Ask a dozen architectural firms to define sustainable design and you are likely to get multiple competing answers. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Sustainability, as a design and building concept, is still fairly new. It has a long way to go before it reaches maturity. In the meantime, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) as inserted itself into the conversation.
You can visit the GSA website and find a page dedicated specifically to sustainable design. Links on that page offer more information about a range of related topics. However, the main focus of the page are the agency’s six points of sustainable design. If you are an architect looking to embrace the sustainable concept, the GSA would expect you to acknowledge the following:
1. Optimizing Site Potential
Take this to mean using a construction site in the most efficient, environmentally friendly, and sustainable way. At Sparano + Mooney, a Utah architectural firm that specializes in mountain modern architecture, site optimization is something they practice as part of passive design.
They might design a passive home on a rural lot in Park City. To take advantage of passive design, they would situate the home to take maximum advantage of tree cover, wind direction, and how the sun travels across the Utah sky.
2. Minimizing Nonrenewable Energy Consumption
This particular point speaks for itself. It is no secret that the government wants to reduce our dependence on nonrenewable energy sources which, in the end, means fossil fuels. In order to do so, we have to increase our dependence on renewable energy. That means more solar, wind, and biomass. Passive design contributes by reducing the need for mechanical heating and cooling.
3. Using Environmentally Preferable Products
It is not quite clear what the GSA means by ‘preferable’ products, but it’s safe to assume they’re referring to environmentally friendly building materials. A problem arises when you try to define such materials. A home’s wood frame doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment in which it sits. But harvesting trees to manufacture the lumber for that frame does. So really, what are environmentally preferable products?
4. Protecting and Conserving Water
This fourth point is pretty straightforward. Sustainable design accounts for water conservation. Architects and builders do not want to do anything that has a negative impact on natural water supplies. They don’t want to threaten those supplies by way of pollution, overutilization, etc.
5. Enhancing Indoor Environmental Quality
This next point is somewhat ambiguous. Enhancing indoor environmental quality seems to be a matter of preference. What you would consider an enhanced environment might be a non-starter for someone else. And of course, how far do you go to enhance? Are enhancements merely cosmetic, or are they also structural and mechanical?
6. Optimizing Operational and Maintenance Practices
The sixth and final point encompasses how a building is used post-construction. In terms of commercial construction, operational and maintenance practices can be decidedly unsustainable. They can be inefficient, wasteful, and unnecessarily costly. It takes quite a bit of effort to develop sustainable operational and maintenance practices for commercial properties.
Residential properties are a bit easier to work with, especially when you are talking single-family homes on individual plots of land. To be truly sustainable, the practices necessary to operate and maintain a building must be optimized to be in line with the previous five points.
If the architectural and construction industries need some sustainable design standards on which to build, the GSA’s six points of sustainable design are as good as any other. They at least provide a philosophical foundation upon which sustainable design principles can rest.