Sustainable Development: An Introduction to the Three Pillars of Sustainability

There has been a general push within the design and construction industry towards sustainability for a number of years now. This has been growing in waves. For the purpose of defying the ‘greenwash’ we have prepared a series of articles to provide clarity on the definition of sustainability, how the topic should be considered on a holistic basis, and how the design industry can lead the way and in a positive manner.

Sustainable Development has been defined by the Brundtland Report, as “..development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Holistic thinking is integral to a sustainable built environment. We believe that sustainability can be broken down into “Three Pillars of Sustainability”. Fundamentally these elements are Environmental (Planet), Social (People) and Economic (Social). These aspects need to be considered in balance in order to achieve a truly sustainable outcome. If any one of these elements is out of balance then holistic sustainability cannot be achieved.

This article is the first of a series exploring each of the Three Pillars of Sustainability.  This, the first, will simply be introducing you to each of the the key elements. In the following articles we will explore how (and why) these considerations are important to you, our client, to us as your agents, and to our community as responsible caretakers for the future of our planet.


One of the greatest barriers to understanding the true meaning of sustainability is the extent of “greenwash” around us. Greenwash is a term used referring to claims and misinformation about products, systems or buildings deceptively as being “green”, when in fact they are not.

Greenwash makes it very difficult for a consumer to understand, let alone trust, who or what to believe.

“At worst, greenwash is a deliberate attempt to disguise a potential failure and, in consequence, may actually be aggravating things like climate change; at best, greenwash reveals how difficult it is, even with the best of intentions, to precisely define sustainability and what to do about it.”
Guardian UK recently identified the problem with greenwash.

Concentric circles of sustainability
Preliminary diagram indicating where you sit with the bigger picture of Sustainability and Sustainable Development


The first pillar of sustainability is Environmental Sustainability. With regard to building, this relates to the form, the materials and the systems associated with the building and the site. “Passive design”, for example, requires the building orientation to respond to the path and angle of the winter and the summer sun. Combining this with strategic sun shading, dense materials featured internally (in the right places), prevailing wind, site topology and strategic landscaping.

Every building material comes with an environmental cost. Careful analysis and selection of materials, and the way they are combined, can bring significant improvements to the comfort of your home. This in turn can reduce the reliance on resources for heating and cooling, in turn reducing environmental impact.

Using less, and storing more naturally might be the key. Minimising our reliance on electricity, gas and other fuels should be considered. Similarly recycling, harnessing and storage of energy and water also contributing factors.

Encouraging the declaration of life cycle assessments for materials and systems choices are important tools to be able to compare between future completed built ‘products’. Post-occupancy evaluations can provide an insight into the likely energy usage required to heat and cool a home. This gives a consumer choice when considering a home.

The current method for integrating energy efficiency standards into a new home or renovations is incorporated into the National Building Code Standards. In Victoria, the current minimum requirement for a residential building is to achieve a 6 Star energy rating. To achieve this a design incorporates consideration, review and assessment of the extent of mechanical services, lighting, insulation and glazing featured within the design.

In our subsequent article we will look at how other standards are used to achieve more holistic energy efficiency. One such standard is the European developed, “Passive House” model, which aims to reduces a building’s ecological footprint.


The second pillar is Social Sustainability. In the case of housing, this refers to the creation of inclusive, secure and healthy communities, that are well-integrated into wider urban systems. Social Sustainability takes into consideration cultural values, norms and traditions, as well as lifestyles and behaviours of people who visit, to plan for needs like transportation, services, and social interaction.

The antithesis of social sustainability is the development of individual dwellings in subdivisions at the edge of a city, like Melbourne. This outer suburban model produces an apparent lower cost of housing, in areas that are under resourced with infrastructure, with minimal, or no reliable access to public transport. This is in turn increases the reliance on the use of the private car and thereby putting communities at risk of isolation and loneliness.

Co-operative residential communities are an alternative model for more inclusive housing development. What can we learn from examples such as Murundaka, in Heidelberg West, to integrate into the design of our homes and communities.

The built environment can contribute to a more equal, inclusive and cohesive society if the places where we live, the facilities we use, and our neighbourhoods and meeting places are designed to be accessible and inclusive. We will look at Schored Projects’ Coburg Housing Project to see how this project achieves an inclusive outcome for its residents.

On an individual house level, designing for change and flexibility in the home by incorporating universal design elements will allow your home to change with you. Thinking about these changes and life cycles from the outset, will reduce the chance of having to renovate again in the future, maximising the design for your Forever Home so it can be accessed at all stages and through all phases of life.


The third pillar of Sustainability is consideration of Economic Sustainability. This is the very fine balance between cost and true value.

There is a raft of questions that need to be asked: cost of construction project versus the client’s extensive project requirements; likely ongoing maintenance costs of ‘sustainable’ materials versus the longevity of the material in use; the conflict of size of project versus the ability to build your Forever Home…

During the design and construction process, factors such as building size and materials should be considered in terms of their cost effectiveness. Where possible, using local or recycled materials during the construction process can help lower costs and lead to long-term cost efficiency.

The ongoing maintenance costs are an important factor. A building that has been designed with sustainability in mind — i.e. using passive design elements and sustainable materials, fixtures and fittings such as solar panels and dual-flush toilets — should have lower ongoing maintenance costs due to reduced reliance on artificial light or internal climate control.

We will also look at alternative models emerging for the development of apartments – putting the home buyer, not property investors, at the heart of the development. We will review alternative housing models such as The Nightingale model and The Assemble Model.

Looking at these will illustrate how these can delete the profit driven developer model to deliver a project where good design, community and sustainability go hand in hand. Such models strive to bring economic sustainability into balance.

It’s exciting to be investigating (big picture) sustainability in more detail. We are keen to share how you, and Cathi Colla Architects, can invest in more effective, more holistic, and long-lasting design that can benefit us, and our community, as responsible caretakers for the future of our planet.

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