Expanding the meaning of sustainability

Wrriten by: Daniela Cruz | July 7, 2017

You can read this article in: Español | English | 中國

For several decades now, the concept of sustainability has imbued our practice as part of the simple concern with continuing and wishing to preserve our planet. Yet as Cameron Sinclair put it in an interview with CNN: “It angers me when sustainability gets used as a buzz word. For 90 percent of the world, sustainability is a matter of survival.” The meaning fails to cover everything it represents.

The environmental impact on the Earth has forced us to question the formal and technological possibilities architecture can contribute in terms of conservation of resources, with the aim of “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the wellbeing of future generations.” This is a proposition that has been explored by architects from around the world, figures such as Renzo Piano and Shigeru Ban, with excellent, tangible results, and lessons for architects everywhere.

Today, the concept continues to expand its scope of meaning for architecture, and that is what I want to focus on here.

It is important to know why by definition, sustainability is the practice of “maintaining something over a long time without exhausting the resources or causing serious damage to the environment.” However, many aspects that are vital to contemporary architectural development are left out of this—complex and relevant issues that affect people’s quality of life. At the least, it should be noted that it is not enough just to design on the basis of a few principles of sustainability, such as comfort, durability and energy efficiency.


Back in 2000, the Earth Charter broadened the definition to include the idea of a global society “founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice and a culture of peace.”

Meanwhile, in research undertaken by DesignIntelligence—an independent and impartial source of information on the creative arts—in addition to design for health, sustainability education, resilient design, and materials transparency, respondents to the survey also cited energy efficiency, climate change, integrated design processes and practice, and lifecycle assessment as key issues in the contemporary practice of sustainable design.

Nevertheless, rather than continuing to consider the value of sustainability only for architectural design, the urban conditioning factors must also be taken into account to take the conversation forward on how useful and necessary sustainable design should be for the future.

I want to emphasize that sustainability is also regeneration. Urban regeneration at every level: by region, by city, or by neighborhood. It means acting on the causes and effects that have led to the deterioration of a zone or affected its population, in order to bring about improvements in the quality of life of the inhabitants, as well as to the environment and the socio-economic factors.


As Javier Sordo Madaleno, president of GSM, has put it, “sustainability goes far beyond securing an efficiency certification; it is an issue that encompasses the urban fabric, social integration and the regeneration of a zone, and above all means returning to the city something better than what we received.”

Thinking about the city we live in and being part of its physical and environmental improvement also gives us an obligation to implement it in the mindset of the practice of sustainable architecture. The sum of green areas, urban permeability and integration of uses are basic elements for turning a sector into a new city center; a model that will ensure that bodies representing cities are also part of climate change.


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