The problem with sustainability: celebrity, teenage Swedes and upcycled apple crates.

We’re looking at the inside of a large building. Skylights flood the space with natural light. The walls are covered in fresh green vines and leaves. There’s a swimming pool in the middle of the space. There are loungers at the far end of the pool and tables and chairs at the end nearest to us. People are sitting at the tables.
Building green, BREEAM-approved. Image sourced from greenbuilding.co.uk

Over the past few days, we’ve immersed ourselves in emissions-reduction pledges, multilateral environmental agreements, stats on human-induced climate change — the lot. And it struck us just how fragmented and impenetrable it all is. Some of it even seems a bit…puny. Morgan Freeman’s bee sanctuary? Meh. Suzi Amis Cameron’s CO2-busting plant-based diet? Been there, done that, bought the Linda McCartney t-shirt.

We’re not being sneery when we say this. But when you look at the brutal realities of environmental ruin — melting glaciers, plastic-choked oceans, soil infertility, rampant deforestation — we struggle to see how the global community has failed to spearhead these issues with greater clarity.

Even the labels are off-putting: ‘Defenders of the Environment’ and ‘Ecowarriors’. It’s too much, especially when most of the eco clan are kindly librarians who smell of tofu and rising damp. Then there’s Greta Thunberg, the world’s most famous Sustainable Swede who, while fantastically strident and admirable, occasionally creeps people out with her trademark squinty stare and ominous lines like, “The eyes of all future generations are upon you”. We heart Thunberg, but we can’t pin our hopes on her alone.

Who or what is going to save us?

Mercifully, the fate of humankind doesn’t rest solely with these well-known slebs and well-intended warriors. Major cities around the world are vowing to shake things up for the better. The Big Apple is going to divest 100% of its pension funds from fossil fuels over the next five years. Paris is striving towards keeping global warming below 2°C by halving its energy consumption by 2030. And London is leading the pack with its commitment to developing new builds that operate at net zero carbon, also by 2030. The green genie is out of the bottle — but can it grant us a bright future? Yes, as long as we rethink the way we make and consume products.

The problem isn’t pollution, it’s design.

There’s a large room with lofty ceilings, exposed steels, oak parquet floor and floor-to-ceiling windows covered in sheer voiles. In the middle of the room, sits a long rectangular dining table with rounded edges. The table top sits on two conical legs. Every part of it is covered in an assortment of colourful swirls that look like brush strokes, which is why it’s called Melting Pot as it made from multiple recycled plastics.
There’s a large room with lofty ceilings, exposed steels, oak parquet floor and floor-to-ceiling windows covered in sheer voiles. In the middle of the room, sits a long rectangular dining table with rounded edges. The table top sits on two conical legs. Every part of it is covered in an assortment of colourful swirls that look like brush strokes, which is why it’s called Melting Pot as it made from multiple recycled plastics.
Dirk Vander Kooij’s Melting Pot Table made from reclaimed synthetics. Image sourced from dirkvanderkooij.com

It’s been said that we don’t have a pollution problem, we have a design problem. That was certainly true twenty years ago when a Shoreditch hipster’s idea of ‘sustainable’ was to screw four casters into an upturned apple crate, pass it off as industrial chic and slap a big price tag on it.

Today though, examples of sustainable design abound in all directions — from the practical to the arcane. Furniture made from recycled ocean plastics, fashion made from old fire hoses, frugal baths designed to require less water. It’s clever stuff — but still expensive. And it may be a long time before such designs are sufficiently replicable to become mainstream and affordable.

What about buildings?

We’re seeing a close-up of a compound organic brick made from loofah, soil, cement and charcoal. It is dark grey and brown in colour. The surface of the brick is uneven, like a lump of rock that’s been hacked from the earth. It has a fibrous-looking texture with lots of tiny, porous holes. Green plant life appears to be growing from the top of the brick.
We’re seeing a close-up of a compound organic brick made from loofah, soil, cement and charcoal. It is dark grey and brown in colour. The surface of the brick is uneven, like a lump of rock that’s been hacked from the earth. It has a fibrous-looking texture with lots of tiny, porous holes. Green plant life appears to be growing from the top of the brick.
Bricks made from loofah and charcoal could promote biodiversity in cities. Image sourced from dezeen.com

On a much bigger scale, there is a call for developers and interior designers to collaborate with engineers and scientists to create biodegradable building materials capable of absorbing pollutants. One such material is a brick made from soil, cement, charcoal and organic loofah. Yes, the humble bath sponge may one day save our bacon/crispy kale.

This unlikely amalgam can do many things. The charcoal, which only appears in small amounts on the brick’s surface, purifies the air by absorbing nitrate. And the air pockets in the loofah’s fibrous structure collect rainwater, which in turn can naturally cool a building. These pockets can also harbour animal and plant life, thus having the potential to enrich inner city biodiversity. Not bad for a brick. If such a material was used to clad all the central reservations in Britain, we could significantly purify our air and moderate our climate.

What about now?

Handcrafted Bowater media unit made from reclaimed ash. Image sourced from janhendzel.com

One of the easiest ways to be sustainable is to — wait for it — invest in products that are both timeless and durable. Yep, you’ve heard it before: “Buy cheap, buy twice”.

For while Ikea — with its innocuous brand of unadorned, pallid, cheaply veneered finishes — remains ubiquitous, it’s hard to reconcile its gargantuan size and mass-production model with genuine eco-friendliness. And let’s face it, has anyone, other than a student, bequeathed self-assembly furniture to a relative or pal? Of course not, it ends up in landfill.

The best way to achieve a sustainable look is to choose quality, timeless and functional pieces. And in anticipation of people’s changing styles, interior designers need to create resilient schemes that can easily adapt to enjoy a new lease of life.

Sustainable = profitable

Architects and designers are encountering more clients that require the finished interior to meet B Corp, BREEAM, LEED or other standards to reduce environmental impact. The awareness is growing with 42% of UK consumers stating that sustainable products are important in their day-to-day purchasing. And a whopping 75% of millennials asserting that they’re willing to take a pay cut to work for a company with socially and environmentally responsible practices in place.

So while the messaging around sustainability needs fine-tuning and sustainable designs need more government backing to make them commercially viable, no one could fairly ague that sustainability is a mere image-enhancing hashtag or brand-buffing marketing tool. It’s a hard, irrepressible reality; a belief system and hands-on way of life we can’t afford to ignore.

A keenly curious, commercially-minded chartered surveyor with lots of opinions on design, property development, technology — you name it.