Key Trends in the Sustainable Built Environment

  • Caleb Bushner
  • Chief Strategy Officer, Free Range

There was a time when “sustainability” in the built environment was a spectrum with either a cob house or simply a desk with fewer toxic ingredients. In the past several years, the middle of this vast spectrum has been significantly filled in. We’re now seeing many organizations choose to build sustainable buildings and/or use built environment products based upon pure cost-benefit analyses. The fact of the matter is that sustainability in the built environment is increasingly proving to be better for the planet, building occupants, and our wallets.

We’ve recently been doing some exciting work in the sustainable built environment space and have found a lot to be excited about. As we look ahead in this space we’d like to call out three important developments worth paying attention to.

1. Circularity > Sustainability
The conversation is increasingly moving beyond “sustainability” and becoming more focused upon circularity. Where sustainability often focuses on living within our environmental means, it’s rarely concerned with what happens next: even if a product or building is carbon neutral, what happens when its usefulness has passed and it’s disposed of? Instead of designing products and buildings for disposal, why not design them for purposeful reuse? This conversation is particularly relevant to the built environment, where the core components of carpeting, for instance, are nearly always going to be in need–so why start from scratch every time?

2. Regulation Matters
We can’t talk about sustainable buildings without talking about LEED and the other building rating systems that have entered the mainstream lexicon. Everyday office dwellers might not know everything that goes into making a LEED-certified building, but they’re starting to recognize that three leaf logo. They’re beginning to understand that it means exceptional thoughtfulness has gone into a building’s design and construction, and that those buildings are often more pleasant to occupy. But many real estate organizations are unmoved by this, as they’re concerned with financing and selling the building, not occupying it in 50 years. So why are these changes happening? Regulation. The U.S. Green Building Council, for instance, has created an array of useful resources and a thriving network of accredited professionals to link supply with the demand for a better built environment. Knowing that they’ll also need organizations to sometimes ‘do the right thing for the wrong reasons,’ they’ve gone one step further and engaged the regulatory community (cities, states, and the federal government) to officially incorporate these practices and products into law. This helps create a powerful network effect: when better products and designs are required, more people and organizations seek out solutions to do so, which then makes it easier to do. And the virtuous cycle continues.

3. Wise Buildings > Smart Buildings
I was recently talking with my friend Owen Zachariasse, the head of sustainability and innovation (see how those two are paired as one job function?) at Delta Development, and he was talking about the company’s philosophy of seeking “wise buildings” over smart buildings. In a world where many businesses are increasingly inventing reasons to say, “whatever, put a chip in it”, it’s interesting to see developers looking for solutions that might be elegant and simple rather than overbuilt and high-tech. For instance, instead of filling rooms with air quality sensors and complex HVAC systems, simply make more use of plants and include more operable windows to circulate fresh oxygen. In other words, sometimes the most clever design is elegantly low-tech, proving that sometimes it’s better to be wise than smart.

These trends are just the beginning and I look forward to seeing what 2018 holds. I’m sure next month’s CES, for instance, will have plenty of mirrors with sensors to tell you if you have wrinkles on your face, but I hold out hope that events like GreenBuild will continue to gain momentum and showcase new solutions that everyone can get behind.