Socio-Cultural Challenges: An IRA-Nian Perspective

Sustainable Development seeks to achieve a best compromise position or establish a win-win scenario between three dimensions; social wellbeing (e.g. health and safety), economic performance (e.g. profitability, reliability, business), and environmental impact (e.g. water pollution, air emissions, soil quality, waste management). However, much of the theory underpinning sustainable development has been derived from the Western/Developed world perspective. This paper will examine the degree to which such theories can be applied to Middle Eastern/Developing world perspective and will consider the role of culture in shaping people’s behaviour towards the sustainability agenda.

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The paper will present data gathered from a series of in-depth interviews with key stakeholders to the Iranian built environment development process to explore their interpretation of social well-being, economic performance and environmental impact and map the role that culture has had on this interpretation. The paper will use case study examples to show how culture has resulted in a lack of consideration of maintenance and refurbishment, either at the design stage or throughout the buildings life that has resulted in early demolition, and a throwaway attitude towards the built environment. Such an approach it is argued leads to an unsustainable society. The paper will also argue the need to reinterpret the sustainable development agenda within an Iranian cultural context in order to identify/develop appropriate drivers [education, legislation, incentives, motivation, quality etc.] to embed the sustainable principles within Iranian society.

The lacking concepts of obsolescence, maintenance and sustainable development in the Iranian culture can be regarded as the major barriers to implementing the sustainability principles in the Iranian built environment. The current tendency towards the implementation of the throw-away approach towards building, the total neglect of the maintenance, innovation strategies and the preference given to the demolition decisions are preconditioned with the peculiarities of the Iranian realities. The cost and time remain the major drivers taken into account for deciding between the alternatives of refurbishing and demolition for erecting new buildings at the site. Taking into account the fact that the results of sustainability philosophy cannot be seen immediately and require consideration of the long-term consequences, the effects of the throw-away approach currently used by the Iranian built assets industry will be noticeable in the future. Even recognizing the importance of sustainability consideration, due to the low clients’ demands, the construction professionals can implement these principles only at the starting stage of their projects because due to their expensiveness, clients mostly abandon their implementation at the execution stages by substituting the with cheaper but not sustainable alternatives. Along with the economical aspect, the failure of the educational and research institutions to give serious consideration to the sustainability issues contributes to the throw-away philosophy implemented by the construction professionals. Another significant aspect which can be regarded as the barrier to making the built asset industry more sustainable is the lack of the socially constructed policies familiar to the architecture professionals and base upon the indigenous culture and consequently applicable to the Iranian realities.

The paper concludes the need for Iranian policy makers to develop socially constructed policies which provide strategic, tactical and operational support to all levels of Iranian society that the build a symbiotic relationship between people, the built environment they occupy, and its impact on the environment.


With the growing recognition of the importance of balancing the economical, social and environmental consideration s for adopting the most appropriate strategies, the sustainability philosophy has become a common practice in modern countries. Still, due to the peculiarities of the socio-economic climate and indigenous culture, becoming more sustainable has become a challenge for the Iranian built environment. This paper will examine the issues related to the sustainability awareness and attitudes in Tehran building stakeholders and graduates with architectural background.

Guidelines for papers/abstracts

Building life cycle

The term of economic life denotes the period of time within which the equipment is regarded as economically viable and has the lowest annual cost as compared to any alternatives, including reusing, refurbishing or displacement (Taylor, 1980; Aikivuori, 1996). Despite the significance of the economic factors for estimating the costs of possible improvements versus the demolition decisions, due to the significant impact of the use phase of buildings upon the environment, the economic perspective is insufficient for selecting the most appropriate solution and the ideas of sustainability need to be considered for balancing the conservation and development approaches (Rodwell, 2007).

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Buildings require constant investments which in their turn undergo gradual depreciation due to the processes of building obsolescence (Bryson, 1997). The owners of obsolete buildings implement the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) applications for estimating the life expectancy of buildings and deciding between re-using and demolishing (Bradley and Kohler, 2007). Previously, buildings perceived as obsolete were often demolished prematurely, but currently there are signs of changes in this mindset with the shift towards reusing as a prominent strategy (Douglas, 2002; Ball, 2002; Latham, 2000; Langston et al, 2007; Love, 2009). Kendall (1999) noted that the issues of determining the existing failures and scheduling the refurbishments need to be addressed effectively by the occupants for extending the building lifecycle by stabilizing the constructions and implementing new technologies. The mutual relation between the building’s performance and the occupants’ actions is an influential variable affecting the building lifecycle (Jelsma et al, 2003; Norman and Draper, 1986; Kiaie et al, 2010). The interplay of technology and users’ behavior is important for achieving the goals of users’ satisfaction and effective technical operation which are obscured by numerous problems (Aune et al, 2009).

Thus, the awareness of designers, engineers and owners on the maintenance approaches and sustainability issues are crucial for improving their ability to control the environmental parameters (Rowe and Dinn, 1999; Slater, 1995; Fisk, 2002; Leaman and Boardass, 1999; Heerwagen, 2000).

Maintenance approaches

Maintenance service is a generic term used to define the amount of works including both planned and unplanned repairs and additions which need to be undertaken for retaining the acceptable standard of a built asset and delaying its gradual deterioration.

According to the definition of the British Standards, maintenance combines the application of management, finance and engineering principles for maximizing the building life cycles (Hutchenson, 1994). Regardless of the growing recognition of maintenance as the best way for balancing the energy consumption and the users’ comfort (Thompson, 1994), built asset owners still neglect the principles of maintenance and sustainable development, waiting until the things go wrong before acting and wasting the available resources (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987).

Built environment maintenance is a cost driven activity depending upon the assessment of the asset condition for determining the deficits and possible improvements (Dann, 1999; Umeadi and Jones, 2003; Cigolini et al, 2008). According to the strategy offered by Jones et al (2010), the maintenance principles need to be considered at the design stage for keeping the asset unimpaired in future and minimizing the obsolescence risks.

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According to the model offered by Finch (1996), the role of maintenance is rendering the asset to its prior condition for the purposes of its legislative compliance with the standards and fulfillment of the initial functions. This model was reconsidered by Jones (2002) who noted that the maintenance cycles (a to d) repeat before the moment when obsolescence gap is too broad and the building has to be either refurbished or demolished (Figure 2.1).

The above-discussed maintenance model is not applied in Tehran where the preference is given to a throw-away unsustainable approach to buildings which not only causes the socio-economic problems, but also has adverse environmental impacts. The development of maintenance culture and built environment industry through the integration of the maintenance and refurbishment into the initial stages of building life cycles and educational programs is crucial for overcoming these problems.

Sustainable development theories

According to the definition of the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987), the main goal of sustainable development is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Crane and Matten (2007) pointed out at the environmental, economic and social considerations as the main components of sustainability which are also referred to as the triple-bottom line. This paper discusses the importance of establishing the win-win scenario between these three dimensions within Iran built environment context.

Taking into account the data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2003) according to which buildings are responsible for 40% of waste and 40% of air emissions and consumption of 32% of the world’s resources, measures need to be taken for adopting the sustainability philosophy by the Iranian built environment industry. Leal Filho (1999) noted that one of the possible solutions is enhancing the awareness which is supposed to result in the improved acceptance of sustainability principles. Choudhury and Korvin (2001) admitted that educational institutions and public policies play an important role in the optimal resource allocation.

Taking into account the fact that the positive effects of sustainability cannot be seen immediately (Hodges 2005), the sustainability principles should be viewed in the context of their long-term consequences as the driving principle for the local, national and planetary decision making (Matson & Carasso, 1998).

Iran built environment conditions

With population of more than 13 million people, Tehran attracts immigrants from all over Iran which increases city’s housing stock. According to the data of the Iranian Parliament Energy Department, about 75% of buildings in Tehran were constructed by private engineers, while the residential sector is responsible for 66% of total energy consumption.

Implementing a throw-away approach to building assets, Iranian building owners demolish between 1.5% and 2.2% of buildings which are no more than 20-30 years, but are perceived as obsolete due to ageing and poor maintenance (MRU, 1994 a; Katouzian, 2004). Aune, Berker and Bye (2008) have argued that maintenance and regular inspection are needed for improving the building systems efficiency in Tehran and preventing their premature failure which is hazardous for the environmental, social and economic spheres (Hargreaves, 2004).

The European sustainability model can be inappropriate for built asset industry of Iran as the country of a Third World Economy. Moreover, the term ‘sustainability’ has no equivalents in the Farsi and Arabic languages. Thus, the measures taken for adopting the sustainability philosophy require consideration of the unique Iranian built environment conditions.

Case Studies


The primary methodology used in this survey includes two structured interviews, with the first set of 24 interviews conducted with built environment stakeholders and the second set of 20 interviews involving 20 graduates with architecture educational background.

The first set of interviews covered the issues of the role of innovative technologies and maintenance strategies in development of public policies and the most influential aspects affecting the building performance and maintenance decisions.

The second set of interviews concerned the place of sustainability knowledge in Iranian educational programs, the quality of the education on sustainability for the construction professions in Iran and the importance of implementing the maintenance strategies in practice as perceived by the graduates.

First interview results

In contrast to the efforts of the Western facility managers who implement the maintenance strategies, little attention is paid to building performance/maintenance and preservation of quality architectural buildings in Tehran. The results of the interviewees from the first set conducted with built environment stakeholders clearly demonstrate the lack of maintenance, refurbishment strategies and sustainability philosophy in Iran. There are no proper government regulations for controlling the application of the maintenance principles towards the construction and refurbishment of buildings, while even the existing rules are neglected by most citizens.

With the absence of the second-hand building market and the building insurance in Iran, the Iranian building owners lack motivation for refurbishment and give preference to premature demolition decisions. According to the interviewees’ responses, the Iranian construction industry lacks a professional structure and proper monitoring procedures which make the time and cost the major drivers of the construction process. Another common feature of the Iranian construction industry pointed out by the respondents is the lack of interest in innovation, design and construction quality which was attributed to the move of the semi-skilled workforce as the result of the increased wages for the skilled workers.

The accelerated migration processes had positive and negative implications for the built environment in Tehran. On the one hand, due to the increased population, 2 to 3 storey buildings which were mostly less than 20 years were demolished and replaced with 8 storey or even higher constructions without giving proper consideration to the city infrastructure. On the other hand, about 75% of new buildings were financed through the oil exportation, and investments into built assets became popular among wealthy people. Regardless of the economical buoyancy of the construction sector, it depends mostly upon the private investors and lacks governmental regulation. Within the recent years, there was a growing interest in sustainability issues in Iranian mass media and research establishments, which however was not shared by built environment professionals. The results of these interviews demonstrate that the scope of the sustainability problem in Tehran exceeds the socio-economic situation in the country and roots in the indigenous culture and public consciousness.

The importance of the Iranian culture for affecting the people’s attitudes towards maintenance was recognized by the twenty out of twenty-four interviewees, while the rest four respondents offered adopting the experience of the Arabic Countries. Regardless of the recent environmental debates in Iran, the sustainability philosophy does not receive wide acceptance and the importance of implementing the maintenance strategies is underestimated by the majority of building occupiers and managers. Further research is required for exploring the main precursors of the lack of attention towards maintenance and sustainability in the built asset culture of Iran, including the drawbacks of educational programs.

Second Interview results

For the purpose of establishing the link between the level of Iranian sustainability culture and the quality of architectural educational programs, the second interviews were conducted with the graduates who could evaluate not only the effectiveness of their training on sustainability issues, but also its applicability for the Iranian built environment industry. The questions of the second interview were intended to identify not the level of the respondents’ actual awareness in sustainability issues and maintenance strategies, but rather their subjective perception of the place of the sustainability courses in the educational programs, the importance of giving to them proper consideration and the opportunities for implementing the acquired knowledge in their professional practice.

Although the amount of education received by the second group of interviewees including the recent graduates aged 24-34 years with architectural degrees depended upon their university program, all 20 of them admitted that there was no a separate sustainability course and they came across the sustainability issues while exploring the problems of climate changes. All 20 graduates responded that they have never seen Iranian sources on sustainability; about 80% of their course materials on sustainability were in English, while the remaining 20% were translated from the English books or articles. According to the results of the 1-10 scale, the interviewees rated the importance of sustainability principles in daily projects as the highest priority (7.9), while the low rates for the other issues, including the regularity of using the sustainability theories in educational programs (rated with 4.5), clients’ demands of sustainability consideration for their projects (3.2) and public policies and regulations for enforcing the sustainability philosophy can be regarded as the main hurdles for the achievement of the first goal which was recognized as important by the majority of respondents.

With the lack of the Iranian and Persian sources on sustainability issues, the scarce materials which could be found in the courses on the related subjects were not adapted to the Iranian built environment. Another drawback of the Iranian education programs for the construction professionals as it was recognized by the respondents is the gap between the sustainable knowledge received at school and the real practice. Some clients ask the architects and engineers to consider the sustainability issues in their initial reports because consider them as prestigious, but due to their expensiveness, the sustainability and maintenance strategies are usually cancelled at the execution stages. 15 out of 20 respondents are not familiar with the public policies on sustainability, while the rest of them consider the existing regulations as insufficient for fostering the implementation of the sustainability principles in Iranian practice. All 20 interviewees give preference to the English sources on sustainability though their English level is not higher than intermediate and 12 of 20 interviewees use the Google translator, which can distort the initial meaning of the articles.

The results of the interviews have revealed the interdependence between the level of sustainability culture in the Iranian community and quality of educational programs. On the one hand, the lack of attention towards the maintenance strategies in education is predetermined with the throw away philosophy dominating in the Iranian built asset sector. On the other hand, the architecture professionals who are deprived of opportunities for obtaining proper knowledge on the environmental implications of the built infrastructure and the existing maintenance strategies can underestimate the importance of communicating the sustainability ideas to their clients and lack competence for applying these principles in the Iranian practice. Thus, as it can be seen from the results of the second interviews, education plays an important role in transforming the sustainability culture in the Iranian built asset industry, but requires support of the government policies because the cultural and educational dimensions need to be aligned for achieving the end purpose of adopting the sustainability philosophy.


First Interviews

Arditi and Nawakorawit (1999) have argued that development of maintenance programs requires effective communication between building managers and users which would improve the performance of the Tehran built assets, but affect the stakeholders’ interests at the same time. According to the results of the first interview, the adoption of the sustainability philosophy requires significant changes at all levels of the Iranian society because the lack of proper educational programs and public policies were influential factors which along with the economic and political climate caused the failure of the maintenance sector in the country. Hirsch (1997) noted that heredity was additional factor affecting the Teheran’s’ behavior, while according to the study by Altschuler and Gusella (2009) the behavior repeating for 10 generations can be regarded as a part of the person’s genetic makeup. It explains the importance of cultural changes for the adoption of sustainability philosophy by the Iranian built environment and achievement of economical goals as it was outlined by Myrdal (1958). Hirsch (1997); Latour et al (1994) have argued that people are inclined to follow the socially-constructed rules, pointing at the importance of public policies in establishing the sustainability principles in the Iranian built environment. The problem of the lacking concepts of the building obsolescence, maintenance strategies and the sustainable development in the Iranian culture should be addressed by not only the built environment professionals, but also the community in general for understanding the role of refurbishment and maintenance in extending the building lifecycle and protecting the built environment.

The lack of the socially built policies can be regarded as one of the main precursors for the failure of the sustainability culture in the Iranian built industry. Apart from the insufficiency of the existing policies for transforming the dominating throw away approach to the built asset environment, most of the existing policies are not accepted by the construction professionals and not accepted by the building owners. The goal of developing effective policies can be achieved through the community involvement into their planning and implementation, education and training of not only professionals with architecture background, but also the rest of the population which can participate in making refurbishment or demolition decisions. Taking into account the impact of the socioeconomic situation upon the dominating approach in the built asset industry in Tehran, it can be stated that the implementation of socially structured policies would allow drawing the public attention to the sustainability issues, enhancing the research activity for adapting the world sustainability theories to the Iranian context, integrating them into the educational programs and narrowing the gap between theoretical knowledge received at educational institutions and actual practice.

Second Interviews

Predetermined with the lack of socially structured policies along with the peculiarities of the socio-economic situation in the country, the drawbacks of educational system contribute to the failure of sustainability principles within the Iranian built asset environment. Apart from the absence of separate sustainability courses in the architecture programs, the existing knowledge lacks consideration of the Iranian culture and environment and remains a prestigious tendency which cannot be applied into practice.

Pech (2009) has argued that the most significant drawback of an educational program is the failure to keep pace with change. According to the results of the interviews, most architecture programs in Iran lacking consideration of sustainability philosophy can be regarded as obsolete and requiring transformation. While the main rationale for the implementation of the throw away approach to built assets combines the limitations of the economical perspective to decision making and national traditions, consideration of sustainability philosophy could become an effective alternative for the built asset sector in Iran. However, the blind adoption of the foreign innovations is inappropriate and requires consideration of peculiarities of the Iranian culture and the specific needs of the Iranian society (Leslie and Kargon, 2006). Nasr (1973) emphasized the importance of creating the indigenous technology in Iran as opposed to the idea of copying the Western model. Dinpanah and Lashgarara (2008); Heyd (2005) pointed out at the consideration of the local cultural matrices and indigenous knowledge along with the community involvement and strong leadership as the aspects crucial for the transformation of the local culture and adoption of sustainability philosophy. The example from the study by Roisseau and Chen (2001) discusses the changes to be made in the Chinese educational programs for achieving the goals of social cohesion and cultural transformation for the adoption of the sustainability philosophy is relevant to supporting the idea of creating indigenous Iranian sustainability knowledge which would be accepted by the built asset professionals and owners and could be applied into the actual practice. Thaman (2002) has argued that educational programs would be insufficient for making the necessary changes and the efforts of governments and research organizations along with proper translations of the sustainability materials into the local languages is crucial for achieving the goals of integrating the principles of sustainable development into the Iranian built environment.

Recognizing the negative implications of the throw away approach to the built asset heritage in Iranian architecture professionals, the main precursors of the problem should be viewed in their complexity for selecting the most effective transformation strategies and making the necessary improvements. As it has been mentioned previously, national culture plays an important role in forming the attitudes towards the appropriateness of sustainability knowledge. However, there are factors, including the effectiveness of educational programs, community involvement, socially structured policies and relevance of sustainability knowledge to the national context which can affect the process of cultural transformation. Thus, only adapting the sustainability knowledge to the peculiarities of the Iranian culture and socio-economic situation, organizing effective sustainability courses at architecture educational institutions and developing socially structured policies would allow making the Iranian built asset environment more sustainable.


As it can be seen from the literature review and the results of the interviews, the main barriers to adopting the innovations, maintenance strategies and principles of sustainable development by the Iranian built environment include the lack of the socially structured policies, effective educational programs and sustainability culture.

According to the studies by Blank (1996), Poon and Yip (2005), the sustainability education is crucial for establishing the sustainability culture among the stakeholders in the Iranian construction industry. The consideration of the indigenous culture, socially constructed policies and educational programs are significant for enhancing the sustainability knowledge in construction professionals and narrowing the gap between their theoretical knowledge and Iranian practice.

As it can be seen from the results of the first interviews, consideration of national culture and indigenous knowledge is crucial for shaping the attitudes towards the sustainability principles in the built asset users and professionals. The development of successful policies requires community involvement into planning and enhancing their awareness on the existing policies. The achievement of this goal of increasing the acceptance of sustainability principles through transforming the national culture requires restructuring of the educational programs and incorporating the sustainability issues into the courses for architecture professionals who in their turn could communicate the sustainability ideas to the building owners and users. The results of the second interviews are valuable for detecting the main deficiencies in the educational programs and identifying the measures which need to be taken for filling these gaps. However, taking into account the fact that the inconsistencies in the educational programs are explained with the irrelevance of sustainability knowledge for the Iranian culture and professional practice of built asset professionals, it can be stated that not only effective educational courses are needed for transforming the national culture and shaping proper attitudes, but also the cultural peculiarities should be considered for adapting the existing knowledge to the needs of the Iranian built asset industry and increasing the effectiveness of professional training. In general, it can be concluded that adoption of sustainability philosophy by the Iranian built asset industry would be possible on the condition of aligning the culture and educational aspects.


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