Friday, 27 October 2017

What is sustainability?

As banal as it seems, this question came up for me recently, with just as much uncertainty as it has for the last thirty or more years.

I was one of the judges of the sustainability awards last night, run for the last eleven years by Architecture and Design, the Australian buildings and products news magazine. Before the event, it wouldn’t have been fair to the organizers or the enthusiastic participants, for me to be too negative about my experience as a judge.

But now that the awards are over for this year, the need for a full and frank discussion of what we’ve learnt outweighs those considerations.

The status quo is not good enough

I found the shortlist of finalists to be disappointing. With some of the entries, I actually had to ask myself what they thought they were doing in sustainability awards. On the whole, the short list represented something close to what should by now be fairly common levels of achievement in the mainstream. So much so, that I am sure some very good projects and products out there were not submitted for the competition, specifically because their authors or proponents themselves did not think that they were sufficiently exceptional.

Worthwhile, yes.  Sustainable, no.

Which is not to say that some of the entrants didn’t work very hard to get to where they are, and that deserves some acknowledgement. This is especially true of the larger commercial buildings, with their complex facades and interior systems. For instance, the winner of the commercial category was the EY Centre in Sydney, a high-rise office tower designed by FJMT incorporating a glorious, golden timber venetian blind system in a pressurized closed cavity facade. Demonstrably beyond the state-of-the-art, and the final outcome of serious research by the architects and their consultants. But the problem is that – notwithstanding all that effort and the notable innovations – the best one can say about the building is that it is ‘less bad’ than most of its type. But definitely not sustainable.

What can we learn?

As a judge in a competition, I was also disturbed by the overall quality of the submission materials. They varied from reasonable and informative, to cringe inducingly inept. I have a private prejudice that entries in such a competition should offer ‘evidence and instructive repeatability’. In other words, others should be able to learn from what is on show.  Not many of the projects provided materials that qualified for that criterion.

Overall, therefore, I am uncomfortable with the hype with which such sustainability awards are typically associated. I do understand the necessity for the hype as part of a bigger commitment to sustainability. But if we are to genuinely move forward, we have to raise the standards considerably.

Just sustainable is not good enough

To my real disappointment, I could not identify any submitted projects, other than a couple of the landscape entries, as regenerative or restorative. These concepts are gaining considerable traction as the necessary evolution of our sustainability thinking.

It is not equally easy to introduce those standards across the various categories of typical sustainability awards; but it is necessary and possible. In architecture, for instance, exceeding net zero energy might be enough for the claim. With a product or material, it is more complicated – you might have to do something like demonstrate that a waste product in the manufacturing process is actually a feed stock for another process, producing an overall net sustainability benefit. An excellent example is acetylated wood modification.

We do have to raise the standards for sustainability awards. If sustainability is to become common practice then we have to dramatically increase the expectations for best practice.

To balance what might sound like a relentlessly negative take on the awards, do see and read the more enthusiastic report at 2017 Sustainability Awards winners revealed.

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