Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Has Social Sustainability Left the Building? the Recent Conceptualization of "Sustainability" in Danish Buildings

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Has Social Sustainability Left the Building? the Recent Conceptualization of "Sustainability" in Danish Buildings

Article excerpt


Developing "sustainable buildings" has become a central goal for national and local policies as part of efforts to reduce energy consumption and to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. While numerous viable technical solutions already exist, the main challenge currently is to implement them in the built environment (Guy, 2006). Sustainable buildings have traditionally been "niche" products and have been introduced in protected contexts (Rip & Kemp, 1998); they have rarely matured for wider market dissemination. Previous development of sustainable buildings in Denmark has involved a changing range of concepts over time (Gram-Hanssen & Jensen, 2005; Jensen & Gram-Hanssen, 2007).The different configurations in terms of planning, "hardware" technologies, infrastructure, facilities, financing, and social ideals include the following:

* Green buildings as energy-saving devices: After the oil crisis of 1973, science-based efforts were made in Denmark to develop technologies to improve the energy performance of buildings and regulations were introduced for implementing these technologies.

* Grassroots ecocommunities: A number of alternative and green rural settlements emerged in Denmark in the 1980s and 1990s emphasizing community, self-sufficiency, alternative technologies and lifestyles, and spirituality.

* Subsidized urban projects: Commitment to the Brundtland Report created a public drive for green buildings in the 1980s and 1990s that was aimed at testing, approving, and institutionalizing green technologies on the basis of extensive public funding. Danish projects included sustainable renovation under the Urban Renewal Act, as well as sustainable building projects in the social housing sector.

A similar typology of sustainable buildings can be found in other countries, such as Germany and Austria (see, e.g., Rohracher & Ornetzeder, 2002). In recent years, however, there have been several attempts in Denmark to provide sustainable buildings for "ordinary Danes"--detached houses that appear traditional and where the sustainability enhancements are not very visible. These new building projects share a number of features in their visions, purposes, imagined users, design, and conceptualization of sustainability, and in many ways differ from earlier sustainable building "paradigms." The new approach has focused on applying low energy standards to "traditional buildings," primarily detached houses in suburban areas, and has devoted little attention to social sustainability. In other words, the buildings are typically established as traditional housing with limited shared responsibilities, facilities, and organization. The aim has been to involve the conventional building sector, encouraging and qualifying it to build sustainable buildings. This development can, in the light of sociotechnical transition theory (Rip & Kemp, 1998; Geels, 2002), be seen as an attempt to accelerate the progression of sustainable buildings from niche-based innovations to established regime-level alternatives. In this process, Danish local authorities (municipalities)--given the role that they have played in initiating and framing many of these development projects--have been very active. This process implies a number of changes and challenges in relation to previous approaches to encourage the construction of sustainable buildings.

This article explores challenges to the strategy of mainstreaming sustainable housing in Denmark, but the discussion is likely relevant as well for other contexts. We especially discuss the absence of the social dimension in relation to pursuing the goals of environmental sustainability, asking if it is possible to ignore social sustainability and still legitimately achieve environmentally sustainable buildings. And if not, why not, and how can the mainstreaming approach be improved by, for example, learning from other sustainable building concepts.


This article is based on a recent study of new sustainable building development sites in Denmark. …

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