The Bullitt Center with solar PV roof in Seattle. © Creative Commons. Credit: Brad Kahn

+ Sustainability in the built environment will increasingly focus on improving the environment for the benefit of everyone. Photo credit: Brad Khan of the Bullitt Center

For many years, sustainability in the built environment has been focused on incrementally doing less damage to the environment. However, increasingly science points to the fact that we need to do so much more than that, and urgently – not only to address planetary health, and climate change, but also to improve health, comfort and wellbeing. 

I believe we are now heading into a new era of restorative and people-centric sustainability, a new net-positive paradigm. We are also seeing an increase in concerns around health problems caused by materials such as PVC and formaldehyde, both common within existing and modern buildings. 

The built environment is often referred to as the 40% sector – being responsible for 40% of environmental impact, using 40% resources and energy and contributing to 40% waste, and, worryingly, adding 40% to the nations health bill.

This sheer scale of the built environment impact means that we are both part of the climate change problem and also part of the solution. I don’t believe we can improve on this impact simply by incrementally reducing, for example, our use of fossil fuels and non-renewable materials. 

Instead, we will to have to implement entirely new ways of doing things. That means rethinking new business models in construction, designing for disassembly, using new, healthy materials, new methods of construction, new certification programmes and new thinking in building management. This seems like a huge challenge, but it can be done, and is.

I’ve been involved with the Living Building Challenge (LBC) for several years now. It is a tough certification programme, based on ecological philosophy and advocacy that addresses most aspects of a building’s impact, including its influence on wellbeing and comfort. It requires buildings to achieve net zero energy, waste and water consumption, promotes concepts such as biophilia, where nature and natural processes are incorporated into the built environment. Today, only a few ground breaking buildings meet the LBC standard, but in say 20 years from now, I think the philosophy behind the LBC, or indeed the related Well Building Standard, will become the way we design, build and operate buildings. 

We already have the tools we need to achieve restorative sustainability – tools like biophilia, BIM, collaborative working, circular economy, education, and social media to share and advocate for change. And the industry is starting to change, warming to the importance of healthy buildings and healthy materials for example, even seeing buildings at the end of their life, not as waste to be disposed of, but as ‘material farms’ from which components can be harvested.

I now work with construction organisations across the UK, who are developing a refreshingly sustainable and very responsible approach to construction, embracing new certification programmes and philosophies. 

Projects like the Bullitt Center in Seattle, demonstrate that restorative sustainability can be successfully applied to six storey city centre commercial buildings, and the cement-free, straw bale buildings under construction here in the UK demonstrate alternative material possibilities. 

Is this going to be prohibitively expensive? Well, that depends on how we cost and value buildings of course, but consider that the biggest cost of a building isn’t in construction, or even in energy, but is people related costs. If everyone living and working in buildings we construct could benefit from a healthy, comfortable, biophilic and ecological sound environment, then we will see valuable improvements in health, wellbeing and indeed productivity throughout the whole life of the building. 

And further, on costs it’s my belief that if we could build lean, cut out waste in construction – still estimated at 30% – then we could construct truly sustainable buildings for the same or potentially even less cost.

When you add all this up, restorative, people-centric buildings are the only way forward. What are your thoughts?