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Going Sustainable is Expensive; Myth or Reality?

There have been many debates concerning the additional cost of adopting sustainable approaches within the built environment. To truly understand what is going on, we ought to look at this issue from a broader perspective. One of the significant problems concerning understanding sustainability is that we often only chew over the environmental aspect. In contrast, sustainability is a much more comprehensive idea that encompasses social, economic, and sometimes even political dimensions. Thus, solely focusing on the environmental factor is perhaps the underlying cause for the birth of such a myth.

In my master’s research, I investigated the barriers to the practice of sustainable interior architecture and design (SIAD) within the context of Malaysia. Surprisingly and contradictory to the existing research on relevant topics within the construction industry, it was found that cost was not among the list of crucial deterrents. The most prioritized barriers were a lack of appropriate education, technical knowledge, and relevant regulations. In this short writing, I shall argue that we have become too focused on the environmental aspect and overly dependent on technology (i.e., active sustainable solutions) that we have forgotten about rudimentary means of making a building sustainable. While I am making this argument for SIAD in specific, to some degree, it can be generalized to other fields as well.

First and foremost, when it comes to the interior environment—where we live, play, work, and spend almost 90% of our time—every single design decision has a grave consequence on occupants’ experience. Research has shown that lighting (both artificial and natural), color, form and shape, spatial planning, furniture selection, and biophilic elements are among the characteristics that can alter users’ level of comfort, productivity, performance, emotion and behavior, as well as their general physiological and psychological health and wellbeing (see more here). While it is true that selecting appropriate lighting fixtures, active monitoring systems, HVAC systems, etc., is essential and can influence energy consumption, yet again, that is not what sustainability is all about.

In addition, the true value of adopting sustainable approaches is to find appropriate solutions based on available resources locally. In many green building expos, I have seen the term “imported” paradoxically used as a tagline for selling sustainable materials or compone

nts. In fact, the mere idea that terms such as “green”, “eco-friendly”, “sustainable”, etc., are used as marketing strategies should be alarming to practitioners. This is not a trend we should follow, but rather our professional and ethical obligation. Taking advantage of the existing resources is not a right but a privilege. Thus, it is important for professionals to actively advocate for adoption of sustainable solutions, and persuade clients to do so. But first, perhaps we should focus on comprehending sustainability and understanding what it really means.

Finally, considering what I have argued so far, I believe the solution to this issue is fairly straightforward. It is our responsibility, plain and simple. Not the client, not any other stakeholder. In this line of work, we need constant learning, always being on the lookout for ways to achieve better built environment with consideration to all the pillars of sustainability. We should opt for more passive strategies, rediscover vernacular architecture, and aim to realize sustainability within the budgetary boundaries specified by the clients.

A great example is how Penang Harmony Centre designed by BETA achieved myriad of passive green features at a humble RM 2.5 million budget; which won them The-Edge PAM Green Excellence Award in 2021.

I hope the industry can recognize that there are endless possibilities for sustainable development, and that not all of them necessarily cost more.

Written by Mojtaba Ashour | BETA COLLABORATING WRITER

Mojtaba Ashour is a doctoral student and a graduate assistant in the Department of Interior Architecture and Environmental Design at Bilkent University. He obtained his Bachelor and Master of Science in Interior Design from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and has previously worked in several design and architecture firms in Penang, Malaysia. His research is primarily concerned with sustainability within the indoor environment, decision-making for the realization of sustainable development goals, and the wellbeing of stakeholders and occupants.

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