Out of Balance
For a fantastic and purely visual representation of “World Out of Balance”, try the 1980s film called “Koyaanisqatsi.” Humanity pulses along to the musical score by Philip Glass - viewers are swept into a vibrating world - full of beauty and problems at the same time.
To present our reality as out of balance is disturbing - but instead of being overwhelmed, taking action around solutions creates hope in the form of a concrete goal for a thriving future.
Problems such as Climate Change, Environmental Justice, Pollution, Deforestation, Species Extinction, and more are affecting us right now, and there is an urgent need to implement the solutions that are available - this includes within the Architecture and Construction industry, which is responsible for a large percentage of CO2 emissions.
This is something of a description around traditionally accepted definitions of sustainability - while at the same time defining a specific approach and understanding of what sustainability really means.
As for the accepted definitions of sustainability, the UN Brundtland Commission, created a hefty and ambitious report called “Our Common Future” (1987) which offers a broadly accepted definition:
Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
This definition describes our behaviour in terms of human needs - linking the heath of the planet with our own survival. At the same time to evoke “humanity” is a way of including everyone on earth, not just those within one nation or immediate community.
The UN continues to challenge its members with the “Sustainable Development Goals” which are in fact linked to specific goals and indicators to show compliance.
Balance is a useful visualisation to grasp a complex concept. The lop-sided approach that we are now living under, often considers only short term economic gain, while ignoring everything else. A balanced approach considers economy in relation to environment and human needs or society. “Economy,” “Society” and “Environment” are often sited as the pillars of Sustainable Development (or the “triple bottom line”). Their balancing is what could be called sustainability. However, this concept is not “weighted” evenly. In this approach, which must be implemented if our future generations are to survive, humbly accepts that the health of the planet is actually of primary concern - because our own health and economy depends on it. Therefore what is meant here by balance is simply to recognise the importance and primacy of the environment.
Another way to conceive of balance is from the earth’s perspective. The earth’s ecology and natural systems are function in an interconnected and delicate balance. All of our actions must not drastically disturb this balance or else our own means of survival will be compromised. We are disturbing the balance and we need to stop.
Circularity is also a good visualisation of a sustainable model - where there is an integration with the looping and cycling of natural systems: a highly effective, interconnected ecology where all life is in an integrated balance, and there is no waste and the future health of the environment remains in tact. We must relate directly to these natural cycles - by creating zero waste, or by not harming the natural order with our interventions, or by mimicking these cycles by continuously recycling highly refined materials like metal and glass. The "Circular Economy” focuses on these material loops and contrasts with a linear model where unused waste and harmful pollution are a normal part of the process.
The Goal: Regeneration
Within each industry new standards have emerged around sustainability. Within the construction industry, “Green Building” standards and certification systems have taken the more balanced approach by defining precise criteria and evaluation systems. Example standards include BREEAM (UK), LEED (USA), and DGNB (Germany). They typically include criteria for Energy, Water, Materials, Health, and more. They often offer different degrees of compliance, all of which are an improvement over standard construction. However, these degrees of compliance cannot really be considered sustainable, unfortunately.
One standard, the Living Building Challenge, takes the concept of sustainability as the minimum criteria for certification. This standard is also designed to work in conjunction with other Greenbuilding standards. This is the most clear articulation of a truly sustainable construction, which they call “positive regenerative impacts”. If you consider the environmental and social “debt” that occurs when creating a building, then a truly sustainable building must be regenerative by producing a surplus of energy and water, for example. Here is an example of selected criteria and standards from the Living Building Challenge:
Place: Projects are not allowed on green-fields or near sensitive ecological habitats.
Water: Net Positive Water: Water must be captured on-site, and treated without chemicals, and all stormwater and water discharge must be treated onsite.
Energy: Net Positive Energy: 105% of the projects energy needs must be supplied onsite using renewable energy.
Health and Happiness: Conform to Indoor Air Quality standards, with testing before and after occupancy. Create a postive human/nature connection.
Materials: The project cannot contain materials or chemicals on a “Red List,” with some exceptions. A majority of materials must be sourced locally. Net Positive Waste: detailed diverted waste plan, conservation management plan, use of salvaged materials.
Beauty: The project must include features intended solely for human delight and the celebration of culture, spirit, and place.
With certified buildings all over the world, there is proof that a regenerative model is possible right now.
“Balance” as a goal does not sound especially romantic or radical - its sounds quite middle of the road or compromising. However, to act in a more balanced fashion is actually quite radical when considering the current model. Sustainability is being discussed everywhere, and there are all kinds of claims being made as to sustainable products, etc. But are they truly sustainable? Be careful! Talk is cheap and greenwashing abounds. The good news is that an awareness is growing around the need to be balanced or sustainable - let us go after the authentic solutions.