For the past three decades, architects have focused increasingly on green planning and building. But what is a sustainable solution in an unsustainable world where everything is connected? Is tearing down usable houses in Asia to get “recycled” teak decking for American suburbs making the world a better place?

Oslo Architecture Triennale 2013 takes a critical look at sustainability. Maarten Gielen and Lionel Devlieger from the Belgian curator team Rotor introduce the main issues.

The definition of sustainable development as set out in Our Common Future – better known as The Brundtland Report – requires that the organisation of the present day be done with respect to the needs of tomorrow. But it does not offer a set of principles by which to put that idea into practice.

Imagine the architect in charge of a building or a new master plan. Even if he or she is entirely sympathetic to the idea of sustainable development, the report from the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development on its own was never intended to provide any practical help.

Therefore, following the wide acceptation of the commissions’ vision, efforts have been made to ‘operationalize’ the notion of sustainable development into a system of laws, beliefs and morals by which to organise society.

From the lounge at the Mipim real estate fair in Cannes, 2013. _Photo: ©Rotor-Benjamin Lasserre_

The focal point of the sustainability debate has been a quest for balance, where sustainable development is represented as the intersection of three areas of concern: Ecology, Economy and Equity. The ambition has been to find a model in which everything is in harmony – on a global scale. With such a broad definition, sustainability is understood as the mother of all societal debates, the one issue that contains all others: gender equality, urban planning, tax policy, universal access to buildings, health, immigration politics, literacy programmes, the preservation of heritage, etc.

All of these debates are, to some extent, concerned with finding balances: Between man and woman, the collective and the individual, the old and the new. As a result, there is not a single societal debate of importance that cannot be considered an integral part of the quest for sustainability.

Aspirations to curb the greenhouse gas effect through climate policy are quite recent additions to the sustainability debate. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s report predicting global disaster has profoundly changed the terms of the debate. A few non-believers aside, the scale and importance of the predicted effects of climate change have pushed all parties, even those traditionally not concerned with sustainability, to reconsider their position. While the extinction of this or that small animal in some forest, or a catastrophe incurred by a chemical company far away, had been ‘boutique’ concerns only for activists, global warming and its horizon of perpetual disaster is harder to ignore.

For these more recent converts, climate mitigation is almost a synonym for sustainability. They see global warming as the urgent problem, and sustainability as the solution. Hence the increased need for operationalization, for a way to ‘roll out’ the best solutions conceived of by humanity’s brightest and most ambitious as fast as possible. The idea seems to be, that if we can imagine the solutions, we can upscale them in record time and change our destiny.

"For these more recent converts, climate mitigation is almost a synonym for sustainability."

In this context, sustainability is treated as a matter of good management, without explicit reference to ideology. Here, the only criterion for a solution to be sustainable is that it be ‘better’ than what is commonly done today, often, but not always, measured in terms of carbon impact.

Between the Walls of Masdar City

One of the largest objects in our exhibition, Behind the Green Door, is a model of the city of Masdar, imagined by the British architectural firm Foster & Partners. Masdar is planned to be car free and to use solar power and other renewable energy sources exclusively. By design, it is a zero carbon, zero waste system. The city is currently under construction just next to Abu Dhabi International Airport, and the hope is for it to be operational as a hub for ‘cleantech’ companies from 2016 and onwards. In a press release made by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, which is established to develop and operate the new city, Pooran Desai OBE, co-founder of the British environmental organisation BioRegional says: "Masdar would be the largest and one of the most advanced sustainable communities in the world." Together with the WWF, BioRegional is acting as an environmental consultant for the project.

Early study of Masdar City by Foster + Partners, Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), 2008-2023. _Ill.: Foster + Partners_.

John Roberts, the principal of the engineering & environmental consultancy firm Arup, said of Masdar City: "It is a good example of clearly set boundaries, in this case even marked by a city wall. The scale, six square kilometres, is relatively modest and the goals are clearly set: a carbon neutral, zero waste community. Because of these boundaries, I think they can succeed. Never mind what happens outside these boundaries, the car is parked outside the city wall."

According to Roberts, Masdar should be seen as a pocket of space that is sustainable inasmuch as it can be disconnected from the unsustainable world that surrounds it. The square wall that fences the city, though designed to increase the town’s climatic performance, can be seen as the materialisation of that idea. Of course, to disconnect Masdar from its surroundings, or to pretend that it has conceptual autonomy, are mental exercises that are difficult to maintain. Without Abu Dhabi’s airport next door, Masdar could never become a hub. Without a cement factory, it could never be built, and had it not been located in an oil-rich region, the project would probably never even have been conceived. And yet, Masdar does not take even partial responsibility for the harmful side effects of any of these activities. When Masdar claims to be zero carbon, the claim refers solely to the emissions taking place within the city walls.

"Masdar does not take even partial responsibility for the harmful side effects of any of these activities."

Masdar is often presented as a ‘new city in the middle of the desert’, but can more easily be understood as a large development in the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. Conceptually, economically and geographically, the project is closely linked to the existing material and organisational frameworks of the city and the region.

Artificial Boundaries

If we extend this reasoning, it can be said of all “sustainable” projects that there must be a limit to the claims they can make. The logic is as follows:

  1. We live in a world that is unsustainable. Global warming is but one of the indicators that this is the case.
  2. Directly and indirectly, everything is connected to everything else in totally unpredictable ways. Ecologists have demonstrated this time and again for the past fifty years.
  3. Therefore, for a project to be called sustainable, there must be a strong conceptual boundary around it, separating it from its unsustainable context.

One must say: This is what we, as authors, will take into account when designing our project; these are the limits of the responsibility that we take. It is not possible to design with the whole world in mind, taking every potential and unpredictable consequence into account.

The limits of responsibility can, for example, be defined geographically, as in the case of Masdar and many other ‘carbon neutral‘ cities, but they might as well be defined on the basis of other and sometimes surprising criteria.

Plasterboard, ”cradle-to-cradle”-certified. Only thing is, in many places the gypsum for the supposedly sustainable boards is a byproduct of coal fired power plants. _Photo: ©Rotor_.

For instance, take the case of the Gyproc plaster board produced in Kallo, Belgium. In 2012, the product received a silver label from the private certification system Cradle to Cradle® on the basis that it is entirely toxin-free and fully recyclable. Today, new Gyproc boards do indeed contain up to 15 per cent recycled plasterboard, but for technical reasons, there is no hope to increase that percentage above 20 per cent anytime in the near future. As Belgium has little or no gypsum extraction capabilities, the remaining 80 per cent or more of raw material is obtained from coal combustion in electric power plants. These produce plaster by ‘washing’ their exhaust with calcium, so as to comply with the European regulations on acid NOx emissions, which are established to reduce the frequency of acid rain.

The coal and plaster board industries are thus directly related. The production of gypsum is unavoidable in today’s coal-powered plants, and its use for the production of plasterboard is unavoidable, despite the recycled content. There is no other significant use for coal-gypsum, nor is there any economically viable alternative source of gypsum for the production of plasterboard. And yet, of these closely tied industries, one has the label ‘sustainable’ while the other is thought of as ‘unsustainable’. In this case, the boundary of the claim of sustainability seems more related to a change in ownership of the material than a geographic limit. Somewhere during the transport of the gypsum from the power plant to the plasterboard factory, the plaster changes from the status of a by-product of unsustainable coal combustion to the status of raw material for the production of sustainable plasterboard.

It is often argued that a more holistic approach can avoid the tunnel vision resulting from a too narrow application of calculi, as when CO2 emission standards are applied to tiny geographical areas. Often this results in the inclusion of ‘softer’ assessment parameters, for instance, to what extent the project contributes to biodiversity or even happiness. In this context, there is much to be said about the inability of data alone to assess the social impact of an operation. But even when this aspect is dealt with in a more qualitative way, for instance, by the social sciences, it is important to point out that however large the ambitions, there will always be a limit to the degree of responsibility one can take on.

In the best-case scenario, a holistic approach to sustainability will enlarge a project’s conceptual boundaries. But it cannot altogether remove them. In the same way, a shift in the scale of action from the design of individual houses to the design of an entire city certainly allows for a broadening of perspectives. But to focus on a single city (where does it end?) is to create artificial boundaries as well.

In Search of Salvation

While it is virtually impossible to assess the implications a project may have for the planet as a whole, operating in a smaller area makes it easier to compare the pros and cons and then make decisions. A pocket of sustainability can thus be understood as a device that makes it possible to ‘do good’.

By accepting an often self-imposed series of constraints on the quantity or nature of the resources used, the subscribers of sustainability are reassured that their projects contribute to a more balanced world, or at least do not further increase the imbalance. If they can be considered sustainable, acts of consumption, building, travelling, earning money, etc. can be guilt-free again.

Renewable energy is one such moral safe haven. The logic is that contrary to fossil fuels, renewable energy cannot be overused, as the sun cannot ‘over-shine‘ and the wind cannot ‘over-blow‘. Various methods for harnessing the power of the sun are considered sustainable energy sources, including the combustion of biomass. As a result, the European Union fixed an ambitious quota for the addition of biofuel to regular petrol at the gas station in 2006. To make biofuel, hydrocarbons are synthesized from plants to be mixed with regular fuel, derived from petroleum.

This policy was adopted under the impression that it would not only result in more “green” jobs but also help curb transport related CO2 emissions. But with the implementation of the regulation, every diesel car in Europe was transformed into a competitor for scarce agricultural land and produce overnight. Food prices soared, resulting in famines worldwide. To make matters worse, it was soon realised that as a side effect of the policy, large areas of rainforest were transformed into palm tree plantations, resulting in a significant loss of biodiversity.

"With the implementation of the regulation, every diesel car in Europe was transformed into a competitor for scarce agricultural land and produce overnight."

A similar hope is often invested in waste materials. Consider, for instance, advocacy for the use of reclaimed teak wood by US forest watch groups. Because of pressure imposed by these groups, architectural firm Diller Scofidio switched to using imported reclaimed teak from Asia to finish the construction of the High Line in New York, a high line turned park area. The logic behind the preference for reclaimed wood is that no trees are being cut for this timber, as it originates solely from demolition work. Reclaimed teak is considered a building material that does no harm, because it already exists and would ‘go to waste’ if left unused.

Teak houses like this one in Thailand are being disassembled by wood traders, who sell the lumber to American homeowners. _Photo: Richard Humphries_A reseller inspects the floor of a teak house in Thailand. She often pays 50,000 or more for a house, then re-mills the wood. Some preservationists say that traders like her encourage tear-downs. _Photo: Richard Humphries_A couple from Bridgehampton, NY, posing in their bedroom in 2007. The pair used recovered teak wood for the flooring as well as the wall behind the bed. _Photo: Gordon M. Grant_

However, the value of teak flooring for terraces in the US is so high that it competes with the real-estate value of entire homes in some parts of Asia. An investigation by The New York Times has shown that this resulted in demolitions with real impact on local housing availability. In this case, noting that there is no mining involved, that no dangerous chemicals are used, that no cutting down of virgin forests or slavery of any kind is taking place, the simple act of purchasing (waste) materials at what was perceived to be a fair price upset the balance of a faraway economy and led to the destruction of housing and heritage.

"The simple act of purchasing (waste) materials upset the balance of a faraway economy and led to the destruction of housing and heritage."

Both examples imply a transfer of some benefits of a resource from one group to another. But even if one was to discover a resource that was truly untapped, the exploitation of these resources in order to fulfil the needs of one part of the global population before considering those of a different part, would still constitute a significant moral act. As long as we live in a world where demand for resources exceeds the supply, every use of resources excludes them from others. Even in the context of a globalised ‘free’ market, the distribution of resources and any logic that may influence this distribution are profoundly political matters. Today, the consumption of any amount of resources, land, energy or material goods, involves a deliberate exercise of power, affecting either future generations or current and less-powerful groups of humans or other species.

In this context, no act of consumption is neutral, even when only reclaimed or renewable materials are involved. Moreover, it is not a matter of scale: While it may be more difficult to see the global impact of small-scale projects, proportionally, their impact will be similar to that of larger projects. Confined pockets of sustainability can therefore be understood as reactions to the ricocheting nature of morality among decision makers – in our age of limited natural resources and climate change.

So What?

There are at least two ways to react to the realisation that all ‘sustainable’ projects also are to some degree agents of unsustainability. The first is to insist on interconnectedness as an undeniable fact. According to this logic, it is impossible to separate the architectural project from the context driving it, just as it is impossible to separate the ‘dematerialised’ European service economy from the factories in Asia that produce the goods it consumes.

While this attitude may be attractive because it is coherent and cannot easily be criticized, when applied systematically, it causes paralysis. The only conclusion it allows for is that no architectural project can ever be sustainable, regardless of its scale, because it is an integral part of a system that is unsustainable as a whole. This reasoning leads to the conclusion that every pretension to sustainability must be founded on misunderstanding or misrepresentation, with essentially one single argument: Nothing can really be sustainable.

The second attitude is even more pragmatic: It acknowledges that the idea of sustainability depends greatly on its conceptual context, and that it does not have a universal mathematical quality. The issue is, then, no longer whether Masdar is or is not ‘really sustainable‘, but rather: How is the world affected by such a city/building/project? In what direction does the project push the faith of humanity and our globe? From this point of view, Masdar’s ambition to be a test case for technology that can be applied elsewhere is more significant than the lack of CO2 emissions in within its walls.

If our ambition with sustainability is to strive for a world that is a harmonic whole, it is crucial to assess whether the construction of this or that pocket of sustainability is merely an externalisation of undesirable side-effects to areas less prone to public scrutiny (most probably by the haves and of the have-nots) or whether, on the contrary, these pockets of sustainability are noble – although perhaps modest – beginnings. The question is whether the word sustainable - which describes the outcome of the sum of all of humanity’s ambitions - is appropriate to apply to concrete situations, or whether its use should be limited to strictly abstract discussions.

Perhaps one day, these pockets of sustainability will be so numerous and grow so large that they will start connecting to each other in mega-pockets, and finally cover the entire planet and everything that takes place on it in a new network of sustainability. But until that is the case, labelling anything as sustainable, whether it is a lawnmower or a building, should be seen as a political statement. To claim sustainability is to say: ‘This object contributes to greater balance in the world; this is morally right.’ And as long as we live in an unbalanced world, all statements of this kind should be up for discussion.

"To claim sustainability is to say: ‘This object contributes to greater balance in the world; this is morally right.’ And as long as we live in an unbalanced world, all statements of this kind should be up for discussion."

Temporary truths

The very nature of operationalization, that has a taste for fast and large-scale action, does not seem to allow this kind of permanent questioning. On the contrary, it tends to rely on simple statements that are easy to propagate. However, before we dismiss the operationalization as a whole on those grounds, we should also consider its merits. For instance, the operationalization of sustainability has had an unprecedented impact on European society. Could it become this generation’s equivalent of the space race, the ambition to put a man on the moon, which fascinated a good part of humanity in the late 1960s? Can this be considered a positive quality on its own?

Most certainly the operationalization of sustainability has a quick turnover of ideas. One could consider the apparatus of operationalization as a highly effective test lab for ideas and proposals that strive for a ‘better’ society. Some ideas are accorded the prospect of a long life, others are killed off quite rapidly. Yes, this apparatus can easily be misused for personal profit, and the rapid ‘upscaling’ of certain ideas has caused damage that could have been avoided with more caution. But, without dismissing the suffering such mistakes have caused, even the display of inappropriate ways forward can, to some extent, be considered beneficial.

Probably the biggest argument in favour of operationalization is that in general, the process has created an atmosphere in which many have found it possible to reconsider at least some of the truths they are trapped in. True, ideas that get tangled up in the apparatus of operationalization tend to lose much of their nuance. But within the discourse of mainstream sustainability, people have found arguments to question contemporary dogmas. The daily exercise of sustainability, which may easily be dismissed as superficial – for instance, the domestic sorting of waste, or carpooling – offer many people a first encounter with alternative ideas. If sustainability has not created actual progress, which at this point cannot be excluded, then it has at least created change. And the merit of this change is that it proves that change is possible, that the world we live in is not a given state that must be accepted unconditionally.

If true sustainability is to become a project of humanity, the recognition that there are few absolute truths and many subjective realities, is essential. But at the same time, one has to admit there are good reasons to accept and even to endorse the installation of well-chosen temporary truths, with the implicit understanding that these also contain the seeds of the arguments that ultimately cancel them out.

Once again, the criteria are up for discussion.


The Oslo Architecture Triennale 2013 takes place in Oslo from 19th September to 1st December 2013.

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