Peter Arkle

“If you ask a designer to name the most important issues facing design today,” wrote Alice Rawsthorn in The New York Times earlier this year, “one is bound to be sustainability, which is design-speak for helping the rest of us to live responsibly, ethically and environmentally.” Design-speak? “I wasn’t implying that designers and architects invented the term,” Rawsthorn tells me. “They didn’t. They simply appropriated it.” “Appropriate” means “to take exclusive possession of.” So we didn’t invent it—we just stole it.

“Our profession’s word of choice is ‘sustainable,’” Doug Steidl, past president of the AIA and new dean of architecture at Kent State University, wrote in 2005. “If ever there were a word more calculated to evoke misgivings … or, at best, a yawn, it has to be ‘sustainable.’” The term suggests sacrifice, Steidl complained, and architects should champion growth. “We cannot … be boxed in by our own language.”

Of course, it’s not “our” language. After The Limits to Growth (1972), possibly the first reference to “sustainability” as we now use the term, Lester Brown’s Building a Sustainable Society appeared in 1981, and six years later came Our Common Future, the United Nations (U.N.) report that gave us the most popular definition. All of these deal with equity and resources, however, and have little to do with architecture. “Sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all,” declared the U.N., “and extending to all the opportunity to satisfy their aspirations for a better life.” Is that design-speak, or just good sense?

Today, Steidl tells me, the word “has flooded the marketplace. Everyone has jumped on sustainability as a marketing device. I’m skeptical.” As architects, we all have good reason to be skeptical. Many designers first learned about green through the LEED rating system, so many may equate sustainability with buildings. What’s the harm? There’s more at stake than revisionist history or linguistic thievery. A key challenge is bridging the divides between professions: Architecture can contribute to sustainability, but it can’t singlehandedly create it. A zero-emissions community isn’t sustainable without social equity—such as affordable housing. For architects to discuss green as though it’s confined to construction alone hampers our ability, even our motivation, to find the broadest avenues toward innovation.

Green advocate Thomas Friedman once wrote, “In the world of ideas, to name something is to own it.” Architects, however, could spend less time trying to own sustainability and more time trying to understand it.