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Notes on Sustainable Design

Updated on February 23, 2011

What is Sustainability?

As the World’s supplies of oil start to run out during the first few decades of the Twenty First Century people are going to start taking the ideas of sustainable design more seriously. It is an all embracing philosophy that impacts on many different areas of human endeavour from architecture to agriculture.

If you imagine a sustainable forest you will understand the notion of sustainability better. In a forest that is sustainably managed trees are selectively cut down at a rate that does not negatively impact on the health or area of the forest. Biodiversity is maintained and the total number of trees is kept within an acceptable number. By making the forestry business sustainable it can be continued indefinitely baring an act of God.

Solar Settlement in Freiburg, Germany
Solar Settlement in Freiburg, Germany

Measuring Sustainability

And so it is with sustainable design. It is creating a product, building or service that can be created and replicated without causing an overall decrease in resources or an overall increase in pollution that will threaten the stability of the process.

Although the ways of empirically measuring sustainability are improving it still remains a challenge to accurately measure certain factors. For example, when looking at the sustainability of a product a carbon value has to be assigned to the entire process from the cradle to the grave. This means assessing the damage caused by mining for minerals and ores, transportation costs, manufacturing costs, advertising costs, the life span of the products use and then finally the carbon cost of disposing of the unwanted product at the end of its life. When you look at the bigger carbon picture you begin to realize that there is no such thing as a sustainable car – the immense amount of resources needed to make an electric or hybrid car can never be equal to the sum of reduced carbon emissions for the 10 or 20 years the car is used. And perhaps the scraping of the car further increases the carbon costs of the vehicle.

Arhitecture and Agriculture

The goal of sustainable architecture is to create houses that can be ‘unplugged’ - namely houses that do not need power from an outside source. This is an honest and easy to understand agenda. Unlike the fallacy of the green car, the green house is a reality. The architect Rolf Disch between 2000 and 2005 built a solar settlement in Freiburg, Germany. This solar settlement is composed of 59 houses with photovoltaic cells on the roofs. These houses are not only ‘unplugged’ they create an energy surplus that can be used to balance out other carbon costs. Every house in the Solar Settlement produces a yearly surplus of €4,000.

In 2007 one third of the world’s workers were employed in agriculture. This statistic is a bit skewed because only a handful of people in America produce the billions of tons of grain and soy grown on the continent. It is only in the last 50 years or so with massive population growth and developments in genetic engineering that agriculture has stopped being sustainable. Planting acres and acres of the same crop has produced pests and the pests have called for the invention of petroleum based pesticides. The crops are sprayed from the air and huge machines have mechanized every aspect of agri-business. The developed world has ‘plugged’ in agriculture so successfully that unplugging it seems impossible. Contrast this type of agriculture with the type practiced in poorer places in the world where agriculture is labor intensive and free of petro-chemical fertilizers and pesticides, where water buffalo are still used and where the idea of crop rotation is part of the survival lore of the community. This type of agriculture is approaching sustainable levels. It is drought, pollution, climate change and population increase that threatens to destroy the sustainable nature of such agriculture.

One of the key components of sustainable practice has become water. This is perhaps our most precious natural resource and is one that we are guilty of using with profligacy. Water underpins all efforts at sustainability. It is now possible to measure the embedded water cost of products. One pound of cotton (whether it is organic or not) takes 101 gallons of water to produce. One ton of steel costs 62,000 gallons of water. These are sobering figures when you consider the world’s freshwater supplies are already perilously close to being outstripped by demand. Already ground water supplies are running low, as are fossil water supplies. Water experts predict India will be the first country to see chronic water shortages: already every year millions of wells are dug in search of new reserves of ground water. The country simply cannot support a population exceeding 1 billion people.

Sustainability uses watershed assessment to look at water. The goal of sustainable water use is to measure the total amount of precipitation landing on the surface of a community and using this figure to determine the number of people who can live in that community in a sustainable manner.

Palm Jumeirah in Dubai
Palm Jumeirah in Dubai

Unplugging and Dubai

Green interior design is part of sustainable design. It has picked up on many of the concerns of the sustainable movement such as energy efficiency, water conservation, reduction in carbon emissions and careful use of natural resources. The goal of green interior design fits in with the sustainable mantra of the triple bottom line – people, planet and profits. Green interior design seeks to make interiors safer for human habitation, to reduce the water and carbon footprint of a house and to convert energy and water efficiency into monetary savings. Green interior design is one small piece of the sustainable jigsaw that is in some ways a microcosm of the entire drive to ‘unplug’.

Finally, the notion of unplugging brings up the importance of alternative sources of energy such as solar energy and wind energy. Green energy is perhaps the key to uncoupling our existence from the destructive influence of fossil fuels. If we can make carbon free energy, then half the battle is won.

In the last 50 years small and obscure villages such as Dubai and Shenzhen have exploded into megatropolis status. Dubai in particular is a great example of a place which is entirely without sustainable merit. Everything is paid for and powered by oil. Drinking water is produced by costly desalination, skyscrapers litter the skyline, artificial beach suburbs are built and all the food is imported. Nothing is recycled and nothing is grown. There isn’t a single solar panel to be found despite the scorching heat. Dubai strives to have the tallest building. The irony of man seeking to reach the level of God is surely not lost on most casual observers. Dubai is Babel. And just as those original biblical tower builders were blinded by their hubris so the powers that be in Dubai are willfully ignoring the truth of sustainability. When the oil runs out the city will die and in just a few decades the desert will reclaim Dubai until just a few traces of mangled steel are visible just like the broken statue of Ozymandias:

“And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".


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