Questioning Sustainability

Again the question of what we mean by sustainability has arisen from various directions, and will, no doubt, continue to do so … Prompted by reading Lloyd Alters recent post in Treehugger, here are my thoughts …

Lloyd Alter in his TreeHugger post What’s a Better Term for Sustainable Design, calls for a vote between Sustainable Design and Responsible Design, citing standards such as One Planet Living, Living Building Challenge that go beyond sustainability.

I have long hooked on to a comment from Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia, The Responsible Company) that we should not be using the word sustainability until we give more back than we take, and that’s more back to the environment, but also to the place and culture in which we are based, the people we live and work with, those who work for us, and the society & communities in which we live work and play.

I am co-editing chapters for the forthcoming RESTORE Regenerative Design publication that also borrows much from regenerative standards, whilst embracing ecological perspectives, such as Commoners four laws of ecology. I would offer regenerative design as an alternative to sustainable or responsible design.

Listening to Bruce Springsteen’s brilliant Broadway performance I was struck by his piece on 1+1=3 – this is regenerative sustainability. It’s where the magic happens, it’s the magic of rock and roll, classical music, poetry where the sum of parts is far greater than the parts. Currently buildings and products struggle to make 1+1=2.

RESTORE 2018 publication (Sustainability, Restorative To Regenerative) defined regenerative sustainability as enabling eco and social systems to flourish but also pushed thinking forward, to embrace a Seva approach, where we design as part of nature, rather than apart from nature (the Eco stage). It requires a paradigm switch in how we see ourselves as part of nature.

This was highlighted on my recent visit to Future Build where more than one green building supplier used the expression of giving nature a home within our buildings. Seva thinking would reverse this, to promoting green build products that nature would tolerate in its home.

It is when the capacity of a place to sustain itself becomes ruptured that the human mind is forced to reflect upon ecology. Only then do most of us consider the interconnections between plants and animals and their environment. Ecology teaches that you cannot damage one part of a system without causing knock-on effects elsewhere. From Soul and Soil by Alastair McIntosh (a book I am currently reading described as ‘extraordinary, weaving together theology, mythology, economics, ecology, history, poetics and politics as the author journeys towards a radical new philosophy of community, spirit and place)

The abstract and papers for the forthcoming American Geographers event Nature’s New Urban Worlds: Questions of Sustainability perhaps reflects the current zeitgeist, where nature is being used in the design and forging of new urban worlds.

Within FutuREstorative: Towards a New Sustainability I flagged how the language we use is important, for clarity in what we are describing and attempting to achieve, but also in the often combative adversarial expressions we use, (of competitions, wining, beating etc) adopted from business and no doubt Sun Tzu’s Art of War thinking, and that we rarely, (although I must admit more increasingly), hear words of love, caring and compassion within the sustainability lexicon.

Is it ok to use the word sustainability?

My view, at the moment, is that it is ok to use the word sustainability, but not as something we have achieved, but as our striving for a tipping point (as per Chouinard’s quote). In this thinking we do not have many, if any, sustainable products or buildings. With perhaps exceptions such as natural, nature-based, building materials and buildings like the Bullitt Centre (not only for what it is today but also the ethos and philosophy on the way it was envisaged and designed)

I will be describing the work of RESTORE and the thinking behind Ego, Eco, Seva at the Living Futures 19 conference in Seattle on 2 May.

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Time for Natural Climate Solutions

“The world faces two existential crises, developing with terrifying speed: climate breakdown and ecological breakdown. Neither is being addressed with the urgency needed to prevent our life-support systems from spiralling into collapse”.

So starts an open letter, initiated by George Monbiot and signed by a raft of influential climate, ecology and sustainability thinkers.

Natural Climate Solutions is a new initiative (website) calling on governments to back natural climate solution measures and “to create a better world for wildlife and a better world for people”. It should also be a call to us all in built environment sectors.

“We are championing a thrilling but neglected approach to averting climate chaos while defending the living world: natural climate solutions. Defending the living world and defending the climate are, in many cases, one and the same.”

Signatures to the letter and the Natural Climate Solutions include:
– school strikes activist Greta Thunberg,
– climate scientist Prof Michael Mann,
– writers Margaret Atwood, Naomi Klein and Philip Pullman
– campaigners Bill McKibben, David Suzuki and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
– former archbishop of Canterbury, former president of the Maldives, musician Brian Eno
– advocacy group directors John Sauven, Greenpeace UK, Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth,Ruth Davis, RSPB, Rebecca Wrigley, Rewilding Britain

Recent research indicates that about a third of the greenhouse gas reductions needed by 2030 can be provided by the restoration of natural habitats, but such solutions have attracted just 2.5% of the funding for tackling emissions.

This is a huge issue for the built environment sector, where costing of approaches for technical carbon reduction solutions far outweigh costing of drawdown of carbon through living systems associated with our buildings and cities. If natural living systems are even considered as carbon solutions that is, to meet our Construction Vision target of carbon reduction by 50% by 2025.

We still see carbon as the enemy, through our too often one sided approach of reduce, reduce, reduce … So, given that, according to the IPCC, we have 12 years to avoid irreversible climate breakdown here are four actions we should embrace today:

  • Ecologists and Landscape Architects now, urgently need to become project leads.(1)
  • Locked in carbon should be the reported key carbon performance indicator and driver, not just the (scope1 and 2) carbon footprint
  • Lets start talking about upfront carbon and not embodied carbon. What matters is the carbon that is being emitted today, and the carbon that is being locked away today .(2)
  • Zero carbon is not enough, we can do better and go beyond zero, we don’t have time just to reduce carbon to zero.

How this aligns with my thinking, keynotes, advocacy and support for built environment client, design, contstruction, fm and academic organisations …

  • Rethinking Carbon – our need to focus on durable and living systems, not just fugitive carbon (3)
Ego, Eco, Seva
  • We need to move from the Eco phase we are currently locked into – to a Seva mindset, where we see buildings as part of nature, the natural ecosystem, not apart from it. (4)
Published 2016
  • FutuREstorative, published in 2016, explores natural and rewilding solutions enable the built environment to address climate breakdown
  • Advocacy, client and project through Living Building Challenge that drives for an ecologically robust future with imperatives such as habitat exchange, urban agriculture and more.
  • Exploring rewilding and regenerative agriculture thinking and its relationship with the built environment.

  1. this was the topic of a Specifi Think Tank in 2018 and received favourable agreement
  2. thanks to the TreeHugger ‘Upfront Carbon’ article by Lloyd Alter (et al) for this
  3. Carbon is not the Enemy
  4. A key outcome in the EU Cost Action RESTORE working group 1

Natural Climate Solutions … a small group of people working voluntarily to raise awareness of natural climate solutions and champion the work of organisations working in this field. who encourage you to support local projects, campaigns and initiatives near you and help ensure that this crucial and exciting answer our global crises receives the attention it deserves.

Blog post based on the Guardian, D Carrington, Article 030418

PVC, Chlorine and Building Materials – When we know better, we can do better.

Construction Materials – A Social Justice Issue

Having knowledge and transparency in respect of the materials we incorporate into our buildings remains a significant global social justice issue, as much as it is one of health and wellbeing. As ILFI Declare label asks, “where does a product come from, how is it used and what happens at end of its life” are vital questions in todays built environment.

This aspect, social justice in sustainability, was the theme of my presentation (*) at Green Build Europe 2019 in Amsterdam last week that mentioned the social impact of PVC and the report from HBN launched the same day.


PVC and Chlor-alkali

On the 19th March, HBN released part two of their investigative research into PVC and chlor-alkali looking at the Asia market (Part One Covered USA and EU). This was also the focus for their webinar on 27th March. Having transparency on PVC production is vital, from both the social justice and wellbeing perspectives, if we are to create buildings that are socially justice, ecological sound and culturally rich.

Healthy Buildings Network Vision: All people and the planet thrive when the environment is free of toxic chemicals

Moving Forward. While environmentalists, building owners, architects and designers, and building-product manufacturers differ in their opinions on avoiding PVC, there is widespread and growing support for the elimination of pollution from the supply chain of PVC and of other chlorine-based products. A public global inventory of chlorine and PVCproducers is a necessary first step for taking action.HBN is providing this report, and accompanying online materials, spreadsheets, and map, as full open-accesscontent. This data can help manufacturers to avoid chemicals derived from toxic technologies, and scientists to fill gaps in understanding the material flow of pollutants like mercury, PFAS, and carbon tetrachloride.


A worrying aspect that I take away from these reports is the use of mercury, asbestos and coal in the production of chlorine and its widespread use within PVC production.

PVC is the most common plastic used in building materials, by far. With the resources
developed by HBN, users can trace PVC production sites back to the source of chlorine,
understand the technologies (those that use mercury, asbestos and/or PFAS), and make informed decisions about the materials used in their products. HBN’s Chlorine and Building
Materials initiative also details the ties between chlorine production and other plastic building
products, including epoxy, polyurethane, and polycarbonate.

China

An increasing proportion of PVC is sourced from massive new plants in the coal mining region of interior China. The highest concentration of these plants is in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. These government owned plants consume local coal that is inexpensive due to its abundance and low labor costs. They use toxic mercury catalysts to turn coke and chlorine into VCM for the PVC.

These plants, including three of the world’s largest, are located near internment centers into which the Chinese government is forcing Uyghurs to undergo so-called “re-education.” Some of the PVC flooring made in this region is entering the building and construction market. There are many other social justice issues involved in the industrial geography of the chlor-alkali and PVC industries, but this is potentially the most dire. This raises some questions, in particular:

Is forced labor involved in the mining of coal, the building, the operation, and the handling of waste, from these massive new coal-to-PVC plants?

Has the industry taken any steps to ensure that PVC used in building and construction does not come from entities (including government agencies and related private investors) that violate human rights?

HBN Report

The HBN Report can be downloaded and read here: Chlorine and Building Materials: A Global Inventory of Production Technologies and Markets. Phase 2: Asia. (with Spreadsheets, maps, and reports, all of which are free to use with attribution) Part One is also available from the same pages.

Many thanks to Jim Vallette, report author and President Material Research, L3C  for insights on China and related social issues.

GreenBuild Europe Presentation

(*) The GreenBuild Europe presentation was in conjunction with Emmanuel Pauwels Green Living Projects and Paola Moschini Macro Design Studio who presented on their experience of attaining the ILFI JUST Label (at present the only two organisations Europe)

Microbiome inspired green infrastructure: rewilding the city, one human body at a time.

person holding photo of roots

Green roofs, living walls, urban green landscape could prove to provide more benefits than first thought. In addition to the obvious nature, biodiversity benefits and the biophilic wellbeing and air benefits, connection to nature can also rewild the microbiome ecosystems within our bodies leading to better health. (Microbiomes are the billions of microbes that live on and within our bodies and regulate our health)

With the first law of ecology, (and that oft quoted John Muir sound bite) that everything is connected, it is not so surprising that the microbiome in our bodies is connected to the wider natural eco-system. A topic I touched on with Specifi building engineers in Leeds recently!

In FutuREstorative I talk of rewilding nature, buildings and people. Rewilding is not just about reintroducing big predators such as the wolf, or reintroducing missing parts of any natural ecosystem chain, but about ‘creating conditions that allow the emergence of natural responsiveness and development’. This is regenerative, not restricting what we allow nature to do, but seeing the the way we design, construct and maintain the built environment as a part of nature, not apart from nature

Yet, the next frontier in rewilding and indeed, in the evolving sustainability nexus of buildings and wellbeing could well be within the human body itself. Researchers are exploring ways to ‘rewild’ the microbiome of urban dwellers whose microbiome state maybe below par (due to urban environments and lack of nature) back a more natural and healthier state.

Challenges 09 00040 g002
A vision for the future: microbiome-inspired green infrastructure (MIGI) and multi-sensorial, multiculturally inclusive, and foraging-friendly green spaces (created by the paper author).

A paper published in the journal Challenges, explores the human body as a holobiont—that is a ‘host along with billions of microbial organisms working symbiotically to form a functioning ecological unit’— that has the potential to enhance both human and planetary health. And the way we design cities can be a vital contribution. In the paper, Jake Robinson of University of Sheffield UK and Jacob Mills and Martin Breed of the University of Adelaide in Australia propose that urban planners focus on creating microbiome-inspired green infrastructure to “innovative living urban features that could potentially enhance public health via health-inducing microbial interactions.”

The paper notes that ‘connecting with nature, both physically and psychologically, has been shown to enhance our health and wellbeing, and adds to other recent calls for the inclusion of the environment-microbiome-health axis in nature–human health research’

A call for microbiome inspired green infrastructure – “innovative living urban features that could potentially enhance public health via health-inducing microbial interactions.” – would certainly widen the project design team to include biologists and microbiome professionals.

Robinson, J.M.; Mills, J.G.; Breed, M.F. “Walking Ecosystems in Microbiome-Inspired Green Infrastructure: An Ecological Perspective on Enhancing Personal and Planetary Health.” Challenges. 2018, 9, 40.

Source (and borrowed inspiration for the title) for this blog post appeared in Anthropocene Magazine in November 2018

Header Image: Jenny Hill, Swinsty Reservoir, United Kingdom, Unsplash

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Thoughts on FutureBuild 2019 – 2030

Eco Build had been renamed as Future Build to focus on built environment innovation for the future, whilst retaining an eco, sustainability theme. From a brief attendance on the first day here are a few comments, the good the bad and the ugly.

Garden by the Bay, Singapore
Garden by the Bay, Singapore

Giving nature a home

More than one stand promoted their product or solution as ‘giving nature a home in construction, in buildings, in the built environment – the place for the home we are giving is interchangeable. We have to flip this – and quickly if we are to arrest the loss in biodiversity. Nature has a home, and without the built environment would be doing very nicely thank you. We need to see products and solutions that respect, and live within the space that nature can give us as a home … for construction, buildings, the built environment

Its not magic dust

Not knowing what the ingredients are in products – especially glues and binders in composite materials is not that surprising, but why does a manufacture send a sales representative to a green build show who isn’t clued up on what must be a common question. One representative I talked with described the binder in plastic ‘nurdles’ as magic dust

Will it hurt me or make me healthy

A similar question, given the increase in awareness of toxicity of materials through Well Build, BREEAM and a lesser degree LBC, that manufacture and suppliers should to be able to respond to is how the product will either hurt me or make me healthy. It’s an issue we often make as discerning shoppers when buying food – why not when buying construction products? (A point I made on my Building Hub presentation – that every product being promoted at FutureBuild had the potential to affect our health, for good or for worst, and that all too often we don’t know)

And you know what? – if this is not a common question then that raises a whole raft of other issues – not only do we not know what is in the products we promote, we don’t care enough to ask!

forest trees marked with question marks

Back to the future

It is increasingly recognised that our ancestors and indigenous people had, and in a few cases still have, the thinking and approaches that we know need tin this anthroprecene age to address climate change, biodiversity loss, skill loss. It was good there for to see rammed earth and clay blocks on display and in workshops. Although one can’t help wondering why this seemed to be hidden away behind timber panelling.

Why Waste?

I enjoyed the waste zone’s innovative and interactive approach. I only wish we could start calling it a material ‘conservation’ zone. Language is important, and whilst we continue to call materials waste, we will continue to see only their final destination as landfill or incineration.

SDG’s – the four year old with a bright future we are just getting know

It was extremely encouraging to hear Sustainable Development Goals and Circular Economy given a main stage platform for discussion. If Future Build is the show case for sustainability, innovation and future-proofing – then the SDG’s, now 4 years old, along with circular economy for that matter, are a vital ingredients. Yet in 2019 the SDG’s should be common place, not new.

Its worse, far worse …

Where then is the innovation, the next new sustainability? A few I talked with during the day, and a theme of our building hub session (What can international standards teach us?) is that sustainability is dead, it has been our engineering solution to resources, energy, climate change, carbon for 30 years (since the 1987 Brundtland definition) but the situation is now worse than then.

The climate change book of 2019 so far (Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells) starts with what must be one of the most brilliant and worryingly sentences for a while – It is worse, far worse that you think”

Image result for 2030
The 2030 Agenda: Our responsibility.

Regeneration and Regenerative are better describers for the sustainability we need. And given we only have another 11 FutureBuilds before we reach the IPCC impassion of irreversible climate breakdown, we have to move fast.

Recent Reading : Edition 2

This is the second edition in a 2019 series covering pieces I have been reading online and in print that I think are worthy of further sharing. Followers on twitterlinkedin,  and to a lesser degree on Instagram will be aware that I regularly share items relating to sustainability, the built environment and our relationship with the outdoors and nature. However posts there can be flitting and often difficult to track down and return to. They will hopefully have a longer life here …

Articles, papers and images that catch my eye, or as a result of a search I move into my ever growing Instapaper (and occasionally Evernote) Library. This enables me to read offline, and importantly to keep and or return to for reference: here are a few recents:

Sustainability

It is worse, much worse, than you think. The opening line from David Wallace-Wells’s Uninhabitable Earth continues: The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life un-deformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not circumscribed and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.– there is a free chapter to read here, if you haven’t read it as yet!

Climate Change and Consciousness. Alan Watson Featherstone’s blog thoughts  ahead of Findhorn Foundation’s international conference ‘Climate Change & Consciousness: Our Legacy for the Earth.

DeepMind Wind Predictions: 4 Ways A.I. Is Saving the Environment How A.I. can be harnessed to reduce the mounting affects of climate change 1. Protecting Scarce Supplies of Water in Arid Regions2. Real-Time Crop Data Will Inform Future Farmers 3. Climate Modeling Offers Extremely Long-Term Forecasts 4. The Big Data of Weather Forecasts Make Solar Panels More Lucrative


Built Environment

Guardian Concrete Week . A series of hard hitting articles: Guardian Cities celebrates the aesthetic and social achievements of concrete, while investigating its innumerable harms, to learn what we can all do today to bring about a less grey world

What Would a “Green New Deal” Look Like for Architecture? – Ocasio-Cortez’s plan,in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s most recent warning that the world has about a decade to get climate change under control, would see buildings as mini power plants that can not only produce enough energy to supply their own needs, but also fuel vehicles and send excess energy back to the grid. (Something explored in FutuREstorative)

The Nature of Air the latest publication from Terrapin Bright Green sheds light on the financial burden of poor air quality as well as the atmospheric mechanisms by which earth is able to addresses air pollution in an energy efficient and circular manner

AI, Machine Learning, construction and bots A great overview from colleague Paul Wilkinson: Construction is waking up to the opportunities posed by artificial intelligence and machine learning to mine rich data and deliver powerful business insights and predictions.

Using public health data to inform building practice  Angela Loder & Regina Vaicekonyte on how the WELL Building Standard™ (WELL™) uses public health data and how projects can use this data to inform their project health goals.

Bringing wellbeing to construction with Red List compliant, biophilic net-zero site accommodation. Blog on Chicago-based Pepper Construction who unveiled its Net Zero Jobsite Trailer in November at Greenbuild show at the end of last year.


Outdoors / Nature

Why rewilding? – Rewild Everything! In our attempts to tame and control nature, to de-wild the natural world, we also tame, control and de-wild ourselves, and in the process lose fundamental parts of us that make being alive meaningful and enjoyable. We deny parts of ourselves that frighten and inconvenience us, ignore messages from our animal bodies as we stare at screens under artificial lights, inside concrete buildings kept at artificial temperatures to boost ‘productivity’.

Free Photo Book: NASA Celebrates Earth’s Incredible Natural Beauty Earth,  a free photo book from NASA features stunning imagery captured over the years by various NASA satellites. .

Free Solo Alex Honnold, now 33, has been a legend in the sport for a while, with a rack of insane firsts and nobody-will-evers hanging from his harness (except he doesn’t usually wear one of those). With a goofy grin and a bad haircut, he has been fighting a single-handed battle against gravity, and winning. When, on 3 June 2017, he free-soloed the freerider route on El Capitan, the New York Times described it as “one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, ever”. Then the film about that climb – Free Solo – came out, and the world outside the climbing community sat up and took note. It is a brilliant, beautiful film – not just the story of an incredible physical performance, but a very human story of a remarkable, beguiling character.

Previous Reading Recently Edition 1

The Nature of Air

When imagining clean, rejuvenating air, one might conjure visions of high mountain-tops or misty waterfalls—in other words, pristine nature.

When imagining clean, rejuvenating air, one might conjure visions of high mountain-tops or misty waterfalls—in other words, pristine nature. In reality, plants, animals, and even underlying geology pose numerous challenges to air quality whether from airborne particulate matter, pollen, mold, bacteria or noxious gasses. Despite these many natural pollutants, Earth’s troposphere—the bottom layer of atmosphere—has remained clean, intact, and molecularly balanced over the hundreds of millions of years it has existed in this particular state of dynamic equilibrium. Utilizing only ambient energy and basic tenets of physics and chemistry, the mechanisms by which the atmosphere remains clean exemplify principles of circularity, synergy, and resource efficiency. Most of these cleaning mechanisms initiate from an interaction between the atmosphere and something else (plants, soils, oceans, rainfall), but arguably the most important atmospheric cleaning process is carried out by the atmosphere itself.

The Nature of Air

The Nature of Air: Economic and Bio-Inspired Perspectives on Indoor Air Quality Management,  the latest publication from Terrapin Bright Green sheds light on the financial burden of poor air quality as well as the atmospheric mechanisms by which earth is able to addresses air pollution in an energy efficient and circular manner. Sponsored by AtmosAir Solutions, the report explores how those same mechanisms can be brought indoors to support rethought indoor air quality management, and how one technology–bi-polar ionization –is doing just that.

This Terrapin Bright Green white paper represents another facet of the ever growing body of research into the human-nature connection. It outlays actionable information that companies can use to improve productivity, employee satisfaction, and the bottom line.

Poor indoor air quality has received greater attention as yet another deterrent of our mental and physical well-being. Despite a growing demand for healthy buildings, IAQ management has remained a design challenge as typical strategies, such as increased filtration, pit energy performance against air quality. Competing outcomes—in this case, energy-efficiency and well-being—can seem intractable, however nature provides a different perspective.

Terrapin Bright Green Blog

Abstract: Poor indoor air quality diminishes cognitive functioning. For employers, reduced work task performance translates into a lower return on their investment in employees. Indoor air quality management remains an industry challenge as efforts to improve air quality, and subsequent occupant wellness, often come at the expense of energy performance. Insights from atmospheric cleaning mechanisms have spurred the development of air purifying technology to realign air quality management with the fundamental processes found in nature. Doing so allows for better management of pollutants and helps to decouple air quality with the amount of air brought in from outside.

The Nature of Air

Header Image: Mist Rolls Down, Roland Batke-Mutschler, Unsplash