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Learning to think “sustainably”

The mechanics of decision-making are quite straightforward: we weigh up all the pros and cons of competing choices, and we choose the option that has more pros than cons.

The process is no different when you are aiming to make a sustainable home, but the way in which we draw up the list of pros and cons includes some factors that are very often overlooked. We have to check some deeply ingrained biases if we are going to make the best choices.

New ideas versus established solutions

When considering new solutions, our approach tends to be one of two extremes. There are those of us who are inclined to accept the promises of a new solution without applying much rigor toward finding out if the promises are true, and there are those of us who tend to dismiss the promises of new solutions, also without the application of much rigor in our examination.

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One of the first questions I am often asked when discussing new approaches to building is: “Does [insert name of material or system] really work?” This is an entirely appropriate and important question to ask, and it’s not unusual that we should have this question when faced with something new. The “new solution paradox” is that we typically only ask it of new solutions, and completely fail to question existing, accepted solutions. There is an assumption that the ideas, materials, and systems we use commonly have somehow been “proven” to work, that they have been rationally measured and found to be the best means to achieve a particular end. In the realm of building materials and systems, however, development, testing, and establishment of industry standards have been far from rational and well-proven processes. As most readers of this blog are already aware, most of our accepted solutions have not been developed with any coherent ecological principles or human health ideals in mind.

We tend to expect new ideas or technologies to live up to unrealistically high standards, while at the same time normalizing existing ideas or technologies that are inherently, deeply flawed.

If we’re interested in making improvements in our buildings, it is critical that we hold both “accepted solutions” and “alternative solutions” to the same standards, using the same criteria before coming to conclusions. It is great to try to be objective about the choices we make, but it is essential that we apply the same objectivity to all our choices, including those that are so normalized that we don’t see them as choices, but as inevitabilities.

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