A change of terms

Once a novelty, sustainability is becoming a reality.

COMMENT, Business

Sustainability is a strange word. Give it to ten different people and you'll probably get as many interpretations. Such ambiguity is slightly unfortunate for a word which has come to represent - along with other choice candidates including ‘green' and ‘low carbon' - the solution to a very serious and real challenge to our current way of life.

Living beyond our means...a slight understatement

If everyone on the planet lived like a typical European, we'd need three planets to cover our needs. If everyone lived like a US or UAE citizen, the number of planets needed would increase to five. Pointing out that this situation is unsustainable is rather like saying it snows in Alaska.


It's equally obvious that it would be rather a good idea to adapt our lifestyles so that all of us could manage to survive comfortably with what's available on the one planet we have. The ambition hence is to sustain the luxuries of the lives we lead, or want to lead in the case of developing countries, while simultaneously reducing and perhaps reversing the impact on our planet.

This ambitious goal requires a paradigm shift in our outlook on life as a whole. Achieving this balance lies in our ability to change how we currently think. Our thinking is affected by our emotions and therefore, how we feel about sustainability will, to a large degree, inform how we think and subsequently act to achieve it.

Changing how we think and act is one of greatest challenges we face in the near future. Humans are indeed creatures of habit. This is a reality that applies as much, if not more, to architecture as to any other set of building principles.

Historically, the construction industry as a whole has been slow to change. It has been designing, constructing, building and engineering in much the same fashion for many decades, if not centuries, with only gradual acceptance and incorporation of new technologies and improved methodologies.

New Years resolution

However, time is a luxury we do not have. We are living in a climate of change; a climate that is progressively accelerating and affecting the entire planet. If the world is changing fast, the Middle East is changing faster.

Only a year ago, sustainable design in architecture was regarded as a fairly novel and luxurious option that was incorporated into those exemplary projects that were making a statement on being green. As an example, the Pacific Controls Headquarters near Dubai's Jebel Ali springs to mind.

Twelve short months after ‘green buildings' became the latest architectural buzzwords, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum announced that, as of January 2008, all new buildings in Dubai were to be built green.

For the architecture and construction industries in Dubai to achieve this very laudable goal in such a short time will require more than goodwill and a couple of photovoltaic panels or wind turbines strapped onto the roof of a building.

It will require all of us to consider exactly what it means to build ‘green'. Understanding the intricacies of the idea is the first step. This understanding will surely be supplemented by detailed legislative requirements issued by the government in the near future.

Say it as it is...

The second step is probably a good deal more difficult. It involves making a concerted effort to stop viewing sustainable design in architecture as something separate, something alternative. Ideally, we'd disassociate words such as ‘green', ‘low carbon' and ‘sustainable' from our goal to improve building design.

‘Green' design is a process that incorporates age-old passive methodology and new generation innovative technology and mixes them with a prudent, educated approach to resources and energy efficiency. In other words, it is doing what we are currently doing, only better.

Labelling this process with terminology that is vaguely patronising (possibly tainted slightly by a lingering whiff of patchouli oil and homemade yoghurt) and somewhat nondescript, may lead to overkill and ennui with the idea as a whole. Sustainability in all its forms is not a fad or a phase; it is a concept and a process.

Living in a box

Change can be traumatising. Agreed. But, if the shift in how we work is approached in the right way, it will ensure that sustainability as a basic design principle is enjoyable, challenging and inspiring. This shift could also ensure that all those energy-efficient designs for which we constantly strive, elude us no more.

Part of this new approach is giving people the chance to be inspired. It is unlikely that any of the great ideas conceived by humans were dreamt up while sitting in a grey office cubicle, under a bright artificial light, breathing conditioned air.

Just for kicks, how about having that next concept design meeting outdoors amidst the shining winter sun? Take one tree-shaded rooftop café, some pens, paper and a good dose of cross-disciplinary participation and there you have it: kick-start ingredients for thinking outside of the theoretical box while you step outside the literal one.

If it's true that green spaces beget creativity, the result will be sustainable designs from sustainably-minded people.

The challenge is on

The changes needed to sustain life on our one planet require everyone's participation. We should be delighted really. The concept of sustainability is giving us a valid reason to go back to the ideals we had when we first started out; a reason to try out new things; a reason to brainstorm and to break out of the building routines many of us have fallen into over the years.

To effect this change, communication and an open mind are paramount. The choice lies with us to see this as a daunting task or an exciting challenge; to flounder in the wake of change, or catch the wave and ride it.

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