The case for a sustainable built environment

What is sustainable construction?

There is no golden bullet, or one-size-fits-all answer for what sustainable design and construction should stand for. Designers have a wide freedom of choice and vast opportunities when developing integrated solutions. Strategies should be aligned with the overall goals of sustainable development and minimize their social and environmental impacts, while considering the economics of construction across its value chain.

What are the specific challenges that we are facing?

The built environment is responsible for 40% of carbon emissions, consumes nearly half of the world’s resources and over 30% of energy, it becomes apparent that the underlying environmental goals to be pursued are the reduction in energy consumption, material use, and waste production.

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To build sustainably is not a ‘one size fits all’ directive. Each world locality faces its own challenges and has recourse to its own ways of dealing with them. Sarah Graham

Inadequate living conditions and the lack of services add to these system pressures and create the compass for what is required in a world that is projected to host a population of almost ten billion people by 2050. Global building floor area will double by 2060, with a staggering 230 billion square meters of new floor area being developed, or the equivalent of building an entire New York City every month, for 40 years.

This complex scenario emphasizes how challenges are systemic, and most of all, they are local as well as global. It also gives a clear picture of how the system is under ever rising pressure.

Leadership in sustainable construction

We must take this challenging scenario into account across the sector to ensure the built environment performs sustainably on all registers – environmentally, economically, and socially. It means striving for a change of mindset that will enable multiple challenges to be met simultaneously, specifically the housing and services needs of the growing global population, the mitigation of pressure on our environment, while also enabling conditions that allow both us and our ecosystems to regenerate and thrive. By all means, no easy feat.

The past decades have seen major steps in this direction. Of utmost importance has been the focus on the energy performance and efficiency of buildings, with the rise of the green building movement. More recently, the resources topic has drawn attention to the impact of material extraction, production and use throughout the construction process. Different ways to conceive materials go through the reduction of the wasteful business as usual model, all the way to proposing solutions that either prolong the longevity of materials or promote a circular economy of means. A careful consideration of our buildings from a whole lifecycle perspective can achieve this by designing to recirculate materials and components, and to use materials that can be safely returned to the biosphere.

An imperative to reduce energy and materials use

Both operational carbon and embodied carbon have a role to play. The accountability of the built environment to reduce consumption of energy and material resources is clear. We must redefine our relationship with waste and use design as a tool to re-invent our resource use system. Finally, decoupling the built environment from its wasteful resource consumption will act as an important catalyst towards the overall increased resilience of our habitat.

Social disparities are also well known to most of us. Inequalities in the supply chain are being uncovered by the fragility of the global supply chain system, which reacts to geopolitical as well as climatic disruption, namely wars and global pandemics. But also, by civil society, which is no longer willing to pay the costs of the current model of economy and the lasting impact generated on the planet.

Younger generations take the streets, grassroot movements expose inequalities, media coverage reports on injustices along the supply chains of materials and energy daily. Access to basic needs, such as housing and energy are constantly under the increased exposure of climate events, wars, migration, and ultimately poverty.

Where the conventional solutions have failed, it’s time to think differently

Calls to action in the realm of the built environment have been launched with increasing intensity by non-profits, governmental organizations, building councils, academics and practitioner’s associations, as the climatic scenario deteriorates. We no longer have the luxury of time to ponder. The incremental change steps we have taken until now have proven to lack the impact required. We must build the leadership required to target systemic change at an unprecedented rate, and it must be now.

Building a sustainable future

What is required from professionals is to develop the ability to weigh impacts and propose solutions that are strictly consistent with the local context in which they operate, while considering global commonalities. Creative skills, innovation, systems thinking, social purpose are all in high demand.

Of global significance is our technology advancement, which has an important role in sustainable design. The Holcim Foundation showcases and promotes revolutionary technology achievements in the realm of material science and construction technologies, through its network of academics, Holcim Awards prize winners, Next Generation grant recipients, and practitioners. Local specificities, on the other hand imply careful consideration of climatic, geographic, social conditions. In other words, design buildings that are fit for context, have an optimum performance profile, enhance the needs of the communities as well as are aesthetically integrated, loved and cherished by their users.

As it has become apparent from the last cycle of the Holcim Awards, solutions ultimately call for the most revolutionary of the transformations, both the restoration and regeneration of our ecosystems to their health. In face of the ever-deteriorating health of our planet, reported by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Reports as well as by the Planetary Boundaries framework, we are drastically exhausting our resources of fresh air, soil and water as well as generating emissions and pollution. We must now concede that the built environment has an active part in restoration and regeneration of our habitats rather than just being accountable for their continuous depletion. The Foundation recognizes and supports these momentous shifts in built environment leadership and is proud to have champions and advocates within its network of practitioners.

Designing sustainably ultimately means setting priorities and conceiving the design of our buildings as a tool to improve human livelihoods and our biosphere.

Goals and Principles for sustainable construction

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction, through its years of engagement with practitioners as well as advocates, is committed to pave the road for a better world through the built environment.

The Foundation has encompassed the very goals by which design, and construction practices should respond to today’s challenges. Their scope is not only to highlight the intent of environmental and social sustainable and regenerative practices, but to provide practical guidance to professionals.

The goals reflect the topics that have been raised in the past decades by the sector’s most influential voices. These are the thought leadership practices, design strategies, design philosophies, and innovations around which the building sector is generating solutions and promoting the conditions by which these solutions become possible to implement. This requires sponsoring viable practice examples as much as advocacy into regulations and policy and, in general, public discourse. Generating a well-informed community of practitioners, and giving them the tools for change, is the first step towards this systemic transformation, and it is what the Foundation strives for.

In this context, the goals are highlighted by being paired with projects that embody them in an exemplary manner. Since its inception, the Foundation has highlighted and given visibility to the varied and poignant solutions conceived by its Awards recipients. Bringing this work to fruition, the Foundation intends to further explore exemplary pioneer projects, generating discussion and thus becoming an effective toolbox for advocacy.

The goals' resonance are amplified by the principles, meaning that sustainable solutions must be conceived through a transformational lens, their transferability potential, and a holistic, systemic approach. Only then can we unlock real potential, challenge existing and dominant built environment paradigms, and ultimately generate new thinking and new ideas in the way we design and build our buildings.