Interviewed by Ahmad Zohadi

Chartered Architect and Professor of Interior Design, American University in Dubai


Ahmad Zohadi:

How would you define in your own words ‘sustainability’?

John Alexander Smith:

Sustainability or more pertinently ‘sustainable development’ requires to be understood at all scales of application whether urban, architectural or interior. The Brundtland Report summarizes the term as: ‘…development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.(1) However a simpler and more profound notion can be attributed to the Native North American: ‘We have not inherited the Earth from our parents, but have borrowed it from our children’.(2) The implication here is that we should hand on a better environment than that received and if we study urban environments in particular, then we have to recognize that the life support systems which underpin the urban mechanism are in turn dependent on self-sufficiency in the fundamentals of water, food, energy and shelter. To enhance the quality of the urban environment, the sustainable city would also require to reconcile the competing factors of population stability, employment, public services and, notably, waste management.

Should sustainability be controlled by government / global legislation or should it rely solely on architects’ ethics and why?

Sustainability should be exercised through the Law, a universal law that must be embedded into every primary, secondary and tertiary educational system worldwide. A world citizen motivated from childhood, to engage in helping to save and nurture the planet by rejecting the avarice and sheer irresponsibility of the recent past, is a much more powerful instrument than one relying on forced legislation by governments. Architects, urban and interior designers would have an obvious role in reinforcing the universal law by creating built environments that satisfy the soul while respecting the earth, water and air around us. There are numerous examples of flawed ‘architect’s ethics’ from the past to reject such a notion. Juxtaposition this with the expression ‘business ethics’ and the oxymoron becomes apparent.

Can sustainability be compatible with experimental / progressive / innovative design and why?

Sustainability was intuitively understood by our ancestors, typically through an evolutionary process of correctly siting and orientating buildings, using local materials along with appropriate construction and design techniques that acknowledged the seasons and the weather patterns. Such buildings can be understood as climate modifiers that were easily maintained and adapted for future generations and which satisfied cultural expectations. A mobile society and the rapid expansion of business and industry have each contributed to a plethora of new building types that our forebears would little recognize. Here the role of the architecture and design schools is critical in anticipating future requirements of the built environment while taking a responsible approach to safeguarding the natural environment. In fact, it is time overdue to look at the tertiary educational system vis a vis the planet’s survival and I would endorse an initiative that would oversee the setting-up of universities of the environment where the natural and built environments would be accorded primary focus in the curricula. This in turn would create a new generation of leaders who will not require to be persuaded as to the merits or necessities of sustainable thinking in every human initiative.

Will you decline a commission if your clients declare that they are not interested and they will not pay any additional cost to your sustainable design and why?

Having declined a number of approaches by would-be clients over the years for reasons usually involving unrealistic budgets and programs (and if truth be told, the occasional nasty personality), it is interesting for this observer to note that in some western countries over 80% of planning and building warrant applications are made typically by non-architects. This informs us about the law in these countries and particularly the attitude of many clients who are prepared to engage the likes of surveyors, engineers, technicians, builders and others, rather than architects. Until recently in the UAE a commercial project had to meet two simple criteria for many clients: it should maximize the net lettable floor area for revenue purposes and, based on a single exterior rendered perspective – the ‘artist’s impression’ which may end up as an obvious marketing tool, it must match the (whimsical) visual aspirations of the client.
Consequently we may conclude that many clients originate from a ‘finance first’ background and are unlikely to have taken any elementary instruction in architectural or urban design. The idea that sustainable development offers in fact a (running) cost benefit and should outweigh any perceived (capital) cost deficit is difficult for most accountancy minded clients to absorb. Based on the above observations, it is fairly obvious to this commentator that most people should be legally debarred from becoming clients until they can demonstrate that they at least appreciate the difference between architecture and building. In the meantime green building legislation might usefully oblige clients to pay for the research component that is often needed to match the building’s environmental performance or targeted green rating.(3)

It is astonishing that in the last five years or so, almost everybody claims to be ‘sustainable’. Do you think that the world is really now so much more sustainable and why?

The world was more or less a sustainable entity until the advent of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century when an unbridled pillaging of the Earth’s natural resources, accompanied by a blatant ignorance of the detrimental effects on the natural environment, was commenced. Ironically the previous century, ‘the age of improvement’, witnessed prodigious planting schemes, whether forests or fields, which were accompanied by embracing infrastructural initiatives such as ditching and hedging, the draining of swamplands, and the construction of navigable canals to transport the agricultural produce. Water, animals and wind power drove the mills and machinery. Vegetable, human and animal waste was recycled in the gardens and fields, and most household goods were made from timber, wool, leather, glass and ceramics. Nothing was discarded that could be reasonably recycled. Two hundred years on, industry, finance and politics have conspired through various compliant and willing communication media to reassure us that all is well. This was the case with ‘greenwashing’ a few years ago when some highly unlikely products such as an American automobile were ascribed green credentials. Such is the case today with the continuing misuse of the word ‘sustainability’ in the realms of economics, finance, and technology. Above all it should be understood that sustainable development is a qualitative concept and should not be confused by growth which is physical expansion measured quantitatively.

Describe your ideal sustainable design.
Although they often demonstrate many cultural and community benefits cities are in fact inherently unhealthy and unsafe environments – especially those that have expanded through rapid industrialization. They also act as magnets attracting migrations of people from the countryside, thereby denuding the regional landscape on the one hand and overburdening the urban infrastructures on the other. The 21st century will witness further depletions in hydrocarbon based energy sources, and food and water supplies will emerge as strategic assets set against a rapidly expanding world population beset by climate changes, with some obvious implications for privation and mass starvation.
While some cities such as Dessau in Germany are actually experiencing a steady decline in their resident populations, most urban planners and politicians are looking at revising various urban strategies intended to help contain the burgeoning populations elsewhere, especially the developing nations in Asia and South America. In fact a new strategy is long overdue to help stem and reverse this flow by encouraging people to return to the countryside, consolidate and develop agriculture while living in townships that offer a quality of life.
In parts of the Middle East this can be achieved by strategically locating linearly planned townships alongside national highways and inter-city train routes which connect the urban conurbations. In this way such townships will have ready access to a national infrastructure including public utilities. Consequently these linked agricultural based communities can progressively reclaim marginal land for enhanced food production and precious water resources can be conserved and enhanced. Transportation options can progressively marginalize the private motor car by emphasizing reliable, low energy, yet fast ‘maglev’ commuter trains linking the various townships with the city. If the townships are planned with cycling and walking speeds in mind, then these rural communities can offer a balance between industry and employment on the one hand and a quality of life for all on the other. Thus strategic regional planning sets the framework for sustainable development – from urban through architectural to interior scales of operation.


1. United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, 1987. See also

2. Cliff Moughtin, Urban Design, Green Dimensions, Architectural Press: Oxford, 2nd ed., 2005, p.10, as quoted by the author.

3. John Alexander Smith contributes courses in Sustainable Urban Design and Sustainable Interior Design to the Masters program in Sustainable Design of the Built Environment at the British University in Dubai.

© Published by 2A Magazine, Issue 11