In what seems to now be a tradition, a slew of year-end lists and predictions for 2011 flooded my e-mail inbox and Twitter feed over the final weeks of December and the early days of January. The most interesting item, however, wasn’t related to architecture and design. It was Advertising Age magazine’s list of the “jargoniest jargon” of 2010, words the magazine’s editors wished people would no longer use. I was intrigued, especially when I got to number eight: “sustainability.”
It is, the editors noted, “a good concept gone bad by mis- and overuse. It’s come to be a squishy, feel-good catchall for doing the right thing.” I agree that, like “green,” “sustainability,” in a big picture sense, is overused and diluteda buzzword that in many cases is used more as a marketing tool than as a term that truly addresses environmental impact. But is it so overused that it should be removed from our lexicon?
The problem, of course, is that there is no accepted definition of sustainability. Consider the differences in the built environment alone. In many cases, the LEED rating system has come to symbolize sustainability, but debates around lackluster post-occupancy performance continue to dog the system’s long-term reliability. For some projects, sustainability may be defined by how a structure compares to local codes and standards, or how much energy or water is saved in comparison to a traditionally designed building. Yet others have argued that a building is sustainable simply if it reuses an older structure because the greenest building you can build is the one that you don’t.
Consider, too, the wide range of environmental commitment across markets. This is a discussion point that pops up each year when we set about working on this, our hospitality-themed, issue. For a long time, sustainability in the hospitality realm seemed to translate to more superficial efforts such as giving guests the option of not having their sheets and towels changed every day. One of the arguments, it seemed, was that luxury would have to be sacrificed for better environmental performance.
Luckily, many firms and hoteliers continue to work toward dispelling this myth, as evidenced by our feature projects this month. Yes, our two featured hotels, the Allison Inn & Spa and Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants’ Hotel Palomar, offer guests the option of reducing the facilities’ laundry loads by reusing sheets and towels, but they also incorporate mechanical and structural efforts that aim to reduce their footprints. At the Allison, outside of Portland, Ore., vegetated bioswales, a green roof, and settling ponds combined with the site’s irrigation system help manage stormwater and reduce potable water use, while solar panels, solar hot-water collectors, and a more insulated and sealed building envelope reduce energy use. In Philadelphia, Kimpton continues its corporate dedication to green, repurposing a historic office tower into a sleek, new, LEED Goldcertified boutique property.
Getting back to Advertising Age’s suggestion that “sustainability” spend some time on our vocabulary backburner: I disagree. It isn’t that we should stop using the wordit’s that we should be smarter about how we interpret it. We should learn to ask deeper questions about what exactly sustainability means in each use. This will continue to be a goal of into 2011. Here’s hoping it’s one of yours, too.