The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Designers and architects are constantly looking for ways to make life better through built spaces. It’s not hard to find building professionals who are eager to make headway on issues like accessibility, sustainability, and health – and there are countless models and strategies for making improvements. The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may not be on the radar of many designers or architects, but we’d like to make the case that they can serve as a useful blueprint for developing a more sustainable, equitable, and healthy future.

The UN Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, as a call to action for nations, the private sector, academia, and even individuals, to work together to transform the future. At the heart of this agenda are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a total of 169 specific targets. They address issues ranging from the eradication of poverty and achieving gender equality to building sustainable cities and communities, taking action on climate, and promoting peaceful and just societies. Although the issues are broad, the SDGs also recognize that they are interconnected, and that real progress in this fifteen-year period requires global collaboration.

The role of building professionals

The impact of a building is greater than the physical structure itself. Buildings are opportunities for connection, for improved quality of life and a sense of place. The built environment – and the planning, architecture, and design that goes into it – is directly related to each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. For this reason, architects have a significant role in envisioning and designing communities, cities, and even whole societies. Through the design process, they can directly influence a community’s sustainability, social equity, health, well-being, resilience, and overall quality of life. They can determine who they engage with in the design process and what kinds of strategies to implement.

For architects and other building professionals, this presents more than just an opportunity; it also presents a responsibility for their influence to be a positive one. The built environment also can be a part of the problem, with many challenges, from the production of waste to consumption of energy and natural resources. Buildings also affect occupants’ and communities’ health and can exacerbate inequality. This means that architects have to balance these sometimes conflicting elements, facilitate open dialogue, and work together to ensure that moving forward, our cities and communities will be healthier, more equal, and more sustainable.

Applying SDGs

Architects and building professionals can use the SDGs as guiding principles in their daily work – and many already are. Ethical and sustainability criteria is becoming more and more common in project briefs and many clients request that projects meet higher bars for sustainability, inclusion, safety, and even social responsibility.

A report by the Royal Institute of British Architects and the UN Global Compact Network UK provides concrete ideas that architects can implement, within the four overarching areas covered by the SDGs. To achieve human rights goals, they can engage in pro bono work; develop and promote a policy statement that establishes and affirms commitment to upholding human rights; and develop and promote a human rights due diligence strategy that addresses a spectrum of different issues. Accomplishing this brings benefits such as reassuring stakeholders and creating strong working relationships, fostering better relationships with communities, and minimizing risk of complicity in human rights abuses.

When it comes to labor and working conditions, architects can commit to supporting an ethical supply chain and ethical materials sourcing; develop construction strategies that consider workers’ health, safety, and working conditions; review business and employment policies to ensure that all labor laws and regulations are being adhered to; implement standards and guidance to set the bar higher; and produce a slavery and human trafficking statement. Enacting these changes can help firms safeguard their reputation, develop stronger relationships with contractors, ensure the best possible outcomes for clients, and minimize the risk of complicity with poor working conditions.

For environmental and sustainability issues, firms are encouraged to review their business policies to see how their performance measures up to regulations and standards; develop sustainability strategies that address all stages of projects; promote greater environmental responsibility through ongoing training, staff selection, and partnerships; assist local charities and community groups; and explore and recommend sustainable building strategies. This can bring benefits such as reducing operational energy costs, improving reputation, engendering positive interactions with the local community, and increasing sustainable architecture design in practice.

Finally, to eliminate corruption and bribery, architecture firms can start by reviewing their existing anti-bribery and corruption policies to ensure they’re up to date and move towards best practice principles; training staff to avoid and mitigate situations of bribery and corruption; and develop risk registers for specific projects. This can help improve the local and national economy, increase trust in society and reduce human rights violations, all while safeguarding the firm’s reputation and strengthening the market for the building industry.

To show some other ways that architects and building professionals can apply SDGs in their projects, we’ll look at a couple of examples.

SDG 1: No Poverty

The Le Parc project in Bordeaux, France, consists of the renovation of three large-scale affordable housing blocks built in the 1960s. These buildings were poorly built, are expensive to maintain, unattractive, and people who live there suffer social stigma. Rather than evicting inhabitants and demolishing the buildings to build something new, the Le Parc blocks were renovated. The renovation focused on additions and extensions, including winter gardens on two façades, improved insulation, better performance, and beauty. The result is an affordable housing complex without stigma, that’s beautiful and comfortable, created through economically feasible modifications.

SDG 5: Gender Equality

Of Los Angeles’ 4,000 homeless young people (ages 18-24), 40% are LGBTQ+. The LA non-profit, LGBT Center, built the Anita May Rosenstein Campus specifically to provide homes and support for these young people. It was designed as a small village with interior courtyards and a central plaza. It’s transparent to the street, as a way of showing openness and welcoming the city into the campus community.

SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

Across the globe, manufacturing facilities in cities are being relocated to suburban or rural areas, leaving behind huge post-industrial areas that are often redeveloped as housing. The Shougang Steel Mill, built in 1919 in Beijing, China, was one such relocated facility. Rather than demolishing the site, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Planning and Natural Resources decided to renovate and transform the factory into an office district with parks and 150,000 workplaces. In this way, the project harnessed the value of the natural resources and energy embedded in the existing buildings. It also has net negative carbon emissions and was accepted into C40’s Climate Positive Development Program.


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