What many architects have come to take for granted as a fundamental design aspiration is under fire.

In his talk at Hanley Wood’s 2016 HIVE (Housing Innovation Vision Economics) conference in September, Bill McDonough, FAIA, criticized the term “sustainability.” He argued that the word represents a meager ambition, demonstrated with a hypothetical question: Try asking a husband about his marriage. If he says, “It’s sustainable,” we interpret a less than ideal situation.

In her 2013 article in Ensia, JUCCCE chairwoman Peggy Liu declared, “Sustainability is dead. Or at least the entire language we use to talk about it should be buried.” “Like most people, I’m tired of the guilt trip,” declared environmental marketer Holly Hagerman in her essay in Triple Pundit. “I’m tired of environmentalists being a political label, and I’m tired of the finger-pointing and promises of a fiery apocalypse.” A Melbourne-based Green Steps conference this March assessed its 15-year history of environmental advocacy by flipping the declaration into the question: “Is Sustainability Dead?”

If the answer is “yes,” what does its passing mean?

Poster for the University of Minnesota forum "Sustainability is Dead: Architecture as (Re)Generator"
Richard Graves Poster for the University of Minnesota forum "Sustainability is Dead: Architecture as (Re)Generator"

A recent symposium held at the University of Minnesota offered some insights. Entitled “Sustainability is Dead: Architecture as (Re)Generator,” the forum provided a provocative platform for considering these questions. Associate architecture professor Richard Graves, AIA, said, “Sustainability is dead or, at the very least, meaningless after the term has been co-opted by the branding and greenwashing of corporations and governments and as the technological pursuit as typified by green building programs and other reductive approaches.” (Graves, the director of the university’s Center for Sustainable Building Research, even suggested renaming his center’s name.)

Sustainability, Grave and the other speakers largely agreed, has come to represent the maintenance of status quo approaches to design and construction—practices that we are merely sustaining, with incremental improvements at best. Meanwhile, ever-growing environmental problems require a paradigmatic shift in our thinking.

Another criticism echoes the concerns of McDonough, Liu, and Hagerman that sustainability focuses on doing “less bad” as opposed to doing “more good.” In his talk, Graves quoted University of British Columbia architecture professor Ray Cole’s 2015 article “Understanding Regenerative Design” to reinforce this concern: “Green design is directed at reducing degenerative impacts ... this is insufficient for an ecologically sustainable future and is an insufficient aspiration to motivate design professionals and their clients.”

As hinted by the symposium subtitle, Graves and others advocated the pursuit of regenerative design as a more effective means of doing more ecologically. This approach suggests a redefinition of what constitutes design excellence. Perkins Eastman’s chief sustainability officer, Lance Hosey, FAIA, argued that there is no consensus on the definition of good design because, by qualifying it, architects are scared they may remove what he facetiously called “the mystery and the deepness.” Yet the achievement of fundamental environmental objectives in design will require measurable benchmarks.

Courtesy New Society Publishers

The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification program and similar sustainability checklists would seem the obvious solution to Hosey’s appeal, yet these have also come under fire. In his book Reinventing Green Building: Why Certification Systems Aren’t Working and What We Can Do About It (New Society Publishers, 2016), Jerry Yudelson argues that LEED’s perceived rigidity, high cost, arbitrary rulings, and cumbersome paperwork have resulted in “LEED fatigue,” driving many building owners to opt for “LEED Lite”—the use of the LEED design guidelines without the pursuit of certification. Yudelson adds that LEED will not make a significant impact in the built environment because it is misaligned with corporate sustainability goals. In his book, rormer USGBC staff member Kimberly Hosken explains that LEED once attracted Fortune 100 clients. “However, I was working with mega-customers with hugely complicated sites and global portfolios, and LEED didn’t fit well,” she says.

Yudelson’s solution is to emphasize carbon reduction, which he alleges LEED does insufficiently. Like Architecture 2030, a nonprofit organization that emphasizes diminishing carbon outputs by way of reduced energy use, Yudelson wants to make all buildings net-zero energy consumers. His methods would prioritize the direct application of real-time data collected automatically via inexpensive, cloud-based technologies—as opposed to LEED’s burdensome documentation requirements. “Next-gen green building rating systems should start with the idea that all data required for making them work are already available … via vendors for energy, water, waste, etc.,” he argues. “Data that are not readily available should not be included in new rating systems.”

Metered energy and water use may be easily calculated, for example, as opposed to categories like recycled waste or scope 3 carbon emissions, such as employee commuting, as defined by the World Resources Institute’s Greenhouse Gas Protocol. However, Yudelson doesn’t address the broader aspirations of regenerative design, nor does it attend to Hosey’s challenge for a measurable standard of design excellence.

Regardless of which path we pursue, a darker shadow now looms over sustainability—one that is much more ominous than those cast by environmental leaders who question its goals or measures. The U.S. election of a president who claims that “global warming is a Chinese hoax,” who has promised to withdraw U.S. commitment to the Paris agreement on climate change, and who has threatened to eliminate the “Department of Environment Protection [sic],” now portends the greatest danger to the movement. The fact that half of the American population is responsible for this historic vote suggests a bizarre and radical disconnect between the lofty aspirations of our ecological advocates and the disbelief or apathy of the larger population. Environmentalists may have accurately predicted sustainability’s demise, but without realizing its real killer.

Despite this uncertain future—or perhaps because of it—we must appreciate the tenacious efforts of green advocates to shape a better reality for all of Earth’s occupants. After all, the direst threat is the diminishment of life itself (including our own) as a result of our species’ ignorant and negligent behavior. As long as there are those who continue to strive for the sake of the planet, hope remains.