Paulo Reis Silva • Senior Partner S+A
The subject of sustainability is a major topic in political, social, and economic agendas. But when we address the question of sustainability what are we really talking about? Climate change? Emissions reductions? Increase of biodiversity?
Actually, we should be considering all of this and much more, since the most important is to discuss the subject of sustainability in its full scope, avoiding the conveyance of wrong messages based on partial visions that do not contemplate the core issue – the continuity of the human being in our planet.
David Attenborough, the well-known British naturalist, in his latest book – “A Life in Our Planet” -, mentions the numbers that indicate a profound change in the general conditions of life on Earth: during an approximate period of 80 years, the land covered with natural habitats has been reduced from 2/3 to 1/3 of the total land, while the human population has tripled during that same period. These two examples mean that the way in which we use our territory should be our chief concern, so that we may avoid a total collapse of the capacity to renew natural resources, and in order to accommodate the population growth.
Architects are an element with accountability in these matters since their activity intervenes in areas that affect the main parameters of sustainability – as it is the case in areas such as land-use planning, urban design, or building projects. Throughout these interventions, we place our imagination at the service of progress, one that has to lead us into a sustainable world, while at the same time we must consider this assumption in its fullest possible scope.
In the real estate market, we witness how many operators are already incorporating many subjects associated with sustainability in their investment options, namely the use of construction certificates, the incorporation of solutions for renewable energy production, or even wide options of materials that are certified as “green”.
This is all quite positive and the field of architecture has also responded to these challenges.
Nevertheless, a careful reading of the sustainability indicators shows that this path is not enough to ensure that the current use of natural resources does not compromise the needs of future generations.
The creation of the constructed space, such as buildings, public spaces, or urban spaces, as physical supports of human activity, is a core element in the promotion of sustainable lifestyles. Thus, the importance of bringing imagination to life.
In order to reach a sustainable world, it is not enough to be focused on the certification of energy or construction, which is highly positive, as mentioned.
We should show the need to bring about some changes to our lifestyles, and we can and should use architecture, design, and engineering as ways of facilitating the choice for sustainable options.
The type of construction, whether of public or urban space, that we project and build will be a space of future development for the community, families, freedom, and lifestyles. Here lies an opportunity to imagine sustainability.
In a way, we must overlook reality in order to turn imagination into something real, namely a sustainable world, while at the same time keeping all the good practices that we already have.
One must project highly qualified urban spaces, public spaces, and buildings, using greener technologies and elements, with green areas and public equipment, which facilitate an easy choice for sustainable options.
Next, we highlight some areas that may contribute towards a shift of paradigm.
The increase of urban rehabilitation, in order to take advantage of all that already exists and lies within the infrastructures, without fearing demolitions that enable qualification, while restraining from using additional land, which is one of the core conditions that should be promoted.
Taking into account the general increase of population, it is necessary to promote accessible housing in cities, in a way that reduces the daily commuting needs and that makes house change more flexible, thus assuring the quality of daily life and providing a transport offer that is truly articulated with the market dynamics. It is also important to invest in public, cultural and school spaces that promote personal and community qualification and development, while using design, obviously, as an instrument of culture and inclusion.
When projecting and building new spaces, one should include a set of central themes for the necessary change, namely the reduction of consumption – water and power -, the reduction of emissions, although also considering the flexibility of use in its conception, i.e., spaces that can easily shift their use. Furthermore, one should also promote a faster construction, with fewer residues, with the incorporation of less energy and non-toxic materials, and finally assure greater construction durability, with less maintenance needs.
These features would surely promote a greater technical qualification in the industries of real estate development and construction, and in some cases trigger a profound change in the way the whole industry operates.
The change that we have come to witness, from a developer-seller into a developer-leaser, has brought greater concern with the life cycle of the building and with all possible perspectives for any kind of cost reduction, both through an increase of durability for some of the construction elements and also by investing in more efficient and stronger systems, without overlooking the incorporation of renewable energy production systems.
Despite all these changes, in most cases, the choices made by each and every one of us are not yet motivated by sustainable options.
These are difficult changes that must be encouraged.
Therefore, it would be important to implement a widespread offer of “green mortgages”. A direct financing of the final consumer, because only he – i.e., every single one of us – may choose to change his lifestyle. A good example of this practice is the financing of renewable energies. This is a way of placing the incentive where it may cause more impact, because having certified buildings is not enough, as we need to make such certification accessible and widespread, allowing the dwellers to opt for that change. And if the building is in fact more sustainable, more durable and more efficient, then why is it not valued in its financing?
The provision of tax incentives for sustainable construction materials – such as non-toxic materials that are integrated within a circular economy, with FSC certifications – would also be a positive sign. If they are better for the planet and for the persons, then why should they not have reduced VAT?
The announced Recovery and Resilience Plan would be a good instrument to boost individual financing and make better choices more accessible while promoting the best practices.
It is up to the Architects to create beautiful, elegant, and sturdy projects, while bearing in mind that the buildings, urban spaces, and public spaces that we imagine, must provide an easy, informed, and decisive change in favor of sustainable lifestyles.