Built to Last

Posted on November 3, 2010


A legitimate criticism of any cultural movement is its countermovement, which points out hypocrisy in the action of the masses. Perhaps this is sustainable design’s greatest challenge.

Conceptually it is difficult to find fault with sustainability; yet there are many paths to get from current point A to green point B. Greenwashing, or illegitimate actions passed off as meaningful sustainable efforts, is one of those wrong paths.

Sustainability has a guilt factor to it, particularly in the construction industry. Yet I believe sustainability in design and construction is not as obvious as people make it out to be.  LEED is a good place to start, but not the endgame. For me, the main thesis of sustainability is build to last.

Build to last means making design decisions that measure the expected function of what is being built against the expected utility of the materials and deciding what the most responsible path is. Sure, there is education and behavioral change in order for designer, builder and future building owner and occupants, but the path is not so linear.

For instance on a project, choosing a low-VOC paint may be the wrong choice. Yes, you may contribute to a LEED point, but it could be irresponsible in the long run because it causes more harm than good. It might be, most blatantly, a short-sighted action. We think sustainability is always a positive vote for the future, but there are shades of gray, too, like any ethical dilemma.

Our American culture is a disposable culture, yet the best thing each individual could do is to wear things out, i.e. use purchased items until their natural utility is gone. Try and wear a shirt until it is threadbare and actually falls apart and you will find even $15 souvenir t-shirts, whether from a vacation, concert or 5K fundraiser, last ten to fifteen years. Why upgrade until you physically use up what you have?

If this was applied to design and construction, we would all look at brands and longevity before value engineering down to providing something that is quite hollow when we look at quality of materials, workmanship and a flimsy warranty.

As an author recently pointed out, you see someone drive a Prius, but how long did they keep their last car before they purchased new?  In America, it is much shorter than the expected life of the vehicle, something like 5.5 years. It may be an improvement over past behavior, but by no means green. A tough pill to swallow, but trading in a lease after three years to buy a Prius would no doubt qualify as greenwashing

And this happens in construction. Your hospital needs a renovation or updating to keep up with the times or competition or ego, but have all other avenues been explored? Has each service line stripped itself down, done a six sigma analysis to figure out whether all current resources—human, infrastructure, utilities—are being organized and used to capacity? Is construction, the conscious utilization of many non-renewable resources which permanently alter the landscape, truly used as a last resort at your facility?

I think to be sustainable is to furnish the best possible solution given various limiting parameters, and to then use things up that were designed for use. Anything not done out of necessity has some aspect of luxury to it, which is the philosophical antithesis of sustainability. To be green is to be the last to build, and then build to last.