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Architecture principles for sustainability and vitality

Hans Nouwens
Feb 29, 2024

With the first and second blog in this series, we created a basic understanding of the multi-faceted concepts sustainability and vitality. In this edition we try to find some generic architecture principles that allows you as an architect to incorporate these illusive concepts.

Before delving into the principles, let’s revisit the distinction we made between the functional view and the construction view in the business-application-technology cascade. This deserves an explanation rooted in scientific principles.

Explaining function versus construction

In essence, a function isn’t an inherent attribute of an object; it’s the dynamic relationship between an object in its environment and the subject—a user driven by a specific need or purpose. Drawing from James Gibson’s work (1979), this relationship is termed an affordance, embodying a subjective connection perceived by the user. Simply put, a function encapsulates what a product does for a user.

The construction are the attributes, the objective properties of the object. This is what the product is. The construction realizes the functions. It’s crucial to note that a construction can never be directly derived from a function. Designing the construction is a creative, emergent, and iterative process rooted in the affordance.

Adding another layer to our understanding, we consider the distinction between requirements and architecture, eloquently outlined by Jan Hoogervorst (2018). Requirements articulate WHAT a user needs or desires, while architecture outlines HOW a product is poised to fulfill these requirements.

Collectively, these two distinctions give us four distinct categories, forming a robust framework for navigating the complexities of architecture in the realms of sustainability and vitality.

functionalWhat a user wants when using the objectHow the object should deliver this
constructionalWhat the user needs the object to beHow the object should be made
function / construction / requirements and architecture framework

This is the framework that underpins the function / construction cascade. In our initial blog of this series, we depicted this concept through a cascade model centered around an IT product. However, as we try to unearth principles for seamlessly integrating sustainability and vitality—regardless of specific use-cases and users—we find ourselves in a terrain where it is impossible to describe requirements. In this case its only relevant to describe the architecture. Both in terms of the function, and the construction.

Business service (function)
realized by business process (construction)
 served by application service (function)
  realized by application component (construction)
   served by Technology service (function)
business-application-technology cascade

In these examples we use the term “product”, meaning digital services and products, that is to be delivered to our customers.

Principles for ensuring sustainability

Principle 1Balance product and impact
StatementOur clients, and the general public demand sustainable and affordable products without causing long-term damage to the ecology.  
RationaleIn the functional view of the business service, we acknowledge that our product influence both the general public and clients. The challenge lies in finding a balance between creating a product that meets the needs of users, has minimal ecological impact, and remains economically viable.  
ImplicationsWe have to know our clients,our (perceived) client’s demands regarding the usage of our product.
(for example function, quality, experience, price, expected life-cycle, hence: repairability, reusability, recyclability)our (perceived) client’s concerns regarding the ecological impact of their usage by buying, consuming, or using our product.
(for example material resources, energy usage, emitting gasses, etc.)  
Key-actions  Establish boundaries for our product with the goal of ensuring maximal function and endurance, within the demands of the users. Establish boundaries for our product with the goal of ensuring minimal environmental impact, addressing our user’s concerns. Communicate transparently about our targets to keep the creating and using of the product with these boundaries.  

Principle 2Balance short- and long-term concerns for all resources
StatementWhen creating, maintaining, supporting, reusing, and recycling our product, we must find a balance between short-term objectives such as being frugal with natural resources and expenses, and qualities of the product (behavior) that allows for long-term usage.
RationaleThe business process, viewed from a construction perspective, is crucial for realizing the functional demands of all stakeholders. This construction utilizes resources such as employees, money, and materials, affecting both short and long-term perspectives. We must play a role in resource optimization, being frugal with materials and aligning the purposes of involved employees to enhance both efficiency and sustainability.  
ImplicationsWe have to be able to measure the impact of our product on the environment during its entire lifecycle.the costs of our resources, including a relevant part of its supply chain. the costs of our production processes. The happiness of our employees when being involved in our business processes.

Establish a cost structure and economic boundaries for every step in the product lifecycle. Investigate and scrutinize a relevant part of the supply chain. Be generous in scope and don’t ignore long-term effects. Analyze the moral effects on all stakeholders by creating an ethical impact matrix. Do not forget our own employees.  

Principle 3Balance completeness and resiliency of application services
StatementApplication services enable and support the business processes that deliver our product. Without them an efficient process cannot be executed. These services must be complete, but not over redundant. Ensure quality of the processes and processed information, and at the same time not restrict users too much. Allow for small variations of the process, without the need to change the application.  
RationaleWith the functional view of the application service, the demand for the digital support of the business processes is prescribed. The emphasis is on selecting and ensuring the completeness of these services while preventing unnecessary functionality to control costs and unnecessary use of resources. This aligns with the internal endurance perspective, focusing on the efficient use of resources within the organization. Organizations learn, processes change and develop variations to cope with an increasingly complex real-world usage. Changing application services takes a lot of time and resources.  
ImplicationsWe have to know what the construction of the business processes is that demand these application services. What existing process experience is available from employees that help us determine the truly needed functionality. What minimum services are needed.What existing (standard) services are available that can be reused or procured.What application services can potentially be decommissioned after creating the new services.  
Key-actionsInvolve experienced operational employees (the future application users) when analyzing the functional demand. Develop use cases that describe how employees will interact with the application. Apply an agile way of working. Do market research for existing application services.

Principle 4Balance efficient and effective development or procurement
StatementApplication services realize the application functions. They must be created both effective and efficient, resilient and at the same time, not demand too many IT resources. The information quality can be enforced by the application, but too much enforcing ignores the operational expertise and experience of the users to operate in a complex process.  
RationaleIn the construction view of the application component, we face the challenge of preventing overlap with multiple application constructions for single functions. Striking a balance between creating a single solution to support a business process and allowing room for creative usage is essential for fostering employee freedom and sustaining a dynamic workforce.  
ImplicationsWe have to be able design a system that makes use of employees’ operational experience, when (out)sourcing services, prevent introducing unnecessary (sub)services that
* cannot be disabled. scales for minimum usage, and allows for growth without redesigning.
* Makes good use of partners and (cloud) service providers.
* Prevents duplication by reusing existing application services.
* And does not create unnecessary and unwanted interdependencies (combinatory effects) that hinder evolution.
Key-actionsDesign a modular structure, based on modern development standards and a cloud-based deployment. Study and apply Normalized Systems theory.  

Principle 5Balance cost-effectiveness and durability with technology services
StatementThe technology services support the development and execution of the application realization. These services must provide a cost-effective base for the deployment of the applications, ensuring controlled costs, good performance, and redundant services.
RationaleIn the functional view of the technology service, we must ensure the effectiveness of devices and communication networks while being mindful of resource usage, particularly energy. The need for a balanced approach arises, considering both cost-effectiveness and redundancy to sustain application services and business processes in case of failures.  
ImplicationsWe must know how to exploit the qualities of technology services that allows for our need for redundancy, the cost structure by the hosting partner, existing hosting partners such as cloud service providers, how to be able to execute an effective procurement process, what your hosting providers resources usage is: energy, energy sources, water, CO2 etc.
Key-actionsUse technology services standards that makes good use of partners and (cloud) service providers. Establish boundaries for costs. Make these costs integral part of an endurable business case.  

Principles for promoting vitality.

Principle 6We share a common purpose, values, and culture
StatementWe are this enterprise because of our shared purpose. Our shared culture guides our behavior that shapes the processes and systems we design and use. Our systems and processes guide our behavior that affects our share culture.
RationaleThe functional governance view is sharing a common purpose, infusing vitality into our culture, fostering motivation, effectiveness, and loyalty among employees while sustaining our organization’s ability to adapt, innovate, and thrive.  
ImplicationsDiscovering a shared purpose and utilizing it as the foundation for culture takes time and effort. The shared purpose must be explicitly defined, maintained and published. The shared values must be explicitly defined, maintained and published. New and experienced employees must learn about the existing purpose, values, and culture. And must be given the opportunity to contribute.
Key-actionsEstablish a shared, explicit common purpose that resonates throughout the organization. Ensure alignment with values that operationalize this purpose. Stimulate and award aligned behavior.  

Principle 7We do decision-making as transparent as possible
StatementOur shared culture guides our behavior that shapes the processes and systems we design and use. Our systems and processes guide our behavior that affects our share culture. Essential for our way of working is making decisions as transparent as possible.
RationaleThe constructional governance view is based on making decision-making processes as transparent as possible. This enables individuals to understand the rationale behind functions and organizational structures. Without this transparency, motivation dwindles, and people tend to lose sight of the purpose behind their roles and the rationale for their existence in our enterprise.  
ImplicationsDecision-making should be based on explicitly designed processes. Announced, to ensure equal opportunity to contribute. Decisions should be recorded and published as much is possible without conflicting with personal values, employee agreements, client and supplier values.  
Key-actionsDesign decision-making processes that continuously contribute to behavior that is aligned with our shared values. Create an enterprise-public decision register that shows the contribution of these decisions to our purpose.  

Together these principles, if indeed used to guide your decision-making, should positively contribute to the sustainability and vitality of your organization.

A disclaimer: these principles are based on my basic understanding of the complex and multi-faceted concepts sustainability and vitality. The method of reasoning, and the framework of describing are based on proven scientific principles. However, the resulting principles are not. They should be seen as examples and may serve as inspiration to create your own principles, based on your own convictions and your enterprise values.


One of the comments on the first part of this blog series was about the difference between a sustainable architect, versus a sustainable architecture. This bonus is our next and final part of this series.

When writing and reviewing the term balancing reappeared several times. In hindsight not surprisingly, but still unexpected. So, what do you think of these example principles? Do you recognize the four categories of principles? Can you use these to create your own? Please let me know.

Hans Nouwens – February 2024.


Gibson, James J. (1979). “The Theory of Affordances”. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boulder, Colorado: Taylor & Francis. pp. 119–137. ISBN 978-1-84872-577-5.

Hoogervorst, J. A. P. (2018). Practicing Enterprise Governance and Enterprise Engineering. Springer International Publishing.

About the author

Enterprise Architect | Netherlands
Hans Nouwens is an experienced enterprise architect with 20+ years of practical experience in the field of ICT, infused with rigorous academic learning. He works as an architect and trusted advisor, mainly for Higher Education institutes.

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