June 8, 2009
Sustainability takes on new meaning for construction
The global construction industry is developing a new definition of sustainability that goes beyond the traditional focus on ecology and embraces the issue of social equity.
“Sustainability has become a fashionable term for corporations, but the word is so serious, it is critical to understand what it really means,” said Rolf Soiron at the Global Holcim Awards ceremony recently held in San Francisco.
“Sustainability goes beyond ecology. It means social equity and the dignity of the peoples of this earth. I hope people will emphasize this part of sustainability. We as business people are also children and citizens of earth.”
Soiron is chairman of the advisory board of the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction, and chairman of the board of directors of Holcim Ltd, an international company that manufactures and distributes cement in more than 70 countries.
He was also part of the jury that decided the winner of the first Holcim Global Award for Innovation in Sustainable Construction would be given to the designers of a small and flexible structure that meets the needs of day labourers and addresses the problem of immigration and social inequality.
“This project does what is long overdue,” said Soiron.
“You can’t have workers in society, who are left on the street.”
Hundreds of labourers gather daily near a well-known San Francisco informal hiring site.
“Day labourers gave us the passion and motivation for the design of this project,” said John Peterson, founder and president of San Francisco-based non-profit Public Architecture.
“The driving concerns of these clients were very simple requests around getting more work. We literally went out and started talking to day labourers and it unfolded quickly.”
Employers recruit day labourers on street corners and in building supply store parking lots.
For a few dollars an hour, they do a range of jobs, including construction.
If day labourers are employed by disreputable contractors, they may not be paid for their work. They are also easy targets for robbery because they are paid in cash.
Another problem is a lack of water, during the long wait for work.
Local restaurants were their only option, which generated ill will.
In response, Public Architecture developed a design for a self-contained day labour station.
The project establishes informal work stations where day labourers can meet and wait for casual work.
The flexible structures meet the health and safety needs of the workers by offering shelter, benches, washrooms, a kitchen and an education/training space.
“The structure provides a solution to what the surrounding neighbourhoods often experience as social disorder and what local police forces find difficult to handle,” said the Holcim Award’s global jury.
“Thus, the benefits extend to a larger social context than that of the workers themselves.”
The work stations will be built by the day labourers and constructed from green and recycled materials.
The work station is self-sufficient, with electricity coming from photovoltaic modules integrated into the canopy.
“We have identified four sites in Los Angeles and have been contacted by a variety of cities, including Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C. and even Calgary, Canada,” said Liz Ogbu, associate design director with Public Architecture.
The firm expects to have one of the work stations built in the next year.
The stations will cost between $50,000 and $100,000 and will take about three months to build.
“The project we are celebrating is a little project, but, little projects, become big,” said Saskia Sassen, also a member of the awards jury.
Sassen said she believes small scale projects at the city level can help resolve small scale conflicts related to racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.
“Small micro interventions from the bottom can be a significant force for fighting social inequality,” she said.
The innovation award, which includes $50,000, is a global recognition for a project that demonstrates creativity and inspiration.
The award is the first of four given out in the second round of the Holcim Awards competition, which attracted almost 5,000 entries from 121 countries.
The other three winning entries, which will share in US$2 million worth of awards are a river remediation scheme in Morocco, a greenfield university campus in Vietnam and a rural planning strategy in China.
They were picked from the regional winners, of which three Canadian projects were winners.
Defining what sustainable development means
The most often-quoted definition of sustainable development was coined in 1987 by the United Nations in a document entitled Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development.
According to the UN, the term means development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The concept focuses on environmental preservation, but also includes other related issues such as the efficient use of resources, social progress, economic growth and the elimination of poverty.
Given the above definition, sustainable construction involves meeting the need for housing, working environments and infrastructure without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs in times to come.
Specifically, it deals with the design and management of buildings, materials performance, as well as energy and resource consumption.
The Holcim Foundation targets five issues for sustainable construction including: quantum change and transferability; ethical standards and social equity; ecological quality and energy conservation; economic performance and compatibility; contextual and aesthetic impact.
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