Thinking about sustainability across whole systems rather than in individual areas can create multiple benefits with limited resources, creating value for organisations and clients, according to Mary Casey, associate director at McLachlan Lister, a project management and management consulting firm.
Casey, who is also the chair of the Living Future Institute of Australia, describes sustainability as the practice of creating places that are adapted to their specific environment, that use less than they give, that do not damage the ecosystem of which they are a part, and that provide a healthy habitat for human beings. It’s essentially about maximising our quality of life, she says.
However, how we generally approach sustainability is to talk about efficiency, she notes. “It’s a cold word. It often takes up more than its share of conversations about sustainability because it’s the key economic argument in favour of most solutions. The catch is that efficiency is about maximising the potential of an existing way of doing things. But what if we’re doing the wrong thing,” she asks.
Casey’s argument is that, up until now, sustainable design and practice has focussed on components, rather than on systems.
“We maximize our component of the work in isolation from everyone else’s component. When you do that, you get highly efficient individual components, but inefficient systems overall and perverse outcomes,” she says.
Casey cites the example of installing a solar panel on a building. Rather than thinking of the solar panel as an addition to a building, you should consider the whole building, which is a system, and you should think of the building in the context of your whole organisation, which is also a system.
“Even though it might seem a little odd, if you’re not considering that solar panel in the context of your company’s mission statement, you’ve got very little chance of getting the optimum result.”
And what better system to model sustainable design on than nature, says Casey. “Nature optimises brilliantly by organising itself in systems. If we could equal that level of design, we’d have a built environment that supported a very high quality of life.”
Casey points to indoor environment quality (IEQ) to illustrate her point. IEQ is the umbrella term for good daylight, good acoustics, low levels of indoor pollutants and good interior comfort (humidity and temperature).
“According to Linking Energy to Health and Productivity in the Built Environment, published by Vivian Loftness and colleagues in 2003, the benefits of high IEQ have been shown to include increased productivity and improved attraction and retention rates of employees. Further, Patient Rooms: A Changing Scene of Healing Research Summary in 2010 found IEQ increased rates of recovery in hospitals,” says Casey.
How can aged care facilities improve their IEQ? Unsurprisingly, Casey provides an example from nature. “You have to think like a flower,” she says.
A flower is rooted in place like a building, and yet it harvests all the energy and water it needs; is perfectly adapted to its climate and site; operates 100 per cent pollution-free; is comprised of integrated systems; and is beautiful, she says.
“This is the ultimate benchmark of sustainability across all aspects of a building,” she says. “But let’s just consider one particularly powerful aspect: daylight.
“Let’s say you want to have good daylight in a space, and to achieve that result with no glare, your architect has proposed a light shelf as part of the design. This component in the façade will bounce light up onto the ceiling, bringing bright, diffuse daylight deeper into the space than the window could on its own. It will also shade the window in summer, reducing radiant heat coming into the building.
“The shelf, considered alone, would look like an additional cost, however when you think about the building as a flower, or a system, you see that the light shelf uses the energy of the sun to create light, taking advantage of its location’s free energy; the harvested sunlight is pollution-free; the light shelf means you need fewer light fixtures inside; fewer light fixtures mean less internal heat load in the building; and less internal heat load means less need for air conditioning, and reduced plant size.”
If the light shelf is taken away, the consequences would be seen rippling through the design, and the significant costs that come from not thinking like a flower, she says.
“Nature has billions of years invested in smart adaptations, and we are part of that accumulated wisdom, even if we’re still comparatively new to it.”
Casey quotes the biologist Janine Benyus, who said: “The boundary between us and the rest of the natural world is a false one that dissolves when you consider what is really important, what makes life worth living.”