Sustainability from a fundamental perspective


    I remember staring for a while, startled by the damage of what remained of a now uninhabitable building. A masonry infill wall teetered in a state of utter collapse, caught in the fall, staring back at me with a small sense of satisfaction in having not… yet… buckled.

    This rubble of a structure occupies the future site of Project Haiti, the USGBC’s effort to rebuild an orphanage and children’s center in Port-au-Prince. As the design team visited for the first time, I recall having no immediate sense of a good solution. Realizing the unbelievable lack of resources, the financial burden of building to international codes and the local labor force’s minimal education of how to build a structure well – let alone sustainably – the challenges became overwhelming.

    In Haiti, a country focused on savings rather than consumption, why was it challenging to conceive our definition of sustainability? Local, recyclable materials and efficient structural systems typically help us achieve sustainable structural goals, but are often unavailable in Port-au-Prince. The absence of codes, structurally tested materials, education, experience and key infrastructure presented a massive challenge. What does Haiti need to truly sustain itself?

    Ironically, developing nations implement sustainable concepts daily with far less effort than what consumer-based societies undergo to achieve similar results. Applying “green’ design is often a means of survival – reuse that, save this – that subconsciously attempts to sustain. For Haiti, sustainability relies on design being affordable, buildable, durable, replicable, and, as we critically identified in 2010, safe and resilient.

    Structural engineers’ efforts to achieve sustainability in the United States are not without difficulty. To understand the limitations of structures in the conversation about sustainability, one need only to look at the chart listed on page 13 of the latest LEED AP Study Guide. Undoubtedly, structural engineers miss out. Conversely, each sustainable feature for Project Haiti is highly influenced by the expertise of none other than the structural engineer.

    Hayley Gryc wrote in a paper presented at Structures Congress 2012 that our growing role in designing sustainable buildings and infrastructure is “—more than producing low carbon construction or introducing energy efficient systems. It is about the social sustainability aspect, understanding and being sensitive to the needs of local cultures and local environments…’

    Good sustainable design is present when we respond to the triple bottom line. Social responsibility and economic viability are equally important to environmental stewardship. Engineers hold keys to unlocking and driving many conversations about building fiscally sound, structurally stable, economically prosperous buildings for communities around the world.

    Center of Port-au-Prince after the earthquake in 2010.

    To promote social awareness and economic growth on your next project, ask some of the following questions:

    1. How can engineering contribute to local economies?
    2. How can the design support existing cultures of communities?
    3. Can we learn from vernacular construction techniques?
    4. Is there local labor that supports the construction typology?
    5. What local resources and sources are available and adaptable?
    6. Can materials be introduced to create new local economies? Or drive existing economies?
    7. How can construction processes minimize environmental impact and positively impact communities?

    How might we find answers to these inquiries?

    Einstein said, “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.’ While attempting to resolve Haiti’s shelter issues with Western assumptions and education, it becomes obvious that Haiti’s infrastructure and humanitarian needs will require synergistic, sustainable engineering solutions that cannot be produced under yesterday’s processes and assumptions. When engineering problems become intricately tied to our world’s complex sociotechnical systems, the answers certainly will not be in the code.

    A modest solution for Haiti came in persistent research beyond the code and seeking cultural and vernacular precedence on every scale. This research drove our team’s definition of sustainability; Haiti’s solutions need to address standards with social and economic integrity.

    “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.’

    As engineers, we rarely embark on projects with creativity in mind. Perhaps, as a profession, this is our greatest challenge toward achieving true sustainability. Certainly, good research is bound by one’s ability to recognize the code as an important educational tool and a history book of workable solutions. It is essential to understand the code’s implications and not view it solely as instructions. In this sense, one is granted a release from the typical and can explore what is possible. Herein lies an engineer’s ability to be conscientiously creative.

    We are charged with paying purposeful attention to sustainability’s integral role in the built environment. Responsible design encourages balanced integration of social, economic and environmental aspects. If we continue to remain only a calculated professional, then the end of our profession is near. Advances in computer engineering and computational analysis will win. The triple bottom line reveals a model of engagement and collaboration that is vital to delivering genuinely innovative engineering projects. It is paramount to sustaining the future of our profession.

    Sally J. Gimbert, LEED AP BD+C, A.M. ASCE is a structural design technician at HOK, where she is active in the leadership of HOK IMPACT, the firm’s social responsibility program. HOK is the USGBC’s official design partner for Project Haiti, a pro bono effort to build a LEED Platinum orphanage and children’s center in Port-au-Prince. Gimbert is a member of ASCE’s Structural Engineering Institute Sustainability Committee with interest in disaster resilient and LCA design strategies.