What’s the true meaning of ‘sustainability’?

Simply put, sustainability is the capacity to endure. Unfortunately, in recent years the word ‘sustainable’ has become so commonplace throughout the construction industry that it has almost become meaningless – lost in a sea of greenwash marketing, ‘sustainababble’ and BREEAM point-chasing.

As a direct result of this overuse and dilution, in reality many people still don’t see the true benefits of trying to become more sustainable. It could be argued that most construction professionals simply see it as an extra cost and a hoop jumping exercise, or just don’t really know how to harness its potential.

So how can we ensure those working at the sharp-end understand not only its importance, but the potential it holds for improving processes and building performance in the long term?

In order to achieve true sustainability, the solution is simple.  Business efficiency must be improved at all levels and to do this we have to get the basics right and implement best practice, common sense and innovative, practical working from the ground up. If we make sustainability a core element, more buildings will deliver what they promise.

One way to do this is by keeping the contractor or designer involved after project completion. The Government’s ‘soft landings’ process has certainly helped to bridge the performance gap – but could it go even further? If end users really understood how sustainable buildings work efficiently, they could perform even better.

A more comprehensive approach, it includes better briefing, realistic performance benchmarking and reality checking of design and procurement decisions to bridge the performance gap. And it encourages sustainable assessment methods that reward outcomes and not inputs – an approach that has sadly been lacking in the past.

It’s also hugely important to simplify processes where possible and set targets and standards that customers actually understand. And in the building industry, clients, contractors and end users alike will always see the true benefits of sustainability if it is explained to them in a language they understand – how much will it cost, and how much money will it save? It really can be that simple.

Overcomplicated design and build processes means sustainability has been lost in translation. It’s up to us to simplify what ‘sustainability’ actually means to our industry and our customers, if it is to be a real success now and in the future.