Sustainability is a buzzword in many industries, from fashion and food right through to construction.
Social sustainability, as Beca’s David Batchelor writes for ArchitectureNow.co.nz, is something we often fail to take into consideration.
Social sustainability is, Batchelor says, “concerned with creating environments that support societies through changing social needs caused by demographic shifts, economic cycles and complex environments by being enabling and typically physically flexible.”
A bit of a mouthful, that means social sustainability is about creating infrastructure and buildings that evolve with the ongoing needs of the people who use them (both now and in the future).
Christchurch’s Re:START mall, Batchelor points out, was an example of good social sustainability: it wasn’t confined by bureaucratic rules and regulations, design wasn’t dictated by a client’s bottom line, and it was able to grow (and contract) organically with demand. It also met a core social need for its time: to give Cantabrians confidence to return to the CBD.
There are some common ways in which clients dissuade their projects from being socially sustainable. How can we in the industry work to educate clients and get them to think differently about social sustainability?
OBSTACLE: “THE CLIENT DOESN’T WANT IT TO LOOK LIKE THAT”
This response will always remain any client’s prerogative: they are paying for a project, after all. However, there’s the opportunity for industry professionals to guide their clients towards social sustainability if we can properly lay out its benefits in cost and value for the future.
A building or infrastructure project is not just good aesthetic design, nor is it static in time. It will retain the most longevity (and thus be more cost-effective) if it can be altered and built-upon as per how people actually come to use it. This goes for projects of all types, whether they are public spaces or private homes.
Remember that as an industry professional, you have the expertise and daily exposure to a vast range of projects that may be able to educate a client towards an outcome they simply don’t know they need yet.
OBSTACLE: “WE CAN’T PREDICT THE FUTURE”
It’s true, when you’re in the design and planning phases of building, you can’t truly know how any space will be used until it is completed and adopted. However we can help a client take a multi-lane approach rather than pushing a project forward with a single goal on its nose.
A single lane approach, as Batchelor writes, may see either economic, capacity or design elements taking precedence, and future use and social impacts either taking a backwards step or being ignored completely. “Social sustainability should be offered as an integral part of the development process akin to providing for environmental, economic, infrastructural concerns,” Bachelor explains.
That is, when providing your client with advice on every aspect to consider in their project, it’s important to ensure social sustainability receives just as much weight as future-proofing for natural disasters.
OBSTACLE: “THE CONTRACTORS HAVE DIFFERING OPINIONS ON THIS”
Social sustainability is subjective, and it can be hard to get all contractors on board with the same vision. In terms of design, engineering, costing, consenting, and building, social sustainability is a difficult task because each profession has its own restrictions.
However, they each have their own opportunities too – if they can be communicated effectively. “Responsibility needs to be shared between each profession to create socially sustainable places and their insight and critique sought,” Batchelor says.
This means we can’t be afraid to question each other in the value-adding planning process, and, equally, we can’t be afraid to open our minds to another profession’s different way of thinking.