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Is Sustainable Design Sustainable?
By R. Gregory Turner, AIA, LEED AP

Since it’s been only eight years since the LEED® pilot program was first rolled out, perhaps it’s too early to worry about the future of sustainable design. However, the underpinning rationale of the “sustainability” movement—that ever-increasing numbers of people will compete for scarcer resources on the globe—may be endangered. For at just the time that it seems to some that we have reached the limits of what the earth can provide, the earth may be about to be asked to provide less.

While a surging global population has been fingered as the reason for ever-increasing consumption of the planet’s resources, United Nations projections show that the number of people occupying the world has probably peaked. Some parts of the world (western Europe, Russia, Japan) are already experiencing significant population decline. And the less developed nations have been seeing birthrates plummet so fast that they are not far behind. Researchers such as Phillip Longman and Ben Wattenberg have written extensively on the meaning of these trends for the world. In terms of the construction industry, they probably point toward an era of less demand for the raw and fabricated materials of construction. In such a milieu, will interest in green design persist?

Regardless of the direction of population trends, the principles of sustainable design are too firmly rooted in the traditional American values of “waste not, want not” to disappear. Rather, the question is how will good ideas inherent in green design persist in conditions opposite those upon which the entire movement is founded?

First, they will persist if the program remains voluntary. Many of the most vital aspects of the LEED requirements, such as those pertaining to energy efficiency, are either already incorporated in building codes or considered standards of care in the industry. Maintaining the voluntary nature of certification will allow it to be a “value-added” component of design and construction. As such, the demands of the marketplace will do more than anything to drive building owners toward the benefits of sustainable design. Even owners that we deal with who shrink from the cost and requirements of certification nevertheless desire to incorporate as many aspects of green design as are achievable for them. LEED has become a standard toward which most owners strive at the very least. Furthermore, continuing the voluntary nature of sustainable design ensures the ability of the program to adapt to unanticipated changes in the environment; codification would surely lead to ossification in design and construction metheds.

Next, if the world economy does evolve from a supposedly materials-limited to a labor-limited one, the word “sustainable” may likewise change in meaning. The world’s working human capital, including those involved in design and construction, will be required to be more and more productive in order to meet the demands of aging populations. Historically, the gap between the needs of societies and the ability of humans to produce has been filled through technology. In order to “sustain” the workforce and economies of tomorrow, the technologies utilized in construction will need to be unleashed. This may run counter to green measures at the micro level (e.g., individual construction sites may need to be less restricted in the use of labor-saving machinery despite some level of increased pollution) although the conditions at the macro (worldwide) level may be improved. A flexible definition of sustainability should be maintained; the salvation of resources at the expense of economic development could take a severe toll on people worldwide.

The lessons learned pertaining to sustainable design over the next decade will be harvested for years to come, but perhaps in a climate much different than anticipated. A populace thirty years hence that is 20% smaller and considerably older than ours today will not consume as much as a younger, growing one. This will have benefits for all of humanity such as reduced pollution and resource consumption—advances that ironically could be achieved without the benefits of green design. However, it is also hoped that design and construction techniques developed now, in what may end up being the “golden age” of sustainability, will reap copious rewards for the future. 

About the author: R. Gregory Turner, AIA LEED AP, is the owner/principal of Turner Partners Architecture, a Houston, Texas based firm. Mr. Turner’s firm has been the recipient of such Design Awards as: Illuminating Engineers Society Design Award, the American Institute of Architects Design Award, and the Houston Chronicle/American Society of Interior Designers Design Award (twice). Is Sustainable Design Sustainable? Copyright 2006, R. Gregory Turner.

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