Redefining Sustainability, Rob Sieniuc, Broadway Architects

University of the Fraser Valley, BC
Redefining Sustainability guest lecture by Rob Sieniuc

"Sustainability is about living in balance on our planet—'In ECOlibrium' with the natural world within nature’s limits.”
    ~  Rob Sieniuc, Broadway Architects


     What is Sustainability?

"To sustain—to keep in existence, to maintain"

Unfortunately, the word has long been misused and overused. Today everything is talked about as being "sustainable" to certify it as earth friendly— from not only green designed buildings but to health care and even miningwhich implies that minerals are a renewable resource, which as we all know is not true. The word has been hijacked by industry. It has become a marketing mantra for business to greenwash their products to the public. Today, advertisers use it to indiscriminately describe everything from cars, to clothes to shampoo.

Even the UN definition of sustainability (first outlined in 1987) as a tripartite, equal relationship between the environmental, social and economic realms is problematicas it grossly under estimates the role that "nature" plays. Sustainability in my view is about "living in balance" on our planet—"In ECOlibrium” with the natural world within nature’s limits”.

There is an ageless planning concept
—community planning that respects the "environmental carrying capacity" of an area—the land’s ability to maintain and regenerate, and acknowledges the adverse consequences in building beyond that.  I prefer the term “Environmental Design” rather than "sustainability” as it is more encompassing — it recognizes the importance of the environment, and the role of communities in the way we build and develop.  It acknowledges our temporary stewardship of the planet and the important inter-relationships that are essential to maintaining clean air, soil, water, and the environments that sustain life.

Environmental design starts with the land and embraces the local community to sensitively accommodate our built environments.  Land, people, buildings — that is the order. The philosopher Krishnamurti taught that nature was an integral part of our being: if we hurt nature, we hurt ourselves.  BC’ own Chief Dan George spoke of our being part the greater Mother Earth and the interdependence of everything and that we need to return to the land with a spiritual perspective.

Many of us non-natives have had homesteading grandparents who had direct connections to the land and relied on it for sustenance. They lived by the cycles of nature — planting and harvesting. Today, we live mostly indoors, in climate-controlled buildings isolated from the natural world — in an instant on-off culture where we can flick a light switch, or remotely turn on the heat, lights or a TV and stereo all at our whim — in buildings that keep us isolated from nature. Our buildings have come to be situated across vast tracts of land, without regard for how they alter the flow of rain to the water table, disturb wildlife habitat, and consume materials and fuel in their construction and maintenance.

It's interesting to note that not that long ago in 1900 only 10% of our population lived in urban centres. Today that number is close to 60%.  That’s a large number of people living in cities who are out of touch with the natural rhythms of the planet.

In North America there are over 120 million buildings. Collectively, they consume a significant amount of our energy and the majority of the world’s natural resources, and contribute most of the waste in our landfills. Almost half of all greenhouse gas emissions are traceable to our human created environments. But most significantly, of all the world’s buildings stock, 80% is single and multi-family residential housing. That is where the biggest gains can be made in addressing all these issues.

What are our options?

Successful environmental design compels all of us to rediscover the ecological interconnectedness our grandparents and First Nations people traditionally had with their environments. This means we need to build projects, particularly housing, that benefit directly from the sun’s and earth’s passive energy.

That is community scale development based on low technology applications, such as passive-solar and earth-tubes for heating, that incorporate for example natural ventilation and more effective use of natural daylight, rather than energy intensive mechanical systems, and use less land and support local food production.

The Seabird Island Sustainable Community Demonstration  project was an early proponent addressing sustainability. The lessons learned still apply. I have worked with many other communities and small resorts in the years since particularly in the far north where the weather is extreme and affects of climate change are most pronounced. Buildings here have to be designed as super-green, energy-efficient facilities with double walls, triple- and quadruple-glazed windows, many with heavy timber and standard wood framing, earth tubes and geo exchange. Wood—the only major renewable, carbon-neutral building material—is used extensively in constructing facilities. Such choices result in substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and energy costs.

The world population is approximately 7.9 billion. It now takes the Earth over 18 months to regenerate the natural resources that we use in a year to support this population.” To address this we need to create a way of living that is based on less economic growth, personal consumption, and waste.  That is why it makes sense to build energy-efficient, environmentally respectful communities that are powered by alternative sources of energy—sun, earth, wind, water.

How do we get there?

I believe the answer is in our local community.  Pete Seger used to say that “Participation—that's what's gonna save the human race.” Not government, not politicians or corporations but our own community. Why? because ecological awareness is native to place. This is especially true when applied to the resource industries where there is usually no direct community connection with the company to the place where they operate and thereby no perceived environmental community responsibility.

Sometimes, preserving the delicate carrying capacity of a particular place—means saying ‘no’.  Engaged communities understand this as a necessary part of stewardship.  In so doing, we will recognize in our redefinition of sustainability that it is nature that overrides all—not economics. True sustainable design puts the health of nature’s eco systems above all else.

As Chief Dan George reminded us, “We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive".

What do we need to do to live more sustainable?

    • Create smaller footprints, smarter buildings.  In the sixties a typical family  lived in a 1,000 sf house. In the  80’s that became 2,000 sf. Today its over 3,000 sf
    • Build energy efficient projects that benefit directly from the sun’s and earth’s passive energy
    • Put a focus on housing—it can contribute the most in addressing ecological issues
    • Greater use of carbon neutral wood products—the only major renewable building product
    • Greater use of all available alternate energy sources—sun, wind, water, earth energy
    • Use low-technology applications—passive solar, earth tubes. Technology has to remain simple, and accessible at the community level
    • Use more natural systems: natural ventilation / day lighting / passive heating rather than high energy intense mechanical systems

At the local community level:

    • Successful environmental design is achieved when communities are actively involved in their own planning, design and construction processes. This includes self-building to maximize local resources, materials and labour, and minimize waste.
    • Support community-based development based on efficient use of the land
      You can’t have good building and developments without good planning
    • Identify, protect, preserve sensitive lands from development and rehabilitate lands wherever possible
    • Commit to “Living Small as the New Large ”—be mindful of our own personal impact on the environment in order to lower carbon emissions
    • Support, practice urban gardening and conservation— local food production lessons transportation impacts
    • Put the ECO back in ECOnomics—Buy Less, Use Less
    • Support and encourage local knowledge of an area in community planning and decision making
Eco-citizenship in the twenty-first century obliges us to create a way of living that is based on less economic growth, personal consumption, and waste.

Rob Sieniuc, M.E. Des. (Architecture), BA, AIBC
Principal, Broadway Architects (Rob Sieniuc + Associates)
Architects & Environmental Designers   Vancouver, BC, Canada


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