Describe anything as “sustainable” these days and you’re onto a winner. From business plans to washing machines, polishing an otherwise ordinary premise, product or purpose with a sheen of “sustainable” transforms it into something that is immediately both sexy and sensible.

The most interesting part of this particular fad is that it really isn’t a fad — the hyperbole is sobering (climate change — what a downer!) and, unlike the “fashionista” labels which blow in and out of town, there’s nothing inherently selfish about being sustainable. Saving the planet for future generations can hardly be vain. How then shall we explain the paradox of “sustainable architecture” — because surely there can be no creature on our endangered planet typically more selfish or vain than an architect?

I believe the first image we must dispel is what a “sustainable building” looks like. Think of any photograph you may have seen captioned as being a “green” building and it probably looks like (1) a giant salad; (2) a Transformer; or (3) Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. While any such aesthetic may indeed wrap an energy-efficient, occupant-friendly, soundly-functional abode or office, there is no real reason why they need to look like it just arrived from the future. The reason they do, of course, is precisely to suggest that these attributes will be the norm in the future, and they will indeed, but there is little reason to frighten people into thinking that their wee cottage or abode will not pass the muster of sustainability, because in all probability it probably already does.

Sustainable architecture is a conceptual framework that contextualises people, spaces and places relative to each other. Imagine these three components as being the primary colours of red, blue and yellow. Mixing these three primaries to different degrees yields an infinite spectrum of colours, some of which appear “right” and others “wrong” to different people at different times. The key is in appreciating that every mix represents a specific balance of the original red, blue and yellow, and each new colour created suits a particular purpose.

Thermally insulated mud huts (left) are just as sustainable as an underground modern dugout or a Transformer-like branch of Superman's Fortress of Solitude

So while a high-rise office block may be sustainable in the middle of Cairo, a cluster of thermally insulated mud huts is equally sustainable on the fringe of the Nile. In Cairo, the balance must house hundreds of people on a small footprint of land so that delivering utilities and extracting waste is optimised, whereas the latter serves a communal function for the fewer intensive needs and outputs of single rural families.

Vernacular (or local) building types are usually the very best examples of what could be described as sustainable architecture. Whether wooden houses on stilts, igloos of ice blocks, or dugouts in the earth, these types of houses and buildings have developed and proven their resilience over the centuries. That they survive today mean they remain, by definition, sustainable. The iconic postcards of Tibetan temples, Grecian whitewashed cubes, sandy souks in Zanzibar or skyscrapers in New York each present an ideal convergence of how a local community of people organised and constructed spaces by using available resources (stone, steel, timber, ice, mud) to meet the elemental and physical challenges of the place they were in. However, as idyllic as living in a teepee might be, having a decent shower, hosting a dinner party or making a conference call might be difficult if the flaps kept flying open.

Thus as we have evolved technologically and our societies have grown wealthier, our inventory of basic needs have changed. We still need food, water and shelter — but in the Klang Valley these needs are synonymous with fridges, sewage treatment and verandahs.
Puvan: Vernacular (or local) building types are usually the very best examples of what could be described as sustainable architecture
Being modern in Malaysia requires that we place our trust in a fleet of developers, consultants and regulatory bodies to ensure that we leverage and share as best possible our building materials, water supplies, power stations, roads, trains and parks. However, contending with so many variables poses serious sustainability challenges. Balancing the impact of millions of people living in spaces netted by infrastructure yet all seeking places for quality living is no easy task.

To meet these growing challenges, we have developed technologies that allow us to individually and collectively lessen our impact on the world around us. Obviously we cannot “unbuild” highways or power stations, nor can we demand that we stop building new ones to cater for our rapidly urbanising populations, but we can strive to optimise their use within our communities. Thinking in this way allows us to draw logical lines from the attitudes of individual homeowners to the shape of the built environments that surrounds them.

Follow these lines and you will find sustainable architecture, within a sustainable community, populated by sustainably minded people. You will recognise these places not necessarily because they have spiky technology sticking out of their rooftops, but because children are playing, streets are shaded, garbage is collected and residents walking the short distance to shops and public transport.

Developers such as Sime Darby Property has formed a ‘Sustainability Working Group’ (SWG) to set policies on sustainability and to drive its sustainability initiatives.

Puvan J Selvanathan is group chief sustainability officer at Sime Darby Bhd and an architect by profession

This article appeared in City & Country Special Focus, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 760, June 22 - 28, 2009.