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Is ‘sustainable’ design even possible?

March 10, 2016 - In a recent post, Happy Curmudgeon’s Day!, I referred to a piece I wrote several years ago, titled “Making of a Curmudgeon”. One astute reader had a question about the closing paragraph of the original article, which read: “Next month, I’ll begin with one of my favourite subjects—‘sustainable’ design. He asked what I thought about ‘sustainable’ design in 2008, and if I had changed my opinion.

March 11, 2016  By Sheldon Wolfe FCSI CCS

Here are excerpts from the two posts that came after “The Making of a Curmudgeon”, followed by my current thoughts about ‘sustainable’ design.

Sustainable design… is it?
sustainable: able to be sustained; the capacity to maintain a certain process or state indefinitely

English is the richest of the world’s languages. Most sources put the number of words well over 900,000; the Global Language Monitor estimates we will see our millionth word in April 2009. How does that compare to other languages? Chinese is a distant second, at half a million words, followed by Spanish and Japanese at about a quarter million words each.

English not only has a word for everything, it has an impressive range of words with subtle differences for most subjects. Unfortunately, we are able to use only a fraction of that number; the average American has a working vocabulary of about 14,000 words. Of the words we do know, not all are at our immediate disposal. It’s far easier to come up with a more suitable word when we have time to think, but in casual conversation, we too frequently grab the first word that comes to mind, thereby missing an opportunity to be more precise in what we say.


It’s one thing to be inaccurate in casual conversation, but there is no excuse for incorrect use of words when they are the result of supposedly thoughtful planning. With so many opportunities to be precise, why is it necessary to co-opt a word and give it a false meaning? To some extent, it may be because we have become accustomed to misuse of words.

In advertising, “new” and “improved” often are misleading and, in politics, we accept outright lies, such as “balanced budget” and “budget surplus”. Still, we should expect more from those claiming scientific basis for their assertions. Unfortunately, the latest energy crisis has led to one more poor choice of words. Because, by definition, ‘sustainable’ design isn’t.

Not only is ‘sustainable’ design not sustainable, but the meaning of the term has changed to incorporate non-sustainable requirements. The US General Services Administration (GSA), in a move reminiscent of Orwell’s “doublethink”, is promoting its own definition:

Sustainable design seeks to reduce negative impacts on the environment, and the health and comfort of building occupants, thereby improving building performance. The basic objectives of sustainability are to reduce consumption of non-renewable resources, minimize waste, and create healthy, productive environments. [My italics]

Both heating and air-conditioning make it possible for us to live and work in areas that would otherwise be nearly uninhabitable, at the same time requiring vast amounts of energy. Air-conditioning is especially insidious, as it increases the outdoor temperature we try to escape, and the hotter it gets, the more cooling we need.

The introduction of inexpensive air-conditioning had an enormous impact on life, and on energy consumption and the environment. In the U.S., sales of window units increased from 75,000 in 1948 to over a million within five years. Today, 90% of new homes and 80% of new cars have air-conditioning.

With about 5% of the population, the U.S. uses about 25% of the world’s electricity. According to Energy Bulletin, one-third of that goes to air-conditioning. Certainly, as we increase insulation and efficiencies, we can reduce the impact of air-conditioning, but its use will continue to rise. The American market is close to saturation, but it will be overshadowed by the rise in air-conditioning in China and other developing countries.

We must remember that sustainability has nothing to do with creature comfort. In fact, our insistence on being comfortable is a prime contributor to the problems we now face. Comfortable buildings do make their occupants happy and increase productivity, but require more materials and energy.

The closest thing to sustainable design is a grass hut on a tropical island. The more comfortable we make it, and the farther we get from that island, the less sustainable it becomes.

Green design is necessary, but calling it something it’s not will do more harm than good.

First Law of green design: conservation of energy
conserve: to avoid wasteful or destructive use; to use or manage wisely; to use only what is needed

Unfortunately, the supply of islands and grass huts is limited.

Even though sustainability cannot be achieved, it seems reasonable that green design would result in buildings that use as little energy and other resources as possible. Taken to the extreme, this would mean that those of us not fortunate enough to live in San Diego would live and work in well-insulated, windowless cubes. Obviously, this is unrealistic and would be unacceptable. It is, however, no more outrageous than many of the award-winning buildings that are touted as examples of sustainable design.

I’m not an engineer, but my gut feeling is that a large glass box, with relatively little insulated surface, will use more energy than the same building with less glass and more insulation. With double- or triple-glazing and low‑E coatings, it may be possible to force that box into performing efficiently, but is that being sustainable? If the same building with less glass will use less energy, it is the more sustainable of the two. I’m not talking about the windowless cube, just a building with good insulation.

Instead of comparing two otherwise identical versions of a given building, one using normal construction and one intended for LEED certification, we should be comparing a new building design to one that most efficiently meets the program requirements. It makes no sense to compare a LEED-certified outhouse of 5000 sf with a tarpaper outhouse of the same size; we should compare it with the standard outhouse of 20 sf. It isn’t enough to make an efficient building; the design itself must conserve resources.

Many publicized ‘sustainable’ buildings send the wrong message. While green enthusiasts claim certified buildings will save enormous amounts of energy and other resources, the buildings reported to the public often are examples of conspicuous consumption. They may meet LEED requirements, but are in fact ridiculously expensive or blatantly wasteful. How do these examples exemplify conservation?

• The state of Minnesota, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the University of Minnesota all support sustainable design, yet they collectively decided that several single-purpose sports facilities are justified—one each for professional football, hockey, soccer and basketball; two for professional baseball; one each for university football, basketball and baseball; and two for university hockey. This non-sustainable practice is not unique to Minnesota but is found across the country.

• A 15,000-sf, $29-million home with “enough pools, water gardens, misters, waterfalls, strategic landscaping, etc., to drop the site temperature by 2-3 degrees, thus reducing cooling costs”.

• An energy-efficient, 3500-sf home on 60 acres… for two people.

• A “tiny house” on an acre or more of land.

• An urban home remodelled to achieve LEED platinum certification at a cost of $1.2 million.

The green community celebrates each of these, but what is the message to the public? That green design is for the wealthy; that glitzy, gimmicky design takes precedence over real conservation; that personal comfort is equally important as saving energy; and that virtual black holes of energy consumption are considered sustainable.

I know that’s not true, and I’m certain there are many buildings, LEED-certified or not, that use substantially less energy than their predecessors, and don’t look much different from surrounding buildings. Unfortunately, they aren’t sexy enough to promote. The message should be that even though green design costs more up front, it’s worth the price, and it doesn’t have to be weird.

Until we see more examples of economical and practical green design, it will continue to be seen as something only for the rich and famous.

*     *     *     *     *

That’s what I said several years ago. I expected little, so I’m amazed at what has been done since I wrote the above. However, as long as energy-saving design and construction are not mandated, they will be rejected in favour of low first cost. Humans have proven their inability to think beyond the next meal for thousands of years; there is no reason to think they voluntarily will give up creature comforts, more convenience, and the energy-consuming toys they consider necessities.

The AIA 2030 Challenge, which targets carbon neutrality, got a lot of interest, but it’s in trouble. The 2014 AIA progress report shows an average of about 12% of reported projects meeting the 60% reduction goal, which increased to 70% in 2015. Even if all reported projects met the 60% goal, it would be little more than window dressing. Fewer than 400 firms signed the 2030 pledge, about 2% of the 18,000 AIA firms; of the signatory firms, 140 submitted reports.

The 2014 AIA progress report seems to have been written by a marketing department. It’s full of positive statements and statistics, and concludes with

The AIA 2030 Commitment grew in 2014. Its ranks include more of us, and more of our square footage is coming online under its carbon-reduction goals. Like any transformation, the Commitment may run into some headwinds, and may look more confident in some years than others. We are confident, though, that we are moving into a carbon-capped profession with our ingenuity and effectiveness in place. The 33 firms who joined the Commitment in 2014 bear witness to architecture’s pledge to a vital cause.

After reading the report, one might conclude that the response to the 2030 challenge has been a success, and that the goal will be met. Looking beyond the report’s rosy tone, its own statistics suggest the program, as it stands, is less than successful, and will have little impact. As with all difficult things, it’s moving slowly; AIA apparently is hoping everything suddenly will come together in December 2029. Don’t get me wrong; the 2030 challenge is a positive step in the right directions, but it is only a step, and a small one at that.

Even if the 2030 goals for new construction are achieved for all buildings, how will the enormous stock of existing buildings be updated? And what of the rest of the world? Although the U.S. is today’s leader in consumption, it is starting to show some control. At the same time, other countries are ramping up their desire for more cars, more air-conditioning, more energy, and more of everything. Can the planet support several billion people who want the luxuries the U.S. has enjoyed?

— Sheldon Wolfe, FCSI, CCS, is a certified construction specifier and a Fellow of the Construction Specifications Institute. Look him up on LinkedIn.

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