This post was contributed by our fourth year student, Fraeya Whiffin. Fraeya took part in a debate with the Architectural and Civil Engineering Society and has been building her debating skills with the Bath University Debating Society. Here is how she got on.
Sustainability is a very tricky concept to pin down and part of what we learn in our first year at the Centre for Doctoral Training is that the term can be used and arguably abused by companies. Although we in the CSCT think most often about making the chemical industry more sustainable, the construction industry faces immense sustainability challenges too. Around 40% of global energy usage is by buildings, throughout their lifecycle.
I was invited by the Bath University Architecture and Civil Engineering Society to be on the panel of the debate “Is sustainability just a brand?” on the 5th March 2015. Although the debate was targeted towards construction, I found that what I’d studied for my MRes in sustainable chemical technologies, including a small project on the construction industry, was applicable in presenting a case for sustainability being far more than just a brand.
The “sustainability is just a brand” proposition side argued that although there were numerous one-off demonstration projects, such as a low-carbon supermarket, companies used these as only as marketing tools and did not go as far as creating only sustainable buildings. Our side countered that sustainability was more complex than just reducing carbon emissions, and had to involve social and economic aspects too. We pointed out that being truly sustainable was such a difficult challenge, and on the timescale of construction projects, still very early on that it was to be expected that sustainability had not been reached. We presented counter examples, highlighted the importance of developing countries and demonstrated that branding was in fact important in nudging clients and construction companies towards choosing sustainable buildings.
Our initial speeches were followed by two hours of discussion with the audience. This touched on what sustainability was and was not; how it could be measured; what engineers could do; cases where it worked and did not — and was generally a fascinating, if not entirely on topic or debate-like, discussion. Highlights included a challenge that “the ultimate pinnacle of sustainability would be the extinction of humanity”, which was quashed by the observation that it wouldn’t really meet the needs of future generations if there were no future generations.
Eventually, there was a vote that decided in favour of my side – that sustainability is more than just a brand. The civil engineers and architects present certainly had their awareness of sustainability raised, and hopefully many of them will consider sustainability as an important criterion when they graduate and begin to design buildings.
Fraeya is in cohort '11 of the CSCT and is currently working on his PhD project with Dr Chris Chuck, Dr Darrell Patterson, Dr Karen Edler & Professor Rod Scott.
 British Government (2008) Strategy for sustainable construction Pub 8731/2k/6/08/NP