ATLANTIC CITY, NJ — “Should a sustainable building last forever?” was one question asked at the session, “What is Sustainability and How Can It Be Achieved?” The forum was part of the 2002 American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Winter Meeting here.

One attendee nodded yes, then another. It was noted that we should probably look at perpetuity, except for the resources used.

When we examine sustainability, all natural systems need to be considered, one engineer said. You have to look at biodiversity.

Is geothermal energy any more sustainable than a fossil fuel system? Nuclear power is another question, although it’s not politically correct.

Another engineer stated that an open definition is needed. “We often start talking [about] sustainability, but the subject usually moves over to energy efficiency, which is a more limited focus.”

A British engineer stated that efficiency can be joined to sustainability. “We’re talking about using fossil fuels and how best to use them to achieve sustainability.”

A consultant said one speaker he heard showed a survey that said in 100 years energy efficiency would be key, not the building materials used.

It was noted that in the U.S. there are few buildings that have been around for 100 years. We now have the opportunity to re-engineer our society and build sustainable buildings.


An attendee stated that sustainability depends on the location of the building, whether you’re in England or in different regions of the United States.

In America, we have congregated in some of the least-hospitable parts of the country. In the South, for example, you must have air conditioning and keep your windows closed. Up North, you need thermal control.

“Do we get ultimate sustainability if we have no waste?” one person asked. Another engineer responded, “You are assuming waste. Why don’t you assume no waste?” Material left over from one process can be used for another, he asserted.

But, it was noted, recycling using energy still creates waste. It just uses less energy.

An engineering consultant said that we can use solar energy so there’s no energy waste. However, another said, we need an energy source we can easily use, not one that is difficult to access and is more costly.

To achieve sustainability, an engineer remarked, we need to “sell” increased productivity. It’s been shown people will be 5% more productive if they’re comfortable.

A commission on sustainability is looking at various issues, another pointed out. But the list of issues goes on for three pages. “That’s why they are having so much difficulty defining it.”

Whatever sustainability is, it was concluded, we need to attain it with the economic resources we have.

NOTE: Forums at the ASHRAE Winter Meeting are off-the-record discussions of current topics of interest in the hvacr industry. Attendees who comment cannot be identified by name in order to ensure the free flow of ideas.

Publication date: 03/18/2002