20 January 2014 — Life is easier when you know where you’re going, and the greatest influence the contemporary green building movement has is in framing the wider debate.
As a young student architect I was fortunate to be mentored by the late David Oppenheim, a pioneer in sustainable design and leader in the then only emerging Australian green building movement.
A key lesson from David was that our built environments’ long term success depends on pushing boundaries, driving innovation and showing that there is a better way of doing things than the seemingly comfortable status quo.
The language of green building has become common place, with sustainability forming a key tenet of any policy or strategy from cities to property portfolios and down to individual family homes. This is the lexicon on which green building literacy and proficiency are built.
We have reached our past goals and, unfortunately, for a large part the movement has settled, with diminished vision and drive as green building has become more mainstream. Past thought leaders and practitioners become ever more the pragmatists.
That is not to say that achievements to date have not been monumental; you would be hard pressed to find a decision maker who would flatly speak out against greater efficiency. Similarly, we see an ever diminishing number of commentators and stakeholders countering the need for sustainability to be at the forefront of our thinking.
As being “sustainable” is akin to being maintained (the status quo), our achievements to date fail to address the simple reality that our aggregate impact still exceeds our ecological carrying capacity.
A transitional movement
The green building movement is for the most part a transitional one, but with an ultimate goal to see aggregate performance of our buildings, communities and cities brought comfortably within sustainable limits (ecological, financial, social).
To reach this goal means accepting that which has already been achieved is only a step in the journey. Not least the legacy of past decisions means the next great step for the green building movement will be to regenerative design or positive aggregate performance.
Imagine if buildings, communities and cities were judged and compared on what they were able to give back rather than just being less bad. Put another way, imagine making a profit financially, ecologically and socially.
Framing the debate
Governments and big business will rarely be in the vanguard of the green building movement. Instead, they can reliably be seen a few steps behind, reaping benefits while mitigating risks as their decision-makers take cues from the green building movement.
Leading practitioners and organisations, such as the ever growing number of national green building councils, are responsible for framing the debate and to a large extent for drawing the boundaries of possibility for more general decision makers.
Similarly, as more new additions to our built environments are regenerative, the more easily we can profitably work within the limitations presented by many existing buildings. In coupling a rekindled passion with professional pragmatism, the successful early movers are those most likely to reap the benefits.
While there is some virtue in claims that we cannot rush change, we can push it along; the goals of the green building movement would be helped significantly if it were to focus future efforts and debate beyond achieving simply sustainable outcomes, and move towards regenerative outcomes.
After all, life is easier when you know where you’re going.
Matthew Trigg is a cities and urban policy specialist based in London. On Twitter @BuiltEnvirons.