A definition of sustainability

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Chapter 1: What is Sustainability?

Definition of Sustainability: A meaningless concept?


What is clear from the literature studied for this dissertation is that on the whole, environmental issues suffer from problems of terminology and definition and there is confusion surrounding ‘sustainability'. A definition of sustainability seems to be somewhat subjective depending on your background and your intentions, there is no universal definition for the concept as it differs with regional circumstances. As the term ‘sustainability' only emerged in 1974, for the purposes of this thesis words like ecology, eco-friendly and environmental will all apply to the same principle.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, the principles of sustainability have been around forever. In the earliest days sustainability or sustainable living was a simple concept of using, recycling and sharing of habitats, which were made from regionally accessible materials and harmonising with the primeval forces of earth, fire, air and water. There was also a strong spiritual connection with nature.

Feng shui (literally translated as wind-water), the ancient Chinese system that uses the laws of Heaven (astronomy) and Earth (geography) and “is the practice of analysing and influencing the interaction between people, buildings and the environment in order to enhance quality of life,” (The Feng Shui Society) also uses principles of what we now define as sustainaibilty.

According to the system, qi (chi) is a vital energy that is present in everything. Feng Shui focuses on how a building can influence the emotions, health, behaviour, and thoughts of the building user. It is the exploration on the influence of building design, interior, aesthetics, natural earth energies and the location. The ancient Chinese used this system in 4000 BC to align the doors of Banpo dwellings to the asterism ‘Yingshi', just after the winter solstice. This aligned the dwellings for solar gain. In later dynasties the asterism Ding was used to indicate the appropriate time to build a capital city.

These are all similar theories to the sacred geometry theories present in Vitruvius' ‘De Architectura', which were taken from teachings of the Greeks and the Egyptians before them.

  • In the seventeenth & Eighteenth Centuries in Tokugawa, Japan, the Shoguns recognised the dangers of deforestation in relation to residential development and imposed heavy regulations on farmers. They began to regulate the harvesting of trees, developed long-term planning and enforced more efficient construction methods. As a result, although Japan is now the most densely populated country in the developed world, it is still 70% forested.


The English Encarta Dictionary describes sustainability as “maintaining ecological balance; exploiting natural resources without destroying the ecological balance of an area”.

Norman Foster's architectural practice (Foster & Partners) define sustainable design as “creating buildings which are energy efficient, healthy, comfortable, flexible in use and designed for long life”.

The Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA) defined sustainable construction as “the creation and management of healthy buildings based upon resource efficient and ecological principles”.

As mentioned previously the Bruntland Report 1987 ‘Our Common Future', defined sustainable development as development that meets the requirements and needs of the present without comprimising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

Sustainable materials are defined as “materials and construction products which are healthy, durable, resource efficient and manufactured with regard to minimising environmental impact and maximising recycling”. (Edwards, 2004).

The birth of the modern age - the “Age of Reason” (Thomas Paine )is given as the cause of the ideological change in attitude that affected architectural development. This was an eighteenth century revolution of rational scientific thought.

Man began to embrace an exaggerated belief in the perfection and superiority of humanity. Abandoning religion, mysticism, superstition and spirituality and converting to the polar extremes of science, reason, enlightenment and rationality. These became the ‘new ‘Gods' and the new ‘religion', there was little thought to middle ground.

For J. Wines sustainability is more than modern technological innovation such as the use of photovoltaics and energy efficient construction methods. These are simply vehicles in which to strengthen suatainable living. Wines believes sustanability is a ‘mission' for all societies to unite and be comitted in cause to ‘connect with the natural environment on a more profound philosophical, psychological and cultural level', in the interest of saving the environment and arguably, more importantly humanity.

Dr James Lovelock gave us the Gaia hypothesis in his journals in 1979, after working with NASA on methods to detect life on Mars. His very controversial theory claimed that Earth (or Gaia as the Greeks called it) worked together symbiotically with the many life forms on the planet to maintain conditions to sustain life. The idea was controversial at the time as it suggested that we do not control nature however nature controls us. For instance although the luminosity of the sun has increased by approximately 30% since life began almost four billion years ago, the living ecosystem has reacted as a whole to maintain temperatures at levels suitable for life.


The Brundtland definition outlines a philosophy which benefits from a degree of imprecision. There is a general understanding and set of principles which allow useful sub-definitions to be framed within its broad embrace.

So amidst the confusion of the definition of sustainability, it is safe to assume from the many theories that sustainability within the construction industry means a symbiotic, or mutually beneficial relationship between development/ construction and the ecosystem.