Defining sustainable construction
“Sustainability” is one of the most talked about but least understood terms. Its core significance is often clouded by differing interpretations compounded by a tendency to treat the subject matter superficially, be it through “eco”, “green”, or “smart” rhetoric. Yet, for those in the public and private sectors who do take the issue earnestly, sustainability embraces the environment and its long-term endurance as a matter of concern for all humanity. Just as intrinsic to sustainability are the critical development issues concerning the responsible use of resources within a circular economy and the fostering of social equity through the fair distribution of wealth.
The construction sector is capable of making a significant contribution to these objectives, particularly considering the vast amount of material and energy resources required to produce and maintain the built environment, not to mention the sum of emissions and waste generated throughout the entire use-cycle of physical structures. Considering the global extent of urbanization today and taking into account the pace at which the planet is being further urbanized, it is even more imperative that whatever is built must perform sustainably on all registers – environmentally, economically, and socially.
Although there is little disagreement about the need for action, the debate continues as to whether it should proceed in small or larger steps: radical or incremental change – that is the question. But whatever the answer (either systemic overhaul or tweaking the status quo), we do not have the luxury of time to decide how to act.
Building a sustainable future
Sustainable construction, in line with the stipulations for development outlined in the Brundtland Commission’s report “Our Common Future” from 1987, aims to meet present day needs for housing, working environments, and infrastructure without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs for shelter, spaces for work, and service provision. In meeting these needs now and over time, sustainable construction, in other words, can become more socially supportive in the long run by reducing its overall ecological footprint, while also being innovatively responsive to the ever-increasing demand for built space.
In view of its environmental impact, sustainable construction involves the design and management of built structures, whether at the scale of buildings, infrastructure, or urban agglomerations; the performance of materials across all scales and throughout their whole use-cycles; and the use of renewable energy resources as well as their attendant technologies in building, operation, and maintenance to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
In view of its economic impact, sustainable construction involves the transition from a linear to a circular economy of renewable energy generation, material and waste recycling, water harvesting and preservation, transferable technologies, and the adaptability of structures to changes in use; innovative financing models premised on an economy of means that yields more with less; and the reinvestment of returns back into the common domain for collective benefit.
In view of its social impact, sustainable construction involves adherence to the highest ethical standards in business and industry practices throughout all project phases; the promotion of socially-viable living and working environments, including occupational health and safety standards for labor forces and users; and the democratization of all processes pertaining to the production and use of the built environment as a common wealth.
While fulfilling these concurrent objectives, sustainable construction involves as well concerns for the aesthetic quality of the built environment, its architecture, its infrastructure, and its urban organization, all attuned to the specificities of local culture as well as global commonalities.
“Target issues” for sustainable construction
The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction is committed to the underlying principles of sustainability, which assert that long-term development of the built environment requires a mutually-reinforcing interplay of responsible economic, ecological, social, and aesthetic objectives. Additionally, and in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (adopted in 2015 and ratified in 2016), the Foundation places a premium on the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions in all construction-related activities throughout the entire use-cycle of built structures.
For this very purpose, the Foundation – in collaboration with its associated universities – has put forth five “target issues” as guidelines for sustaining the human-made habitat for current and future generations. These “target issues”,” which correlate with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as the Sustainable Development Strategy of the supporting company Holcim, serve as criteria for evaluating projects submitted to the Holcim Awards, while also providing an operative roadmap for all activities of the Foundation – expert roundtables, international conferences, research grants, next-generation laboratories, best practice publications, and so forth.