14 August 2013 — I have just opened another invite to another sustainability green eco conference, seminar, speaker, event, fundraiser, party, drinks, group, menu, bus timetable, road surface, paint, lounge chair, cooking appliance, bathroom tile, shoe, parrot, slug… the list goes on. And it makes me wonder about where sustainability is headed. How long till I walk into a giant sustainable… everything?

The recent change in approach to sustainability by Stockland, releasing a large amount of their skilled proponents, and the about face or increasing negativity we see as a consulting business towards sustainability by both sides of politics, local councils, customers, authorities and stakeholders, raises my question: what next?

In my company’s business as sustainability consultants, we work with a lot of clients who often have someone in their business who espouses a commitment to sustainability, but trying to get it to gain traction in their business is often very, very difficult.

Many times we spend our resources assisting customers to engage with ESD only to have a project manager or bean counter, senior manager, builder or some other stakeholder come along and convince the customer that sustainability is part of the dark arts, all smoke and mirrors, part of the reason our economy is ruined, or why their business is not as profitable as it could be. And, low and behold, these antagonists will often convince the customers to revert to type and end up with a non-sustainable outcome.

A no win for the customers in many cases, definitely no win for our environment, and a great win for the naysayers.

How many projects do we all sit down in and the customer waxes lyrical about an ESD outcome, but when we dig deeper there is no money allowed in the budget or its been decided it’s not really important apart from the words and commitment on the website?

How many councils who have the planning authority to ensure more low-cost sustainable initiatives are implemented into their buildings do nothing or promote small tokenistic sustainable gestures, but stick religiously to their planning doctrines based on outmoded ’70s design criteria such as large car parks and have very little stomach for innovation, uniqueness or pushing the envelope in a range of sustainable initiatives?

Yet go to their websites and there is a strong mention of sustainability.

Maybe they get tax breaks, free (sustainable) cookies or extra funding by attaching sustainability as a mantra to all they speak.

Of course, the main reason given is cost (isn’t it always?) as a cosy escape path, but we also find builders and project managers or white anters inside the company purveying the myth that sustainability services offered by consultants can be easily achieved by others without any real skill or knowledge. Lots of terminologies and acronyms or “so and so did it like this”, “we can do it for you; you don’t need specialists; we can save you money”, etc, and another opportunity of providing sustainable solutions to a customer is lost.

It’s almost as if sustainability is now used by many as a religious term designed to assuage guilt and cover all sins and ensure the business is up with the times, but in actual effect it is very rarely practised or, if so, tokenism becomes paramount.

I read with interest a recent article by the esteemed Romilly Madew, the head of the Green Building Council of Australia, responding to a similar query, “Is sustainability dead?”. Her mere need to respond indicates to me there is trouble afoot in the general sustainability industry.

In more positive times when sustainability didn’t have the cynicism and was going great guns in a growth period, I wonder if she would have even responded to such a concern; the number of sustainable buildings getting across the line would be evidence enough.

I remember many years ago there was a huge push for acoustic insulation in the industry so that walls and floors didn’t provide a conduit for rude or annoying noises. Then disabled access became the catch cry, then OH&S issues were all the go. But they are never mentioned anymore, written into the building codes and implemented by the required specialists and consultants. I don’t, for example, see many builders doing their own acoustic design or just pulling it out because they don’t believe in it.

So where to for sustainability? Surely in 2020 we aren’t going to be still promoting green roofs and gardens growing on the sides of buildings, star ratings, energy efficiency, rigid or non-rigid rating or performance tools and “my building is more sustainable than yours” type attitudes. Yelling to the world, “My building is sustainable! It’s really, really green!”

There has to be more

How about 2025 or 2030? Will sustainability even have a life then? Yes, there may be another word for the same concept but to me there has to be more. Surely by then these will be standard building enhancements if we can escape the negative trends. History shows that these mantras will become either incorporated into our buildings or left by the wayside as another concept takes their place.

So where is the next frontier now that we have been submerged with all the green washing and cynicism as well as money saving initiatives? The bloated bureaucracies that have grown out of the original green building movement will no doubt still be there, but what message from them in 2020?

John Brodie

Will it be a fine adjustment on what they proselytised now or will it be a whole new paradigm?

I am writing this article not as one who espouses an answer but as one who is seeking answers. I need to scratch the itch. Frustration in outcomes often drives one to peel back some layers and undertake some deeper, often painful interrogation.

I remember back 10 or even 15 years ago when the whole excitement and initiatives around sustainably were so gripping and infectious those that were interested and available thrilled in the prospects for the future. Gosh, sustainable building design was big in the ’70s if you knew where to look. Basking in the daylight (sorry) of what and where sustainability could take us.

But I don’t feel or see that now. I see a bandwagon piled with loads of acronyms, cynicism, bureaucracy, green tape and hyperbole, all covered in green paint. I see every single marketing ploy ensuring sustainability is included as a word, a topic, an idea, and I see lip service paid to it as a concept soon to be silenced on those who actually speak it.

So as one who likes to question and interrogate I wonder for the next frontier, the next “sustainability”, and where it lies? Where will it take us and how will it impact on our buildings, our lives and, most importantly, our planet.

Maybe it’s nothing to do with sustainability. Maybe it’s completely removed from anything environmental, planet, future, children, comfort, energy, buildings, recyclable, low impact, health, happiness…  Maybe it’s to do with… I don’t know.

One thing is for sure: there will be something. The new “Sustainability”. Maybe you know? Answers I do not have. Questions I have many.

John Brodie is managing director, Vim Sustainability

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  1. I hope sustainability does become the norm for new buildings but section J has a long way to go yet and with significant updates every 5 years or so I think there’s plenty for the industry still to learn/improve upon. Standards and testing for air tightness would be a good start and would be following international trends.

    I think refurbishing existing buildings will also become an increasing target for sustainability. The recently announced NSW target for 50% of commercial building stock to be NABERS 4 star rated by 2020, demonstrates that sustainability will remain our focus.

  2. Great article John – and depressingly accurate.
    I think we have to move past the paradigm of “sustainability” being a list of optional elements “environmental innovations” that are added to standard development and building practices – and then potentially chipped off by the finance team who deem them to be an unnecessary extravagance. We need to be designing appropriately, for the long term, in full consideration of all factors – that is, designing for the site, our climate, the social and physical context, materials provenance, long term running costs, and the creation of humane, quality environments. Sustainability should not be an “add on”, it must be integral to appropriate design and development methodology.