Defining sustainability -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Defining sustainability

By Jonathan Reckford

This edition of “The Forum” explores interactions between housing and the environmental context in which it is built. With this in mind, I would like to offer a few thoughts of my own regarding the concept of sustainability. Habitat for Humanity International’s board of directors recently approved HFH’s five-year strategic plan. The phrases “decent communities” and “decent, safe, affordable housing” can be found throughout the stated principles, mission and vision. The last of HFH’s six adopted principles in this plan is to “promote transformational and sustainable community development”

From a construction standpoint, particularly in the United States, Habitat for Humanity has defined sustainability largely as green building, describing it as “the process of building houses in a way that lessens the detrimental impact on the natural environment,” including reducing waste, reusing and recycling materials, reducing long-term energy consumption of the house, using healthier and more durable building products and methods, and managing build sites wisely.

However, in the context of the HFHI strategic plan, we talk about “impact sustainability,” defined as the result of “strategically chosen interventions that create lasting reductions in poverty and unconscionable housing situations.” As a global organization, we recognize that “sustainable,” “community” and “development” form an important, integrated triangle. The many complex factors that shape a community—including cultural norms, economic factors and the natural environment—all play a critical role in how effective any intervention will be in addressing the housing need.

The United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development has defined sustainable development as “development that meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The nonprofit Rand Corporation defines sustainable development in detail, stating: “Most sustainable community definitions focus on long-term integrated systems approaches, healthy communities, and quality-of-life issues by addressing economic, environmental and social issues. The concept recognizes that economic, environmental and social issues are interdependent and integrated” (

Leading nonprofit community development organizations operate with these key concepts in mind, and Habitat for Humanity is and should be no different. In order to reach our goal of eliminating poverty housing, Habitat for Humanity must become an expert in assessing local context, seeking out compatible partners, and implementing innovative, appropriate, cost-effective and sustainable solutions that will move people from substandard housing to improved living conditions. The solutions might be in the form of advocacy, incremental repairs, tapping into government subsidies, micro-finance initiatives, a partnership with a community-based organization that is providing health or educational programs, or improving on a traditional technology that takes advantage of local resources and homeowner sweat equity.

I invite and challenge our Habitat board, leaders, staff and volunteers to help us further define, explore and examine these issues of sustainability. The more we do so together, the better we will be at providing a “safe, decent and affordable” place for everyone to live.

Jonathan Reckford is the president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity International.