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Sustainability: The Older, the Better?

MONDAY, JULY 21, 2014

By Robert J. Kobet, AIA

I recently contributed to a LinkedIn discussion about whether ancient structures and venues still in use are inherently sustainable.

The number of responses thus far is limited, but the list of such projects and venues offered by the respondents is extensive.

Machu Picchi\u
Creative Commons / Martin St-Amant

No longer occupied, Machu Picchu is a 15th-century Inca site situated on a mountain ridge above Peru’s Sacred Valley in the Cusco Region.

Some, like the iconic ruins of Machu Picchu, are tourist destinations that are no longer occupied. Others, like several Greek and Roman amphitheaters, aqueducts and centuries-old buildings in a number of countries, are still in use.

Bedouin tents, cave dwellings and several excellent examples of indigenous, vernacular architecture too often dismissed as primitive have also been mentioned.

Sustainability: Who Decides?

I am interested in this discussion for two reasons.  First, it encourages us to examine what defines sustainable architecture, and that alone is valuable.

Second, it invites us to wonder how much of what we are building today will be around centuries from now—and what will be considered "sustainable" by our descendants, using some future measure of qualities and attributes.

Earth-Integrated Buildings

I said that I have entertained the same question concerning earth-integrated architecture.

The Kobet Collaborative

Filmtronics is a fully earth-integrated lab and manufacturing facility for semi-conductors. While its materials are not traditionally considered green, its performance and benefits show otherwise.

In the 1970s and '80s, I designed a number of reinforced concrete commercial and residential earth-integrated buildings that are well suited to the four seasons we experience in western Pennsylvania.

The reinforced concrete, reinforcing steel and closed-cell foam insulation used are often criticized for their embodied energy—characteristics that cannot be denied.

However, the estimated life of reinforced concrete is 1,500 years—longer, if protected from thermal shock, erosion, ultra-violet degradation and chemical decomposition due to air pollution. And all of these protections are provided by earth-integrated design.

Saving and Sustaining

These passive solar buildings all sip energy, compared to their more conventional counterparts.

One residence does not use its conventional heating system; instead, it burns small amounts of deadfall harvested from the property to supplement solar gain.

Sharpsville PA Muni Building
The Kobet Collaborative

ROI calculations from the American Concrete Institute show that this 1983 municipal buildling in Sharpsville, PA, will save more energy over its life than was consumed to build it.

All have the added benefits of being non-combustible, allergy free, nontoxic, and earthquake and storm resistant. I am delighted that several feature rooftop gardens, and others have allowed their earth roofs to experience natural cessation.

Simple return on investment (ROI) calculations using data from the American Concrete Institute indicate that they will save far more energy over their anticipated useful life than was used to extract, process and erect the materials.

The materials can also be crushed and recycled with current technology. Perhaps all can be reused with technology available 1,500 to 2,000 years from now.

Heavier Materials, Longer Life

The Canadian version of LEED contains a credit for using more durable materials, which recognizes the connection between longevity and sustainability.

Pompeii Amphitheatre
Wikimedia Commons / Citipeek

The Amphitheatre of Pompeii, built about 80 BCE, is the earliest Roman amphitheatre known to have been built of stone. Canada LEED connects longevity and sustainability.

Most versions of LEED are silent on the critical matter of durability and its dependence on the relationship between energy and moisture control. LEED Canada is an exception, with a Materials & Resources credit for durability based on the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) S478: Guideline on Durability in Buildings.

The Value of Quality

This standard demands that the expectations for quality be defined for each project, and it recognizes the three legs on which that quality stands:

“Durability can be achieved only if the required quality of design is provided, the required quality of materials is used throughout, and the required quality of workmanship is provided throughout construction....”

This resonates with a growing interest in designing for the ability to easily update building systems and technologies in very durable building envelopes optimized for their microclimate.

Together, these practices should result in energy-, material- and resource-efficient buildings that will serve generations to come—the essence of sustainability.



Robert J. Kobet, AIA

Robert J. Kobet has enjoyed a dual career as an architect and educator. For more than 35 years Kobet practiced internationally in the fields of sustainable design and development, high-performance green buildings, LEED consulting and environmental education. He is currently enjoying a working retirement that includes a position as adjunct faculty in the Kent State University College of Architecture and Environmental Design where he teaches a variety of courses based on sustainability and regenerative environmental stewardship. For more about Kobet, please visit



Tagged categories: American Institute of Architects (AIA); Architects; Building design; Construction; Good Technical Practice; Green building; LEED; Schools; The Kobet Collaborative; Color + Design; Sustainability

Comment from Ken Johnson, (7/22/2014, 11:28 AM)

Thanks Bob: In my opinion, no new construction is "Green" as there will always be some environmental consequences. We may try to lessen these consequences but only long-term sustainability and the continued use of the structure with minimal maintenance, i.e., sustainability, will reduce the human impact on the environment. We see far to many buildings purporting to meet the requirements of LEED that will require extensive maintenance in the future - insufficient concrete cover for reinforcing steel being the most common.

Comment from Robert Kobet, (7/22/2014, 1:53 PM)

I agree, Ken. With all due respect to all of us who try, and all of the organizations dedicated to moving the sustainability needle, we have yet to come up with a way of beating the natural laws, stating with entropy. I once had a student challenge me with (tongue in cheek) "Uncle Bob! Why does sustainability matter? In a few billion years the sun is going to expand, and the earth will be gone." To which I replied, "Well, let's just try to make it the best few billion years we can."

Comment from Terry Blake, (3/29/2021, 7:09 AM)

We should start on considering sustainability in the construction and concrete industry.

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