Making Sustainability Work
Translating positive principles into voluntary standards for everyday practice.
By William McDonough and Micheal Braungart
The voluntary standards that have emerged in industry and architecture over the past decade are the unsung workhorses of sustainability. Getting excited about a hopeful vision for the future is easy; transforming how the world actually uses materials and energy is not. On the sturdy back of standards, one can build a lasting, practical relationship between vision and daily work.
At their best, standards translate positive principles into everyday practice. Whether
they provide guidelines for enhancing the environmental performance of buildings, set new benchmarks for product safety or answer public outcries for environmental protection, good standards can redefine traditional measures of quality by communicating the nuts and bolts of a value system throughout an entire industry. The success of metrics like the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, for example, suggest that an industry's benchmarks can indeed evolve in response to new conditions.
Standards, however, can be something of a double-edged sword. They require consensus and participation to be effective on a large scale, but the consensus-building process tends to set the bar low to satisfy a broad range of stakeholders. As a result, even those standards that are developed voluntarily to address environmental and public health issues tend to be designed to limit some of the most egregious impacts of industry rather than to encourage innovations that generate positive, beneficial effects. And once standards are in place, they can begin to drive the design process, focusing attention on meeting criteria instead of on pursuing a wide spectrum of economic, ecological and social goals.
KEEPING PROGRESS IN SIGHT
Navigating these issues is not easy. We are all challenged today to figure out how to distill the ideas we call sustainability into widely-accepted standards and practices. How do we do that? How do we redefine quality in such a way that our standards are both meaningful and achievable? How do we use standards to measure our progress and provide common bearings without losing sight of a truly sustaining vision? How do we keep one eye on the horizonour ultimate goaland one on the details at hand?
The first step would be to define the horizon, which creates the context for new standards of practice. From our perspective, the ecological and social imperatives of this moment in history call for a comprehensive re-design of industry. Rather than simply putting on the brakes, it is time to change direction. Doing so means adopting a new design paradigm responsive to the overarching context of the natural world, a paradigm conceived to support and celebrate life and generate a delightful ecological footprint.
Design supports life when we recognize the laws of nature as both the model for and the context of human enterprise. In essence, nature operates on the steady, free and abundant energy of the sun, which generates chemical nutrient cycles that support diverse, productive biological systems. Nature's productivity yields not waste, but good, regenerative growth, the healthy increase of life-giving forests, flowering plants and nourishing food. When human systems fit within this overarching context, when they are designed in harmony with nutrient cycles and energy flows, architecture and industry can also support and celebrate life, and that's good growth too.
How do we develop standards that support good growth? One might begin by articulating a set of principles that provide a coherent framework for life-supporting design. Within such a framework, principles set the course and inform the standards and practices that move one toward a life-affirming destination. For us, that framework is the Hannover Principles.
The Hannover Principles see architecture and industry within the overarching context of the natural world. They "insist on the right of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse and sustainable condition." They call for the creation of "safe objects of long-term value," buildings and products that "do not burden future generations with requirements for maintenance or vigilant administration of potential dangers." They point to natural systems as a model for human designs that generate productivity, benefit from natural energy flows, and eliminate the very concept of waste. In short, the principles reframe and seek to resolve apparent conflicts between economic prosperity, human health and the well-being of the environment, providing a new context in which architects and designers can aspire to support and celebrate life.
The principles themselves are not an industrial standard; they are not quantitative or prescriptive. When we say "rely on natural energy flows," we are not saying to use a
certain percentage of solar or wind power. When we say that design can approach the state of natural systems and eliminate the concept of waste, we are not suggesting that architects, designers and engineers should measure material reductions. Instead, the
principles establish a lens through which to fundamentally re-imagine design in a positive, principled framework. They represent the idea of turning around and heading in a new direction, not simply hitting the brakes with one foot and the accelerator with the other.
These principles can, however, be translated into robust standards or everyday practices. Committed designers are increasingly doing that valuable work; in our firms we do it everyday. But even when good standards are informing one's work, they do not do so in a vacuum. Every architect is familiar with the myriad considerations of a material choice and, on a larger scale, many of us striving for widespread change are familiar with the difficulties of developing cooperative, industry-wide standards. To be sure, it's a challenging, complex endeavor. But complexity need not breed resignation. The short history of green standards has revealed avoidable pitfalls and hopeful precedents, both of which might help designers keep their eyes on the prize and in touch with positive principles.
The development of commercial carpet standards provides a good example of a process designers might not want to emulate. Seeking to stake out a sustainable business position, the commercial carpet industry is lobbying to make recycled content its only regulation
metric. By keeping a quantifiable percentage of materials out of landfills and incinerators, the industry wants to define a standard that merely limits the impact of the current industrial system. But codifying recycling has no inherent value unless we can determine that what we are recycling is safe, valuable and socially beneficialin other words, unless we understand the context of recycling. Simply recycling carpets to meet an arbitrary green standard, for example, overlooks the quality, content and potential hazards of carpet materials.
This is a potentially egregious oversight. Most recycled carpet materials contain high
levels of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which can contain hazardous plasticizers and toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. Some plasticizers are suspected of disrupting human endocrine systems; cadmium is known to be carcinogenic, and lead is a neurotoxin. Do we really want to use these materials in carpets in the first place? Does recycling a percentage of them offer a meaningful benchmark or serve a larger purpose? Does it inspire a high standard of quality? Clearly, if recycled content becomes the accepted sustainability standard for the carpet industry, we are perpetuating both poor design and a dangerous system.
- The standard is especially weak considering the fact that there are commercial carpets on the market, those made by Shaw Industries for example, that are manufactured with safe materials and which close the loop on material flows. Products such as these could truly be considered "safe objects of long term value" and they suggest that it is indeed possible to develop principled design practices that meet demanding environmental standards.
SCORING OUR BUILDINGS
Positive precedents can also be found in the standards of the LEED Green Building Rating System. Established in the mid-1990s by the U.S. Green Building Council, the LEED rating system was designed to improve the environmental performance of the construction industry. It provides a point rating system for measuring how effectively buildings meet a variety of environmental criteria, such as sustainable site development, water conservation, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor air quality. Projects that meet these environmental quality criteria accumulate points that lead to ratings of Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum.
The development of the LEED system has in many ways been a successful effort. By offering a widely-accepted method of scoring how well buildings implement green design goals, LEED has transformed the marketplace and given remarkable visibility to sustainable design and construction issues. LEED has become so influential, in fact, that municipal governments, such as The City of Portland, OR, and federal agencies, such as General Services Administration, have adopted it as baseline criteria for new buildings. Many leading architectural firms have also accepted its standards and strive to design highly-rated buildings. At William McDonough + Partners, the firm's members
participated in the conception of LEED and continue to help shape the rating system, using it as one of several metrics within our integrated design strategy.
When used as the singular measure of environmental quality, however, the LEED system has some flaws and contradictions. As a consensus-based rating system designed to transform the market, LEED tends to set the bar low to encourage wide participation. While attracting powerful industry players is important, offering points for meeting fairly weak metrics does not really move the construction industry toward a new paradigm; it simply rewards less bad behavior and waters down potentially robust standards. Awarding points for the recycled content of materialsproblematic, as we have seenis a one example of how some LEED metrics set the bar too low.
The LEED system can also miss important distinctions between piecemeal changes and strategic, context-based innovations. LEED awards credits on a point-by-point basis and does not have any metrics for overall design. One could score enough points to be awarded a Silver rating by focusing almost exclusively on energy efficiency while giving very little consideration to a building's indoor air quality. Similarly, LEED does not measure a building's responsiveness to locale. Identical buildings in Phoenix and Detroit, for example, would receive the same Silver rating, even though each architect's choice to ignore water resources will have a profoundly different effect on profoundly different sites.
In a sense, the LEED system is suffering from its own success. It is not intended to be a qualitative measure of design, but it has so powerfully transformed the market that design professionals and their clients, both of whom may not be familiar with either the broader
purpose of sustainable design or the LEED system itself, are seeking to design highly-rated buildings. As a result, we see a performance-based rating tool driving the design process, which focuses designers' attention on meeting criteria rather than pursuing larger goals. This has the effect, on the one hand, of limiting the aesthetic development of sustainable architecture, and on the other of limiting integrated, innovative designs that have the potential to richly connect us with our environment and change our experience of the world. The new crop of LEED buildings may be more environmentally sound than their predecessors, but they are not, by and large, effecting a cultural transformation. Even if every new commercial building were Platinum, the positive effects on the environment would be severely limited without concurrent changes in industry, transportation and planning. Again, it's important to note that LEED is not intended to do this; it is a quantitative metric. Its influence, however, strongly points out how important it is to see standards as a tool, not an end.
Nevertheless, good standards can direct a designer's work toward larger goals so that everyday choices resonate with purpose. That requires a clear, visionary framework for standards, such as the new textile metrics being developed by GreenBlue, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the adoption of cradle-to-cradle design strategies. The Green Blue Sustainable Textile Metrics (STMetrics) is designed to support a step-by-step approach to developing wholly positive textile products. Manufacturers working within the STMetrics framework will have achieved a fully enhanced product when:all materials and process inputs are safe for human and ecological health in all phases of the product life cycle;all energy inputs come from renewable sources;
- all materials are capable of returning safely to either natural or industrial systems;
- all stages in the product lifecycle actively support the reuse or recycling of these materials at the highest possible level of quality;
all persons involved with the creation of textiles are treated fairly with respect to human rights and all manufacturers provide
benefits to the communities in which they operate.
The STMetrics supports success with a multi-tiered framework with increasing levels of achievement in which quantifiable progress can be charted over time. Each level in the STMetrics hierarchy more fully realizes the ultimate goal; that is, each step on the sustainability scale encompasses the lower levels but adds emergent traits that are distinct to that level. For example, if a product manufacturer does not have a sufficiently comprehensive inventory of all chemical inputs (Level 1)
it is not possible to develop a list of more optimal inputs for human health (Level 3). There are no shortcuts to higher levels; achievement of lower level metrics provides the education, information tracking and documentation necessary to progress to higher levels.
The STMetrics approach is quite different from typical product metrics. Most utilize a pass/fail method for certification; either the product meets the standard benchmark or fails to qualify. Such an approach takes complex and dynamic processes and flattens them into a simplistic view for the sake of clarity. It also closes the door on earnest industry players in need of guidance. In contrast, the STMetrics approach sets a very clear, high standard, and makes it achievable with relevant, hierarchical metrics that provide manufacturers with valuable information about sustainable textile production. Significantly, the STMetrics approach rests upon a foundation that supports an inspiring new direction for the textile industry rather than the codification of least bad practices.
Conventional standards do not do this. Indeed, typical standards tend to discourage vision, inquiry or innovation. This alone suggests just how smart, vigilant and creative we need to be when we try to standardize sustainable design.
It is essential to keep one's eyes on the prize if we are to transform the way we make things. In the complex and sometimes flattened world of rating systems and metrics, keeping in mind the big picture, the inspiring vision, can clarify and energize what might seem like an insignificant or mundane design decision. We would argue that no design decision is insignificant, no choice is divorced from the larger world or a higher
purpose. And that's why, on the path to a bright future, standards are the able workhorses of sustainability.
William A. McDonough, FAIA, and Michael Braungart are founders of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, a consultancy that works with a wide variety of companies to implement eco-effective design and commerce strategies. For more information, visit www.mbdc.com.