For a recent university assignment myself and others were tasked with creating a sustainability statement for a fictitious architecture firm. The ensuing discussions brought us to one central question – what is a sustainable architectural project? To which we developed the following response:

“A sustainable architectural project is one that minimises new construction, maximises urban density, makes relevant use of the productive capacities of the site and is designed, engineered and built with minimal resource consumption and waste. Above all, we believe a sustainable project is one that is necessary, appropriate to its needs and adaptable to those of future generations.”

Such a response goes beyond common considerations of energy and water use and material selection.

The architecture profession and the property industry in general has been commendably active in the development of ESD principles, but must be wary of the tick-a-box techno-fix approach to sustainable building. Green wares must be accompanied by green ways.

For example: Regardless of its energy efficiency, a family home cannot be considered sustainable if it has more bedrooms than people, two dining rooms, three living spaces and a media room – and is located 50 kilometres from where the occupants work. A large-scale retail development cannot be considered sustainable if it causes the implosion of existing retail businesses and abandonment of their buildings. A new housing development on the urban fringe cannot be considered sustainable when 120,000 buildings in Sydney sit vacant.

Technological and design solutions must be coupled with behaviour change. Rethinking the way we live and critically evaluating our need for buildings and spaces is the next challenge.

It is a challenge that will require architecture and the property industry to adapt to changing economic realities. As Gerard Reinmuth of Terroir wrote in Architectural Review 104, the future of architecture may well be in building less. Certainly the smash-and-grab approach to land acquisition and development cannot continue.

The property industry of the future will be a value-adding industry with a concern for the longer term. Anything less will not be sustainable.

Jim Stewart is an Architectural Studies graduate of the University of Melbourne. He currently completing work experience with Di Mase Architects and studied a Graduate Certificate in Sustainability at the National Centre for Sustainability, Swinburne, before returning to complete his Masters of Architecture in 2010-11.

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