Before “sustainable design” came into our vernacular, most structural engineering firms were focused on providing efficient designs with conventional materials. The cost of construction was the primary driver behind this effort. Firms that produced complicated designs, used materials that were difficult or costly to source, or “over-engineered” were not invited to the next project. Increasing environmental awareness has changed the calculus in construction and design and is accelerating change. Measuring project success today factors in creating a sustainable built environment, rather than just the initial cost of construction.
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There are many theories regarding sustainability, but the driving consideration should be the creation of a built environment that can be maintained, that balances cost of construction and cost of habitation, while achieving a positive environmental impact. Using construction materials with extended lifespans for exterior facades and building envelopes dramatically extends the useful life of a structure. Aesthetic trends have depressed the need for structures with long lives. Too many public-facing buildings have been demolished and discarded like a polyester leisure suit. A cultural shift is needed that embraces the preservation of structures to justify the use of sustainable building materials and technology. Otherwise, those investments will either end up in the landfill or consuming energy to be recycled, despite the ease and low cost with which they could have been maintained.
Our society has seen a tremendous increase in construction costs. Regulatory, compliance, and insurance costs, which a thoughtful society should be able to control, have dramatically outpaced inflation. These factors have generally increased the cost of construction without significantly decreasing the cost of use. Thermally efficient construction, high-efficiency HVAC systems, and water-saving fixtures can significantly reduce a structure’s cost of use, compensating for higher initial costs. As we advance in these areas, we need to do so at a rate that is sustainable. If housing security is too expensive, our society itself will fail.
Responsible stewardship of our environment
Responsible stewardship of our environment is non-negotiable among reasonable people. Defining responsible stewardship is the challenge. Must we consider the well-being of current and near future generations when deciding what is responsible? Should advancement of environmental causes take precedence over the quality of life of the world’s current population, or cause loss of life from unnecessarily escalating costs and lower reliability of our energy sources? These questions must be addressed, which requires a commitment to discussion and compromise from all involved. There is a reasonable future for our world, but it requires coming together, not polarization.