Tunnel Vision in the Sustainable Building Sector: Time for a New Way Forward!

Are we saving energy while the planet dies? Danny Lee of the Self-Sustaining Building Project argues that that saving energy is no help, if our low-energy buildings trash the planet’s ability to sustain life. In this Soapbox he makes a plea for silos to be demolished, and agendas to be widened.

It now takes humanity less than nine months each year to exhaust the planet’s environmental services and this rate is shortening. This ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ is the day when human demand on the planet exceeds what it can regenerate.  It means humanity has demanded all the natural services available for the year.  For the rest of the year, we meet our ecological demand by depleting nature and by accumulating waste such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans, pushing the essential natural services (ecosystems) of the planet closer and closer to collapse. In other words, the way we use resources is undermining the basis of life. 

Ecological overshoot – 2011 projected consumption | of 135% of the Earth’s resources. | 2012 is likely to be even worse | (Global Footprint Network)

Building practices remained largely unchanged for centuries, until the industrial revolution. Technology changed everything. Technology in modern building techniques mutated the centuries-old methods of construction and transformed them into the wasteful and unsustainable methods of today.

The environmental damage can be assessed by examining the life-cycle of buildings: the provision of materials, construction, operating, maintenance and their eventual disposal all have an impact.

Life cycle phases of buildings | (www.unep.org/sbci – Buildings and Climate Change – | Summary for Decision-Makers – 2009)

Note: Most waste goes to landfills. This has a negative impact on the environment in terms of pollution and resource depletion. But even recycling has impacts, in terms of energy, waste and the use of additional materials.

Homes in the UK (their construction and occupation) are responsible for the consumption of 40% of primary energy.  If the other 30% of the building stock (non-residential) is considered, the impact of buildings is greater [1].  The construction industry is estimated to account for up to 40% of materials entering the global economy [2].

The building sector also contributes up to 30% of global annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  If nothing is done, these emissions will more than double in the next 20 years.  Past efforts to address these emissions have had a mixed record of success – for example, emissions through the use of electricity in buildings are estimated to have grown at a rate of 2.5% per year for commercial buildings and at 1.7% per year for residential buildings.  Building 1.7 million homes with traditional wood, steel and concrete frames consumes the same amount of energy as heating and cooling 10 million houses each year, according to the Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials [3].

Greenhouse Gas emissions have attracted most attention, and of course, they are among the easier impacts to quantify. But GHG emissions are just one of a range of parameters that should be considered: others are ozone depletion, water consumption, toxicity, eutrophication of lakes and rivers, resource depletion, and pollutants such as non-CO2 GHG emissions – halocarbons, CFCs, Hydro fluorocarbons (HFCs) used in cooling, refrigeration, and in the case of halocarbons, insulation materials [4].

We harvest and use material resources which are later imposed on the environment as polluting waste, and their loss is followed by a fresh bout of resource depletion.  Using nature’s example however, manufacturers can develop products that ensure little to nothing is wasted and introduce a loop to product life. Applying this cradle-to-cradle approach to the design, use and disposal of buildings, then means we can recover materials and keep them in the life-cycle without loss in material performance.

I hear you say – we know all this, and in any case we have government policies backed up by organisations to regulate the standards of buildings, to mitigate the environmental impacts. Regrettably you couldn’t be more wrong. Yes there are organisations, companies and networks of individuals who promote sustainable building approaches, but all suffer from tunnel vision or a lack of inter-disciplinary thinking.  This is evidenced by the absence of truly sustainable and integrated approaches to new build and retrofit of existing buildings.

Good intentions are both inadequate and piecemeal.  Thus, though we had a report from the Government’s Innovation and Growth Team on ‘Low Carbon Construction’, where is the similar attention to the wider environmental challenges? While the IGT report stated that “ the industry is already demonstrating, in parts, that it has both the capacity and the inclination to play a full part in meeting the challenge of climate change…”, there is no reference to holistic environmental challenges and the need for a systematic accounting system. Yet without this we cannot assess whether what we are doing fits within the capacity of the existing ecosystems.

As it is, even in projects that are  ‘low carbon’ or ‘zero carbon’, profligate and thoughtless use of resources is putting intolerable strain on biodiversity and ecosystems, and elbowing aside the very species and processes that sustain us.

What is needed is integrated life cycle Eco-efficiency thinking

What is needed is the fusion of thinking from all disciplines, for the creation of the highest life cycle ecological value.  I define this as Eco-Efficiency – the least input of energy and material use plus zero or very low emissions.  Products, materials and fabrics that imitate natural processes, are cradle to cradle designed and whenever possible are entirely natural.  Where there are emissions they are benign to the planet, and to people and wildlife.

I believe autonomous (or self–sustaining) building or communities of buildings offer increased security and reduced environmental impacts, by using on-site resources (sun, wind, rain and waste).  Autonomy can dramatically reduce the costs and impacts of networks that serve the building and/or community, because autonomy avoids the multiplying inefficiencies of collecting and transporting resources. The full lifecycle environmental impact, and the finance implications, for off-grid solutions need proper calculating to inform the debate.

Self-Sustaining Buildings would be:

  • Independent of external energy and water supplies, costly waste management services and wastewater drainage;
  • Affordable;
  • Eco-efficient – with the lowest or zero environmental impacts; and
  • Of the same standards of utility service expected of any western industrialised country – everywhere.

Crucially, these principles must apply to existing buildings – both to evaluate the merits of refurbishment versus rebuilding, and to inform the refurbishment process.

Adoption of self-sustaining buildings has the capacity to have very significant local and global benefits.  The constraints to adoption are more institutional and organisational than technical and economic.  The Self Sustaining Building Programme is striving to create a ‘Virtuous circle for sustainable change’  to  help overcome these constraints.

The SSB Programme proposes a framework for the assessment of the total environmental (eco-efficiency) and economic value of a building or community.   In this way, consumption can continue for economic stability while simultaneously enriching and revitalizing damaged ecosystems.

SSB criteria for the assessment | of the environmental and economic | value of a building or community

Some pioneering work demonstrates elements of eco-efficiency: use of natural materials without toxic coatings, digital fabrication to minimise waste; small piles instead of concrete slabs so buildings can be removed with little trace (see images below).  Despite these examples, the ‘Sustainable Building Sector’ needs to do better.

Expecting Government departments to remove departmental boundaries (silos), for example to allow goals for energy at DECC, ecology for DEFRA, and business for BIS to be better joined-up, would be too optimistic.  If it was ever agreed, progress would most probably be ponderous and the way forward sub-optimal.

More effective would be a bottom-up approach between like-minded organisations such as the AECB, UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP), my own organisation The Self Sustaining Building Programme (SSB) and others.  By joining forces a strong integrated voice for real sustainable change and progress could be achieved.

And the first thing we would need to get to grips with is really sorting out integrated sustainable criteria and metrics, to achieve the lowest or zero environmental impacts, without the fudges and nonsensical offsets seen in the CSH, BREEAM and other current approaches.

Digitally fabricated plywood home http://inhabitat.com
Prefabricated home http://www.livinghomes.net/C6/








It is not good enough to say the material’s appropriateness for the intended function, or its longevity, is the key consideration, without reference to the environmental impact throughout the life cycle. Nor is it good enough just to point to the insulation value of materials with high embodied energy content to justify the environmental costs of their manufacture. We live on an integrated planet, so it is imperative that we look at all the impacts of each decision in the round.

Putting environmental considerations anywhere other than the top of the list when designing and retrofitting buildings and communities, and selecting building materials, is no longer appropriate. The current accepted assumptions of insatiable wants and infinite resources leading to growth forever are not founded in reality. It is time to get real.

© 2012: Danny Lee and AECB (for Terms and Conditions click here)


Danny Lee

Danny Lee is the Director of the Self-Sustaining Building Programme (www.self-sustaining-building.org) which was founded in 2009.  SSB promotes and advocates for prompt and practical action towards total eco-efficiency and self-sustainability in building and buildings. To support his personal aim of protecting, improving and restoring the natural environment  he also works for the Environment Agency on Pollution Prevention and Control. Danny@self-sustaining-building.org

Continue the conversation – please post your response to this Soapbox on the AECB forum here. (AECB members only – please ensure you are logged in).


[1] Sustainability 2009, 1, 674-701; doi:10.3390/su1030674
[2] Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials, 2000
[3] SBCI United Nations Environment, 2009
[4] SBCI United Nations Environment Programme, 2009