Developing our cities into a more sustainable direction is an ongoing process against time, money and contamination. The currently being made decisions and design schemes can potentially have a heavy impact on the future of our environment. However, the problem is that examples of truly sustainable architecture are rare, if not non-existent. Therefore, the role of an architect is crucial, while they can act as leaders with regard to an expanded view of welfare, safety and health. Unfortunately even if the objectives of a project include sustainability, there remain several challenges that may prevent an effective outcome from happening.
One of the problems that complicates implementing revolutionary sustainable designs is the non-unambiguousness of the term ´sustainable´. While most people recognize that qualities such as energy efficiency, ecological materials and an effective HVAC-system are essential meters of eco-friendliness, many forget that this is merely the technical aspect of it. Sustainable architecture, however, is a lot more than technology, especially when you consider the design at the scale of a city. In a holistic design, social aspects and adaptability have to be included as well.
If the social impact of a project is carefully studied and taken into consideration, the lifespan of the construction will most likely increase. Therefore, a critical assessment of the existing situation is vital in order to discover whether or not the solution could be achieved through development of the existing premises rather than building something new. A sustainable city is in a constant interaction with its surroundings in a way that it adapts and adjusts in response to changes in prevailing circumstances. This means that a successfully sustainable city encourages people to interact and occupy the provided spaces in unpredictable ways.
However, planning areas that are supposedly multifunctional may end up being too generic and without a character. Squares are typical examples of this phenomenon, because while some of them function as lively centers of various activities, others remain as mere passage ways with no attraction at all. Therefore architects are facing a challenge of how to create inspiring infrastructure that doesn’t nevertheless excessively restrict its utilization in the unpredictable future. This requires learning from the success stories in history, as well as staying up to date on more recent architectural achievements around the world.
One aspect that hinders the development of sustainability is that the guidelines are not global. Sustainable design always takes into consideration the surrounding environment, so after having studied eco-architecture in a northern climate one would have to make a vast amount of research before being able to work as an expert in other thermal zones or locations with a different kind of topography. No doubt that systems like LEED can provide a valid starting point, but they can also result in a merely superficial “green washing”.
When green washing a project, the statistics are used to obtain a fashionable eco-image without actually making any real benefit for the environment. This is possible while not all aspects of sustainability are measurable enabling the system to be easily manipulated. In my opinion, this is the case with Mall Plaza Egaña in Santiago. The arguments that I have heard in favor of its sustainability have regarded the green walls, bicycle parking spaces, reduced water consumption and the proximity of the subway. However, the mall seems to be outrageously inappropriately located in the middle of a small-scale residential area and while inside the mall, you would not imagine by the vast unoccupied spaces or the materials used that it is supposed to be sustainable.
Finally, one of the major obstacles that slows down the progress of sustainable cities is the same as in any other ambitious projects – the role of money in the design process. The owners are typically unwilling to make investments that cannot be justified by economic reasons. Unfortunately, it is not widely understood that the economical benefits of such projects actually do go far beyond operational cost savings. Features such as higher occupancy rates of improved employee satisfaction are definite pros that should be taken into consideration when making life cycle evaluations.
All in all, sustainability is a holistic way of thinking and designing. A healthy environment is beneficial for everybody, and architects are in one of the few roles that are able to influence what the future may look like. Even though good examples of truly sustainable architecture are currently scarce, it is worth the effort to make the change from seemingly to actually sustainable design. I am not to say that all aspects of sustainability should (or even could) be implemented in every single project, but that with the right kind of situational awareness there is probably always something that can be improved. By maximizing the sustainable potential of a city the result is a living investment that will flourish longer by being able to adapt to its surroundings.
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