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15 October 2008

Sustainable Design - Is It?

sustainable: able to be sustained; the capacity to maintain a certain process or state indefinitely

Green design is necessary, but calling it something it's not may do more harm than good; "sustainable design" is not sustainable.

English is the richest of the world's languages. Most sources put the number of words well over 900,000; the Global Language Monitor estimates we will see our millionth word in April 2009. [It actually happened at 10:22 am GMT on 10 June 2009.] How does that compare to other languages? Chinese is a distant second, at half a million words, followed by Spanish and Japanese at about a quarter million words each.

English not only has a word for everything, it has an impressive range of words with subtle differences for most subjects. Unfortunately, we are able to use only a fraction of that number; the average American has a working vocabulary of about 14,000 words. (It has been estimated that Shakespeare's vocabulary was about 24,000 words, but he helped himself along, having invented over 1,500 new words himself.) Of the words we do know, not all are at our immediate disposal. It's far easier to come up with a more suitable word when we have time to think, but in casual conversation, we too frequently grab the first word that comes to mind, thereby missing an opportunity to be more precise in what we say.

For example, when listening to talk radio, it seems everyone completely agrees with whatever the other person says; the most common expression of agreement seems to be "exactly!" That word expresses the idea that there is no difference of opinion, that both caller and host have precisely the same opinion. Yet as the conversation continues, it is quite evident that those involved in the discussion have significantly different views. They say they are in complete agreement, but they aren't.

It's one thing to be inaccurate in casual conversation, but there is no excuse for incorrect use of words when they are the result of supposedly thoughtful planning. With so many opportunities to be precise, why is it necessary to co-opt a word and give it a false meaning? To some extent, it may be because we have become accustomed to misuse of words. In advertising, "new" and "improved" often are misleading, and in politics, we accept outright lies, such as "balanced budget" and "budget surplus". Still, we should expect more from those claiming scientific basis for their assertions. Unfortunately, the latest energy crisis - another abused term - has led to one more poor choice of words. Because, by definition, sustainable design - isn't.

Ultimately, our culture is not sustainable, and any form of design or culture that relies on fossil fuels cannot be sustainable, as there is a finite amount of oil in the ground. We can come up with clever ways to extract oil from deeper or more remote wells, or to extract it from shale or other once ignored sources, but in the end the oil will run out, and unless it can be replaced, sustainability is a myth.

Other terms, such as eco-design, green design, or design for the environment, were already in use, so why not use them instead of settling on sustainable design? I know what you're thinking; "What's the big deal? It's only a word." When we misuse words, we make it more difficult to discuss the issues. "At Gary's Grocery, we have sustainable salmon," "Mazda Shows 'Sustainable' SUV," "Top Five Sexiest Sustainable Sports Cars," and similar expressions reveal a simple-minded view of a complex issue.

Not only is "sustainable design" not sustainable, but the meaning of the term is being changed to formally incorporate non-sustainable principles as part of the definition. The US General Services Administration (GSA), in a move reminiscent of Orwell's "doublethink", is promoting its own definition.
Sustainable design seeks to reduce negative impacts on the environment, and the health and comfort of building occupants, thereby improving building performance. The basic objectives of sustainability are to reduce consumption of non-renewable resources, minimize waste, and create healthy, productive environments. [My italics.]
Both heating and air conditioning make it possible for us to live and work in areas that would otherwise be uninhabitable, at the same time requiring vast amounts of energy. Air conditioning is especially insidious, as it increases the outdoor temperature that we try to escape, and the hotter it gets, the more cooling we need.

The introduction of inexpensive air conditioning had an enormous impact on life in the US - and on energy consumption and the environment. Although modern air conditioning equipment appeared before World War II, it didn't catch on until after the war. Sales of window units increased from 75,000 in 1948 to over a million five years later; today, ninety percent of new homes and eighty percent of new cars have air conditioning.

We've seen the numbers that show how much the US consumes; with about five percent of the population, we use about twenty-five percent of the world's electricity. About one-third of that goes to air conditioning. Certainly, as we increase insulation and efficiencies, we can reduce the impact of air conditioning, but its use will continue to rise. The American market is close to saturation, but it will be overshadowed by the likely rise in air conditioning in China and other developing countries.

Don't get me wrong; we can - we must - be more responsible in how we use energy and other resources. But, to paraphrase the title of the popular movie, the truth is inconvenient. Sustainability has nothing to do with creature comfort. In fact, our insistence on being comfortable is a prime contributor to the problems we now face. Buildings that are comfortable do make their occupants happy and increase productivity, but how does that help conserve materials and energy? The closest thing to sustainable design is a grass hut on a tropical island; the more comfortable we make it, and the farther we get from that island, the less sustainable it becomes.

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