The opportunity to build a bespoke home, to deliver a piece of quality architecture, that will shelter and cater for my parents needs as they move into old age (or more accurately, even older age!), is an opportunity that I’m sure a great many would relish. But why build a ‘sustainable’ home when building regulations allow one to get away with something pretty far short of it??
The first question to ask of course is what exactly ‘sustainable’ means? The truth is sustainability is such a broad concept that it has become a much abused term; a prefix used to justify an action. In reality sustainability is a fairly simple concept – it is an end goal where we as humans are able to exist (extreme natural disasters aside) harmoniously and in perpetuity within the limits of the eco-systems that sustain our presence on this planet. Where the complexity falls is in measuring those limits, because although finite they are extremely difficult to quantify, as are our contributions in undermining them.
Climate change is the most obvious example of our potential undermining of the eco-systems that sustain us. The debate as to whether or not it is occurring has always baffled me. I cannot claim to be nearly intelligent enough to decipher the evidence available and come to my own definitive conclusion. However in a scenario where the consensus amongst those scientists amply more qualified to speak on the subject is overwhelmingly that we are and will experience climate change, and that the potential consequences are catastrophic, it seems foolishly misguided for the lay person to continue its binary yes or no debate. The precautionary principle has always struck me therefore as a much sounder rationale on which to move forward i.e. act now to mitigate the innately uncertain yet seemingly high risk that the repercussions of inaction will be disastrous. People are of course threatened by change, but the reality, particularly in the developed world where materially we are much more comfortable, is that this neccessity for change actually represents an opportunity.
For example, the first and obvious answer – to the question of why build a sustainable home? – is that it will be a good one. The ‘in perpetuity’ bit of the definition of sustainability means a sustainable house must be one that maximises utility and enhances the ongoing wellbeing of those who occupy it. If an environmentally sound house means sacrifices in well-being it will not endure as a solution – it cannot be a one or the other situation, to be truly sustainable it must be both. As a house it must therefore offer access to good light and space; it must be thermally comfortable whilst also providing clean water and a healthy indoor air environment; and it must be flexible and adaptable to the occupants changing needs over time.
However if we are to achieve all this whilst respecting a social responsibility toward the precautionary principle we must be simultaneously minimising the environmental impact of the house, both in construction and operation. Of course there will be those who don’t recognise that social responsibility; surely however all but the most selfish of ideologies must recognise that the health of our shared planet is the most fundamental of public goods?