by Sherifa Fofanah
Often times, when people discuss sustainability, the average listener pictures trees, climate activists and walkable cities. When you discuss sustainability in the context of the built environment people picture LEED stickers, transit-oriented development, and passive house certifications. Those images may vary with how advanced one’s knowledge is on the subjects of development and sustainability and the intersectionality that exists between the two subjects. But generally speaking, the base level of understanding can be defined as superficial. However, the real intricacies of sustainability carry a lot more depth and, when replicated into real world scenarios, they have lasting effects. For that reason, sustainability must be taught in a way that strikes a realistic balance between what is idealized and what is possible.
So let’s go back to Sustainability 101: the course where you’re introduced to the three-legged sustainability stool. Holding this stool up are the three pillars of sustainability. The first leg represents the first pillar that is environmental protection, the second leg represents social equity, and the third and final leg represents the third pillar that is economic viability. In this course, you are introduced to the concept that without all three of these pillars being equally “sustained” you are unable to achieve the ultimate goal of sustainability. That’s it. The crux of the entire course.
How does this play into development and the built environment? First, the societal shift, and some could say pressure on developers, general contractors, and state legislators to adopt sustainable alternatives, is the manifestation of this. Living in a time with increased activism also means those that can make the most noise are usually the only ones heard. This can be linked back to the three-legged stool. The legs that represent social equity and environmental protection are currently fortified, strengthened through activism and cancel culture that force us to create laws, mandates and policies that meet those aspects of sustainable development.
However, in all this time, the third and final leg that is equally as important but does not have political and social will – the economic viability of these changes – is neglected. Whilst the benefits of these upgrades in policies, laws and general person to person interactions cannot be quantified, when a project is being priced unfortunately those benefits essentially are.
As a former environmental activist of sorts, the benefits of BERDO/ BERDO 2.0 certifications, PHIUS vs PHI certifications and a slow progression to construction types that are better suited for changes in our environment are what I consider to be champagne problems. However, on the other hand, as someone that has more recently had to look at construction and development from a different lens, the numbers cannot sustain the dream and our sustainability stool is looking a bit unsteady.
True sustainability comes at a cost – a quantifiable cost generated in a spreadsheet – an unfortunate truth but a very necessary one.
Sherifa Fofanah is an environmental scientist at Leggat McCall Properties.