Sustainability 5: Costs
When first introduced to concepts of environmentally-friendly or sustainable design in architecture, many initially believe there are substantial costs to be incurred.
There are, however, many sustainable design practices that can not only reduce initial costs, but can also improve eventual returns. For example, designing a building to be more dense and compact can reduce both the overall costs of initial materials, labor and construction, and the long-term costs of the structure’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Limiting the land area consumed by structures and parking will limit both the costs of their initial development and construction, and the continuing expenses of their maintenance.
When sustainable design practices are deemed to be more costly than traditional design practices, it is often because total life-cycle and continuing costs are not taken into account. Sometimes this is due to an original developer or builder being other than a project’s long-term user; the originator of the project may see no advantage in paying more up front, to achieve savings that accrue over the long haul to someone else.
In many cases, it is the larger society that ends up bearing the true ‘costs’ of a design choice. For example, while it may appear easy and inexpensive initially to fell a grove of trees to build a lodge, hidden costs may become apparent when rainfall washes away topsoil, fouling surface water, preventing the planting of crops, or destabilizing a nearby roadway. And, though it may seem cheap at first to power vehicles with combustion engines fueled by petroleum derivatives, the resultant costs of dirty air, fouled lungs, traffic congestion, and dependence on imports may substantially alter the overall societal ‘cost’ equation.
In recent years, advances have been made in life-cycle costing and analysis to more properly address the sum total of costs and benefits of various design choices. In addition, the concept of ‘embedded energy’ — in which one measures, for example, all the cumulative energy that has been consumed to mine, process, refine, smelt, cast, shape and deliver a steel beam; its embedded energy — has allowed for much more accurate tallies of the true costs of various design and construction materials and processes.
Many may argue about the particular or comparative cost of this or that — a gallon of fuel, a quart of pond scum, a cord of wood, a kilowatt hour generated by wind. My intent here is not to assess absolute costs or to make specific judgments about which costs are tolerable or are best to bear. My intent is to merely point out where costs might lie, and to suggest design features that might sway such costs one way or another.
I ask such questions as: Is there a cost to society in lost green space? How many jobs does a certain design process create or support? Is clean water of value? Does our tax structure favor sustainability? Should we care whether a variety of plant species is sustained for future generations? Can we afford polluted air? Can we do without small woodland creatures? Can we do without small businesses? How can we sustain human society, and our only Earth, with the greatest efficiency, utility and economy?
In successive articles, I try to provide, if not answers, at least some enlightenment.
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