Debunking the sustainable development fallacy

As famously stated in the world-renowned 1987 Brundtland report, sustainability is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland). Cited by millions, this report established the first tangible notions of what sustainability really means. To some simplistic sustainable observers, it can be interpreted as ‘lets stop developing altogether.’ But such sentiments do not take into account the complexities of the human experience and the nature of our species. Instead of focusing on quashing development altogether, there are ways to develop with sustainability at the forefront of our decisions.

Oftentimes in the world of land development, sustainable practices are the first to be ‘value engineered’ out of the scope of work. Developers want to build their projects fast and with as little associated costs as possible. Many people find it difficult to believe, but in the long run sustainable development will save developers long term costs as well as provide social and environmental benefits.

Reducing Operating Costs through Energy Efficient Design

How is sustainable development cheaper for developers in the long run? A large part of the solution is reducing operating costs. To understand this solution, it is important to understand the evolution of HVAC. Mechanical heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems were first introduced to the world in 1902 when Willis Carrier was hired to solve a newspaper’s humidity problem (Fitzgerald). From there the heating and cooling market exploded, as the AC systems in homes grew from 13 in 1960 to nearly 90 of homes today.

These new systems paved a new era in construction as architects no longer had to spend tedious hours designing climate resilient structures, when inserting an HVAC system would allow homes in the most extreme climates to be a crisp 75 degrees year round. Pre-HVAC, architects would dedicate time to thinking about how the design of their building would influence how wind and sunlight would heat and cool their structures.

HVAC is still very necessary to our world, but instead of relying on it, we can use it as a tool of optimization. Returning back to our practice of analyzing the site’s surroundings to influence design decisions could save millions of dollars in what would be spent in electricity costs used for HVAC systems. These design improvements could be as simple as having the facades with heavy windows face away from peak sunlight hours to reduce unnecessary heating, to using natural materials with effective insulation coefficients to regulate the building’s temperature. These changes will cost more upfront, but will pay off in the first few months of the building’s operation.

HVAC is never going away, as the rise of covid resilient buildings has shown us. Using design that focuses on the natural surroundings of the building in conjunction with HVAC can create a built environment that humans can enjoy and know is combating climate change.

Reusing Current Building Structures

Another path to saving developers money sustainably is through utilizing current building structures. Although this seems to be a very obvious solution, it is oftentimes not utilized to the best of its ability. Designers and developers usually miss out on the benefits that repurposing their building can bring.

There are associated environmental and financial costs that come with building brand new structures on a site. In California, steel frames are very popular and are often used as structures for buildings. Instead of tearing down these structures, reusing these beams will save thousands of dollars but also have a positive impact on the environment. Steel is a very intensive labor to mine and as a result wastes millions of gallons of water and resources every year. Choosing to rebuild on sites instead of developing from scratch saves costs and has environmental benefits.

When looking for sites, consider using areas that are previously developed on. Although they may have more hurdles to jump through in terms of changing entitlements, having a strong project management team like PDB can make this problem almost obsolete.

Use Natural and Local Materials 

A cost that many developers do not factor into their financial planning is the cost of importing materials. Shipping heavy items like decorative stones or metal structures can costs millions of dollars depending on the source. Looking into manufacturers that operate locally is your best bet for reducing these high export costs and supports local businesses!

Another mitigating solution to this problem is drawing inspiration from natural materials and older forms of architecture in your area. Drawing from historical architectural practices will help foster creativity in how to use these sometimes beguiling materials. Try to stray away from cookie cutter homes as these prefab houses do not always use the materials that are suited for your climate or local to your area.

Green Rating Systems 

If you are completely lost on where to start, there are multiple green development standards that are highly respected available for reference. Some of the more popular rating systems are called LEED and the Living Building Challenge. These rating systems have been around for years and have pioneered new strategies for the building sector. I highly recommend looking into these systems before kicking off your design team as they can influence how your building can be made.

In some cases, these green rating systems partner with local jurisdictions to provide tax incentives down the road. Cities and people are yearning for healthy, green buildings and are willing to persuade developers to follow suit.

As sustainability becomes a growing and ever more popular topic, the demand has increased for buildings to follow suit. Jumping into the green building sector now is a way for developers to gain an edge in the industry. If you are considering developing in the green sector, reach out to us to see how this fits in with your projects goals! Having a great project manager can help you ensure you are taking advantage of these money saving opportunities as well as contributing to the larger green society.



Brundtland, G. (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. United Nations General Assembly document A/42/427.

FitzGerald, E. (1970, January 01). Thermal delight. Retrieved February 19, 2021, from

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