Fact or fiction: Demystifying the myths around going green – Moving toward a more sustainable architecture

401 Richmond Street, Toronto – an example of a green roof

"The word “sustainability” has become so over-used that it is starting to sound hollow. Before we can discuss architectural sustainability, we need to return to the terminology itself."


Sean Fraser

Buildings and architecture, Environment

Published Date:15 Nov 2007

Photo: 401 Richmond Street, Toronto – an example of a green roof

Sustainable: able to be maintained at a certain rate or level . . . conserving an ecological balance by avoiding a depletion of natural resources (Oxford English Dictionary)

Using this vision of sustainability, let’s consider some prevailing myths that may inhibit our ability to develop environmentally responsible architecture. Following each myth is a counter-proposal that recaptures the objective of sustainability. These ideas are controversial and provocative, but they also reflect the core ethos of the conservation movement in both cultural and natural heritage.

Myth: We can build our way to sustainability

New green buildings, products and materials are more sustainable than existing ones. If all our new buildings are green, we will solve our sustainability challenges.

Proposal: Invest in existing building stock

The current green wash of the marketplace can divert us from the real solution. Our approach to sustainability must move from an assumption of new construction to a mindset where renovation, rehabilitation and recycling are the norm. Architecture is long-term infrastructure that must be retained for centuries – not a commodity to be discarded within a generation.

Myth: Science will save us

Technology exists to provide luxury and ensure that we continue to purchase newer and better products. Given enough time and incentives, new technology and scientific innovation will solve all our energy, pollution and resource depletion challenges.

Proposal: Wants aren’t needs

A more noble purpose of technology should be to make our lives better, to ease suffering and ensure that we survive and prosper. Our environmental impact is mostly driven by our wasteful rate of personal consumption – shopping as recreation. The planet is a closed system with finite resources. Technology can help us use our resources wisely, but corporate, community and personal restraint are also required.

Historical architectural debris from Toronto’s Walnut Hall – a designated heritage building that was demolished in 2007

Myth: Newer is better

Better technology, innovative materials and green design make new buildings sustainable, while older buildings are inefficient.

Proposal: The wisdom of traditional building technology

We expect older buildings to perform like modern ones and sometimes this makes historic buildings appear less efficient. Before we evaluate new versus old, we need to evaluate the expectations themselves. One of the most challenging issues in modern building practice is the artificial isolation of interiors from our natural environment, akin to living in a bubble. This has major philosophical, architectural, environmental and technological repercussions that are difficult to overcome. It is extravagant, unrealistic and unhealthy to isolate ourselves completely from the environment. A traditional building responds to the seasons and reminds us that all architecture – interior and exterior – is part of the environment. We need shelter, but we shouldn’t be hermetically sealed into our shelters.

Myth: Higher density is more sustainable

If we build as densely as possible, we can benefit from an economy of scale with respect to public infrastructure – from transportation and roads to water, power and sewage.

Proposal: Urban form must be durable, serviceable and reasonable

High urban density may be a laudable objective, but the urban form the density takes will dramatically impact its long-term sustainability. Taller isn’t always greener. While density may lead to savings in one sector, it may cost in others. For instance, with building heights over 10 storeys, the stack effect forces a reliance on year-round mechanical air conditioning. Eventually, the cost of electricity and other factors may make high-rise construction no longer viable – especially when combined with the short life cycle of some cladding systems.

Window repairs using traditional glazing methods at historic Fryfogel Tavern (Perth County). The Trust holds a conservation easement on Fryfogel Tavern.

Window repairs using traditional glazing methods at historic Fryfogel Tavern (Perth County). The Trust holds a conservation easement on Fryfogel Tavern.

Myth: Sustainability must be weighed against economics

New construction is a pillar of our economy. The objectives of sustainable architecture must be weighed against larger economic and political priorities.

Proposal: Environmental destruction is not economically sustainable

The modern construction industry relies on mass-produced prefabricated building systems shipped from long distances rather than customized building systems that are labour-intensive and locally available. While change will require a global economic realignment, industry must evolve as well.

Myth: Low maintenance is green

Minimizing or eliminating maintenance is an objective of sustainable design.

Proposal: Labour is the most renewable resource

Common sense teaches us that everything wears out and needs attention over time. We must plan for maintenance and repair in the design of all buildings – new and existing, heritage and non-heritage – effectively investing in craft and labour rather than replacing entire building systems when a single component fails.

Sustainability requires that we retain, understand and conserve existing building stock. It will take public education and building consensus, but the tide is turning – albeit slowly – in favour of conservation.