perhaps the biggest issue confronting sustainability is that it is - arguably inherently - not a commercial endeavor. As mentioned earlier, it has proven possible in some cases to monetize sustainability as a marketing ploy - however, in many other cases, the old, unsustainable approach often ends up cheaper, easier, or both. For this reason, ELEMENTAL's Alejandro Aravena has argued that the most important hurdle for sustainability is not in getting people to agree to its merits, but in people having the integrity to pass up on the short-term opportunities that might be provided by other approaches:
Another challenge to sustainability in fact lies precisely in its success: as the popularity of the green movement grew, it developed a set of distinctive aesthetic references which, though they may not functionally be related to sustainability, have the appearance of being sustainable. The exploitation of these visual cues has resulted in a phenomenon known as "green-washing," where a design claims to be sustainable without any deep analysis of its impact on the environment or the social structures it must work within. Fortunately, such practices have been heavily criticized:
As interest in sustainability grows, so does people's understanding of this incredibly complex ideal. Sustainability has, for some people, become an unquestionable goal - the only remaining question is how it might be achieved. As more work is done to find out, sustainability is seeding other movements and initiatives, making it one of the most critical components of architectural discussion today.
- "Our Common Future, Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development," from A/42/427. Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, (UN Documents, 1987).