Sustaining Sustainability - Social sustainability’s significance to sustain economic and environmental sustainability

Submitted by Alice on Mon, 04/01/2013 - 00:00

Steve Maslin | Director of bud | Building User Design Solutions

I believe that social and economic sustainability are critical to achieving environmental sustainability. As with wildlife conservation, if we ignore the people within that environment, then we will fail to achieve our environmental /ecological objectives. As an architect, access consultant and someone who worked within social provision environments I am what might be best described as a social sustainability practitioner, providing advice in order to achieve positive and sustainable user experiences of built environments.

The User Experience

I also believe that there is an intrinsic relationship between real building value and the quality of the user experience. Premises that fail on a social and economic level are, I believe, intrinsically dysfunctional and plainly unsustainable in the long term. Either they are so bad that they get pulled down earlier than their predicted life expectancy – or they continue to subject the majority of their occupants to low level deficits of functionality with regards to wellbeing, health, productivity and economics. For some individuals, especially disabled people, socially dysfunctional buildings become serious impediments to their reasonable expectations for sustainable social and economic life choices - see

Social Buy-in

If we focus solely on the environmental factors we will not achieve the end goals for the environment and could ultimately miss out on buy-in from society in the long term and ultimately miss the point of why we (the planet’s occupants) want a sustainable environment to live in and in which we need to function socially and economically. Without social and economic sustainability factors being taken into account there is also a greater risk that assessment of environmental factors alone runs the risk of conflicting with legitimate and relevant social and economic criteria and provision.

Management and Information

There is also the matter of management and information. In the field of access and inclusion there is a tendency for those who aren’t access consultants to focus on physical provision and to neglect the wider significance of management strategies and information strategies. A similar paradox exists within the broader subject of sustainability. Understanding people’s needs increases our understanding of the management and information strategies need to be implemented, not only to achieve inclusion, but achieve social, economic and environmental sustainability as well.

Form Follows Function

We could refer to the architectural maxim of “form follows function” and describe the “function” of a building as being social and economic and that the “form” a building then takes being the outcome achieved within a particular environmental context. However this is where there is a risk of neglecting evidential information pertaining to social sciences and sustainability. This is, because in the first instance some social factors can be perceived (by some) as intangible and not what some might consider as “objective” and about “function”. Take for example, within the realm of inclusive design, access matters ought not be confined to access for people who have mobility difficulties alone and ought to extends to sensory and neurological needs as well. Some may, at first glance, think neurological needs have few tangible implications for building design. However, academics and social scientists working fields such as environmental psychology can point to there being significant evidence as to neurological and psychological factors, relevant to the population as a whole, impinging on how well built environments function.

Schools as an Example

Take for example The University of Salford’s Study into the effect of classroom sizes of children’s performance -see: One therefore questions whether school buildings built under reduced space standards as proposed by the current government are sustainable, quite apart of from the detrimental effect one suspects it will have for children with mobility difficulties or children on the autistic spectrum? How long will it be before such buildings are pulled down?


When seeking to achieve sustainability, one would suggest that we resist the temptation to focus on pre-conceived outcomes. Greater social sustainability is partly achieved through guidance and standards, but more particularly through process – i.e. procurement, stakeholder engagement and brief development. As with environmental sustainability, it is often the processes that designers use to arrive at their proposals that determine the ultimate success of what they are doing. If processes do not anticipate management implications of designs through appropriate procurement, stakeholder engagement and brief development processes then the chances are that the design will not function in a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable way. If decision makers are only asking the question “where does it say that I have to?” …they invariably haven’t quite understood the subject. If they are encouraged to follow a collaborative and thoughtful process, then they are more likely to know why they ought to do something, because they understand the implications of their decision. In turn, they are more likely to sustain this understanding during occupation of their premises or when undertaking yet further projects.