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Exploring sustainability

Case Studies | July 1, 2008 | By:

A new series examining a key issue confronting all designers.

Walking the streets these days without hearing or reading about sustainability-related issues seems something of the past. Companies use perceived sustainability topics in their marketing strategies and the color green is rapidly gaining in popularity. Nonetheless, directly asking people what the concept of sustainability truly entails will leave you with incoherent and diverse answers, or no answers at all. At the same time, there exists some sort of common sense or belief that sustainable solutions must be found in order for society to grow and nurture a feasible future.

In order to peel the layers off such a hyped-up topic, this series will instigate a search for the core of sustainability and what it in essence is all about. To start the series off, in this article we set the tone by exploring sustainability in its current setting and then place it into a framework for our exploration.

In search of a value system

In recent years, sustainability is widely accepted to be described as “the ability to meet the needs of today’s people and environment without compromising that of subsequent generations.”1 An interesting extension of this description states sustainability as a process of change rather than a goal in itself. This involves a new way of doing things, a way that recognizes linkages and reflects a set of values that are participatory and inclusive.2

Although the explicit set of values as mentioned above still is highly undetermined and diversified, the interesting part in this second description is the adaptation of continuous change — where sometimes society seems to become rather stuck in the daily interpretation and implications of the word “sustainability.”

Of course, our way of thinking about sustainability impacts its development. Looking at recycling principles, we can link ways to approach sustainable development with two major thought streams:

Recycling in the traditional sense of the word: finding new uses for products and materials in their current manufactured form and/or shape. This thought stream follows the road we mainly have been travelling so far: “doing old things better.”3

Recycling in a more profound sense of the word: decomposing used products and materials to their raw initial components, which can then be used again in the manufacturing processes of many different products. This way of thinking — more in line with, for example, cradle-to-cradle principles4 — points in a direction where we rethink sustainability in a continuum of change. We must use the old brain dust to create ideas and practices that build completely new sustainable ideas.

The role of the designer

Sustainability issues still very much remain in the scientific realm. This makes the topic very intellectual and not intuitively accessible by a broad public. There is no unified vision regarding a “sustainable society” — and it certainly does not yet exist. In this sense, no real distinction can be made between a developed and an undeveloped country, which implicates a lack of precedence or “role model” for undeveloped countries that are in rapid development. At the same time, it also has major implications for so-called developed countries where the population is comfortable with a certain lifestyle without rooted sustainable responsibilities.

Sustainability ultimately needs to become a naturally intuitive habit, a deep want. If people don’t have “a love affair with where they live” (their neighborhood, their country,) a deep want for change is difficult to ignite. Here, a very important role for planners, architects and designers in general can be identified, a role defined by establishing and pointing out the existing value and beauty intrinsically available in their environment. It is a role designed to congruently and in dialogue with the local population develop those values further. This creates valuable new interactions in terms of urban plans, landscapes, buildings, spaces, rooms, and valuable new engagement within people themselves.

The architect as influencer and people mover plays an important part in identifying the “set of values that are participatory and inclusive,” facilitating the wants and needs for sustain-enable-ability and surfacing the way we look at the built fabric of communities; to enable societies to continue living meaningful lives, or to enable more meaningful lives.

What’s next: Status quo recycling

For sustainability to ultimately become the natural intuitive habit as proposed above, the intrinsic set of values embedded within sustainability need to become more explicit.

This series will therefore encourage “Status quo recycling,” a continuous effort to approach sustainability as a circular process of change instead of a linear approach with an end goal.

  1. Formulation
    The current understanding of sustainability in building and, more specifically, membrane architecture.
  2. Status quo in practice
    What sustainable practices are currently applied to building with fabrics and foils, and in what way? Specific projects will be highlighted to produce a diversified overview.
  3. Sustainovation
    Innovation in sustainability is necessary to continue the process of change in an upward spiral. After analysis of current practise, areas for improvement can be noted and suggestions for research in those area’s will be offered.
  4. Redirection
    Suggestions on how to implement the explored sustainovation techniques.

To participate in the determination of the set of values, we encourage all readers to join us for an ongoing discussion at during the run of this series “Exploring sustainability.” Live input will be reviewed and incorporated into the series.

Martike de Grip is the director of Transcedge Ltd., a sustainable design-based practice in Hong Kong, with a specialty in tension fabric architecture.


1. Our common future, 1987

2. Parliamentary Comissioner for the Environment, NZ,

3. Lance Hosey, as quoted in FA magazine, Jan/Feb 08, pg. 14

4. Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough & Micheal Braungart, 2002

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