Janis Birkeland, Ph.D.

Janis Birkland

Dr Janis Birkeland is currently Professor of Sustainable Design, University of Auckland.  Immediately before that she was Professor of Architecture, Queensland University of Technology.  Her early professional life in San Francisco was as an architect, urban designer, city planner and attorney – centered on sustainability – where she also had independent design commissions through the 1970s.  After moving to Australia, she did a PhD in Planning for Sustainability (1993) and taught sustainable systems and architecture, including ‘greening the built environment’, at four universities.  She had design commissions in the 1980s had a consultancy in sustainability in the early 2000s.  Over the last 20 years, she has published over 100 refereed papers on sustainable development, architecture and planning.  Books include Design for Sustainability (2002), Mapping Regional Metabolism (2003) and Positive Development (2008).  In addition, she took a year off to serve as the Australian federal government’s Senior Environmental Education Officer.  Her work has featured in several internet website interviews and articles, and she has given over 100 invited and/or keynote lectures in several countries.  Two international organizations have listed her in the top 100 world leaders in sustainability, and she has served on over eight boards of national sustainability organizations.

Report on a research project quantifying building integrated eco-services 

This research project applied Positive Development (PD) theory, and some PD methods, tools and metrics in the design of a specific building proposal.  PD holds that to be sustainable, given existing ecological and social deficits, built environments must not only add social, cultural and economic value, they must give back to nature more than they take (Birkeland 2007).  It posits a new ‘sustainability standard’ where success is measured by net positive and negative impacts.  ‘Eco-positive’ means an increase in ecological carrying capacity and biodiversity beyond that which existed in the vicinity during pre-settlement times on a floor area basis.  This is new territory as current codes, standard and tools do not even contemplate construction making a measurable and net positive contribution to ecological sustainability.

Mainstream sustainability methods only assess reductions in negative impacts relative to code requirements, while more ‘green’ methods consider the distance from zero impacts (Chow 2008).  However, a new energy-efficient building on a remediated site, near a bus stop, or with 50% ‘less increase’ in water and energy consumption than the norm is still adding injury to the local ecology and bioregion.  These additional loads on the environment are often ironically called ecological ‘gains’.  Not counting net impacts leads to myriad inconsistencies that are currently found in development assessment frameworks (see Birkeland 2012).  The sustainability standard provides a more objective basis for assessing the positive contributions of ecosystems, habitats and their instrumental goods and services (‘eco-services’).

This study focused on the embodied energy and greenhouse emissions because data is still not available for many eco-services.  Some of the eco-productive values of extensive interior/exterior planting were quantified for CO2 sequestration as well as air and water treatment, using life cycle analysis.  The key finding was that a building can potentially pay back its embodied energy and greenhouse emissions, if it provides adequate infrastructure to support natural systems.  Other building integrated eco-services that produce healthy air, water and food can increase health and security can also help to compensate for past and on-going ecological damage.  However, this requires a new approach to environmental planning, design and assessment, called Positive Development (PD).

PD theory is based on open systems thinking and a definition of sustainability that entails maintaining or expanding future options, as both survival and the future of democracy will depend on substantive choices (Birkeland 1989).  To achieve this, given population growth, built environments must not cause irreversible harm or lock people into unsustainable systems and life styles, and must also actively increase ecology, diversity and security.  This is done in part by ‘design for eco-services’ (Birkeland 2002).  PD can be distilled into that which adds social and ecological as well as environmental values by expanding both the (a) ‘ecological base’, which encompasses eco-services, natural capital, biodiversity and habitats, ecological health and resilience, and bio-security (ie nature’s life support system), and (b) ‘public estate’, which refers to equitable access to, and the expansion of, the means of survival (ecological base).