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What is Sustainable Design?

Sustainable design has a number of definitions, but one of the earliest is the following.

“Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”
(World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987)

Over time, this anthropocentric definition was expanded to include all parts of nature; humanity was de-emphasized.

“Designing for sustainability requires awareness of the full short and long-term consequences of any transformation of the environment. Sustainable design is the conception and realization of environmentally sensitive and responsible expression as a part of the evolving matrix of nature.”
(Hannover Principles, 1992)

The working definition evolved again to reflect more comprehensive concerns about society, economics and the environment, de-emphasizing time:

“Sustainable development delivers basic environmental, economic and social services to all without threatening the viability of the natural, built and social systems upon which these services depend.”
(International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, 1995)

This definition has led to the Triple Bottom Line framework, which measures performance (e.g. of a building but also a corporation) against environmental, social and economic values, and strives to achieve balance between all three.

Problematically, there are up to 300 more definitions of “sustainability” and “sustainable development,” and the word “sustainability” in itself is limiting.

Dictionary definitions include:

  1. To keep in existence; maintain.
  2. To supply with necessities or nourishment; provide for.
  3. To support the spirits, vitality, or resolution of; encourage.

(Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Basically, “sustainability” largely implies maintenance at a current level or state; only the last definition begins to give it a positive quality.

Because of these problems with the definition of “sustainability” and/or “sustainable”, I elect not to use it.  Alternatively, people use the term “green” to suggest a reduced negative environmental impact.  I prefer the term “green” because it has a fluidity that “sustainable” does not; a building or a development can be more or less green, but it is either sustainable, or it is not.  And since very little of what North Americans builds could be considered sustainable, I find the absolute definition stifles more nuanced consideration.

Thus, I will use the terms “green design,” “green development” and “green architecture” when discussing design and development that has endeavored to reduce its environmental impact.  But perhaps an even better goal than greenness is design that is friendly to life (all life on Earth), the Earth itself and the air around us: design that has a net positive impact, instead of being less bad.

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