08 July 2021

Our Common Future, the Brundtland Report

Our Common Future is the 1987 publication by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) credited for introducing the concept of sustainable development, with Gro Harlem Brundtland chairing the UN-sponsored Commission. In the report, the WCED – informally known as the Brundtland Commission – outlined what sustainable development should look like and how to achieve it. The Commission defines sustainable development as:

‘[…] development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

  • What is causing environmental degradation?
  • How are the elements of social equity, economic growth and environmental issues connected?
  • What long-term solutions can we provide that will address and integrate these three elements?
  • Is there any way to bring these solutions to an international audience and cooperate with other countries to support the development and distribution of necessary resources on a worldwide scale?

Chapters within the report address a variety of issues that include:

  • Population and human resources
  • Food security
  • Ecosystems and species
  • Energy and industry
  • International economy
  • Environmental protection

The report set the foundation for the 1992 Earth Summit, which essentially gave birth to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

The three Es – economy, environment, and ecology

Sustainability is assessed from three primary viewpoints: economy, environment and ecology.

  1. Economically, we recognise that a consumer-led culture that creates income through exploiting finite resources is unsustainable. However, economists tend to believe any resulting problems will instinctively sort themselves out as we continue down the path of technological evolution.
  2. Environmentally, we view humans and nature as separate, with humans serving in a stewardship role. Environmentalists focus on preserving the planet, which in turn, will allow humanity to survive and evolve.
  3. Ecologically, however, we consider humans an integral part of Earth rather than being distinct from the planet and its resources. Therefore, ecologists work from the premise that we need to protect both humanity and nature if we are to protect Earth.

These three distinct viewpoints come together to serve as the foundation of the three pillars: economic viability, environmental protection and social ecology.

Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the future

If we are to achieve genuine sustainability, all three pillars must balance and work in harmony. Unfortunately, we aren’t there yet. Most sustainability projects and programmes only address two pillars, and the worst hide behind jargon and use various means to disguise that their outcomes are not sustainable at all. To combat that, we need to understand what sustainability is and the role each pillar plays in any sustainable project.

With that in mind, let’s look a bit deeper into the three pillars, how they affect us and areas where we can incorporate sustainability into our projects.

Economic viability

A project’s economic viability is based on two primary elements: 1) financial considerations and 2) its implication on a local, regional, national and international scale. The primary way for assessing a project’s economic viability is to perform a cost benefit analysis (CBA) to show that project benefits outweigh the costs. While the focus of a CBA is primarily financial, a successful project relies on a range of factors.

  • Will projected profits cover the asset’s operating costs?
  • Will the asset improve the area, potentially increasing surrounding land and property values?
  • Or, will the asset have a detrimental impact – noise pollution, traffic congestion, etc.?
  • Is the community onboard? Is the asset welcomed, or is there opposition?
  • What kind of job opportunities – short and long term – will it create?
  • And, of course, is the project sustainable?
    • What social impact will it have?
    • Is the design inclusive?
    • How environmentally friendly is it going to be?
    • Will changing social needs or climate change issues threaten future use?
    • Does the project lend itself to future adaptation? Can it be repurposed?
    • What will the end of life look like, and how far down the road might that be?

For a sustainable project, the primary hurdle is getting stakeholders to buy into the idea that, while the project may cost more initially, the long-term gains will be superior. Fortunately, there are a growing number of case studies that show this to be true.

Environmental protection

From the environmental protection aspect, every project should look to actively reduce negative impacts – optimising site potential, minimising the use of non-renewable resources and eliminating waste where possible. And we should be considering environmental protection in each element, system and process within every stage of an asset’s lifecycle – from planning, site development and design to construction, use and maintenance, removal and reuse. Practical things to consider include:

  • Site design that works with instead of against the natural environment
  • Location and layout design that fosters green transportation (walking, cycling, public transportation)
  • Minimal soil disturbances to prevent erosion
  • Maximum passive solar heating and cooling through building orientation and design
  • High indoor light and air quality
  • Methods that minimise dust and airborne particles
  • Manufacturing processes that embody the lowest amount of energy
  • Specifying materials based on a complete lifecycle assessment – durable, adept at capturing energy, easily reclaimed, reused and recycled
  • Locally sourced materials and labour wherever possible
  • Products without harmful chemicals; non-toxic finishes
  • Energy-efficient equipment and appliances
  • Water conservation – sustainable drainage systems, rainwater harvesting, greywater recycling, green roofs
  • Environmentally positive operation and maintenance practices

Social equity

When we talk about social equity relating to sustainability, the focus is on equality and fairness across the human experience.

  • Ensuring equal rights
  • Creating equivalent opportunities
  • Meeting basic needs and fostering quality of life
  • Safeguarding the needs of both current and future generations

Unfortunately, social equity is the one pillar that usually goes under-addressed in our sustainability projects and programmes. In 2019, business writer John Elkington, who introduced the phrase ‘triple bottom line’ referencing the three pillars, noted that the ‘people’ element had become a mostly ignored part of the equation.

‘But success or failure on sustainability goals cannot be measured only in terms of profit and loss. It must also be measured in terms of the wellbeing of billions of people and the health of our planet, and the sustainability sector’s record in moving the needle on those goals has been decidedly mixed.’
~ John Elkington, Harvard Business Review, 2019

From a built environment point of view, some of the primary ways to create social equity through design include:

  • Ensuring an ample stock of energy-efficient, affordable housing
  • Creating and maintaining a safe and reliable public transportation system
  • Developing a city plan that encourages walking and cycling
  • Incorporating plenty of green spaces and open areas
  • Offering a range of inclusive public spaces
  • First choice resourcing for local food and materials
  • Having a robust waste and recycling programme
  • Providing attractive local job opportunities
  • Nurturing a keen sense of community
  • Having well defined and recognised community goals

Individual assets can also design for social equity through inclusive design elements and programmes like Well Building that promotes a people-first approach to design that fosters health and wellbeing.

Economic, environmental and social planning – NPPF

In February 2019, the UK Government revised its National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which sets out the economic, environmental and social planning policies in England. The NPPF promotes sustainable development based upon the three pillars and, when viewed as a whole, provide insight into what the Government construes as sustainable development in practice. Areas covered by the NPPF include a wide range of issues around housing and businesses, transportation and travel, economic development, city centre and neighbourhood planning, and assorted topics relating to the natural environment – light pollution, water supply, waste, renewable energy, etc.

To supplement the NPPF, the Government also provides a collection of advice and planning practice guidance. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland publish comparable frameworks.

Sustainability, the RIBA Plan of Work 2020 and NBS

RIBA Plan of Work 2020

With the 2020 release of the RIBA Plan of Work, the RIBA has responded to an escalating industry need for expanded sustainability strategy by mapping sustainability targets to UN sustainable development goals and aligning them with the RIBA Sustainable Outcomes Guide. To explore this and other ways that the new Plan of Work can benefit you, NBS has a webinar series that addresses several topics, including sustainability, fire safety, conservation and inclusive design.

NBS Chorus

NBS has also seen a steady rise in requests for information on how our technical content can help specifiers achieve sustainable outcomes. In the article Using NBS to specify sustainable outcomes on projects, NBS explores how the Plan of Work and NBS’s flexible cloud-based specification platform can be used together to tailor a project to meet sustainability expectations across the project timeline. Through NBS Chorus, you can access your specifications across locations and organisations. It is suited to both performance and prescriptive specifying and has editable clauses supported by technical guidance. Our content is continuously reviewed to improve clarity and usefulness, informed by research, user feedback and industry drivers.

Other NBS products that might interest you

NBS Source

NBS Source brings together NBS BIM Library, NBS Plus and the RIBA Product Selector to provide a sole source for product information that seamlessly integrates into a project’s workflow and provides an additional level of enhanced product data in a consistent, structured format.

The Construction Information Service

CIS is a comprehensive online collection of industry-relevant publications from around 500 publishers. NBS users with a CIS subscription can take advantage of embedded links across specifications platforms to access research and reference documents. The content is fully searchable, intelligently classified and continuously updated.