Sustainability in Housing: A Curriculum Case Study

Article excerpt

Scholarship and Practice


Sustainability, which can be defined in terms of the balance and interrelationship of the built and natural environment, has become a conceptual framework for the study of housing. This article explores the influence of environmental issues on the field of housing, from the perspective of sustainable housing, and presents a case study of the development ofa college course to address these issues. The personal and professional value of the course to students is reviewed. Plans for adapting the course to reach a wider audience are discussed.

Environment is a broad-based term, much in use today. We hear about environmental issues, environmental concerns, sustainability and the environment, and caring for our environment. One definition of environment is to think of it in terms of ecological communities-the interrelationships between humans and the world around us. Included in these communities are the houses in which we five. Our houses are critical components in these ecological communities. To further our understanding of environmental issues, we can consider the interrelationship of housing-the human living environment-with the natural world. We can study housing from an environmental perspective.

In considering housing policy issues for the 21st century, Niemeyer and Prochaska-- Cue (1999) identified the conservation of natural resources and the reduction of pollution in building, maintaining, and living in housing as critical issues for housing policy. Housing and Society, the journal of the American Association of Housing Educators, recently focused on key housing issues in a special journal issue designed for inclusion in housing curricula and identified the environment as a critical topic, In that issue, Parrott (1997) suggests that an understanding of environmental concerns in housing encompasses, as follows:

1. The use of natural resources to provide and inhabit housing;

2. The impact of housing design, construction, management, maintenance, and inhabitation on the natural environment; and

3. The interrelationships of the natural and built environment to provide healthy, safe, and supportive housing (p. 47)


As the interest in the interrelationship between housing and the natural environment increases, a new concept has entered the vocabulary of the field of housing: sustainability. Sustainability suggests the achievement of balance, and a plan for long-term growth and nurturing. The impact on the environment-what is used, taken away, or altered-is equal to the rejuvenation-what is replaced, preserved, or enhanced. A sustainable perspective requires the juxtaposing of the needs of the present and future, and a goal to leave adequate resources and environmental quality for future generations (Kiebert, 1999). Thus, sustainable housing is in equilibrium with the natural environment.

Sustainability then becomes the conceptual framework for the study of housing in an environmental context. Approaching the many facets of housing from a sustainable perspective requires a radical shift in thought. Alex Wilson, editor of Environmental Building News, highlights this when he emphasizes that the historical purpose of a building was to separate humans from the environment, not to be in harmony with the environment (Wilson, 1999). Housing scholars have long used Maslow's theory of the hierarchy of human needs (Maslow, 1962) to study the needs and purposes fulfilled by housing. By using Maslow as a framework, housing is first shelter and protection and serves to give people control over the environment. Therefore, to be in balance with the natural environment, to be responsible for the impact of your shelter on the environment, changes the paradigm.

A corollary to the concept of sustainability is to understand housing from a bioregional perspective. We live within natural communities-bioregions-that are distinctive in that they are related physically and biologically. …