Balancing Scales of Sustainability

A few months ago, in the early throes of a fruitless job search (literally fruitless – being unemployed and broke, I couldn’t afford fruit), I offered a single word as my driving professional goal: ‘sustainability’. While recognizing that (for me) it transcends mere building performance or energy generation, I still couldn’t offer a clear interpretation of it, spouting instead some ambiguous definition – ‘the ability of a system to sustain itself’.

So what the hell does that even mean, Kev? How does that even RELATE to architecture?

Forgive me for the following stream-of-thought as I struggle for an answer…

Buildings are systems“regularly interacting or interdependent group[s] of items forming a unified whole”. Inhabitants depend upon each other as well as the spaces and structures, the furnishings and fixtures, within a building for it to work, for it to fulfill its function – for the building to be whole.

But what about at scales other than that of the building?

A single inhabitant, a group of occupants, are smaller systems within a building. At this smaller scale, what do people need to be sustainable in their activities? What are they trying to accomplish, and how can the building support those attempts in a sustainable fashion?

I think of buildings in which I’ve lived or worked – aside from a studio apartment without heat or warm water (read: without any means of making coffee!) all fulfilled their traditional functions, but few fulfilled them well enough for me to sustain my activities without any negative effects. Those activities form something of a system in their own right – living consists of a variety of actions (eating, breathing, sleeping) mediated by a host of interdependent factors (finding employment, paying bills, socializing, studying, relaxing) that are themselves mediated by environmental forces.

Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule when I hear every – and I mean every – noise from the apartment above or from trains eight blocks away? Maintaining an education – or a job – under headache-inducing light, in ventilation poor almost to the point of asphyxiation? Not for long…

How sustainable is a building if it can’t sustain its own use?

Alternatively, a city block, even a neighborhood or town, are larger systems within which a building operates. At this larger scale, what does a region need to be sustainable in its functions? What does it mean for a city or a society to be sustainable, and how might an individual building support that greater goal?

I think of towns in which I’ve lived – despite having functioning buildings, not one could remotely sustain itself in virtually any fashion if cut off from other places. How sustainable is a building if it can’t help sustain its own society?

Living in an apartment that inhibits me growing even just basil, despite architecturally attractive materials and a versatile floor plan… Living in a city that can’t feed or clothe or medicate its citizens without imported goods, despite an abundance of vacant buildings and empty plots so rife with potential for production…

I can’t help but wonder when we’ll ever build to sustain ourselves.

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