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Sustainable Architecture:

What Is It and How Do We Achieve It?

Sustainability is a buzzword that has already infiltrated many industries. With construction being a major contributor in global energy consumption, it is then no surprise that sustainable architecture has become a leading consideration in how buildings and cities are being built.

Now, architects are challenged not only in crafting a design that excels in form and function, but also in being able to come up with integrated solutions that take into account environmental factors.

To better understand this concept. It’s important to discuss what sustainability in architecture really means.

What is sustainable architecture?

William Murphy on Flickr

The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainability as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

When applying this complex concept to architecture, it then refers to design that creates healthy living environments while aiming to minimise negative environmental impacts, energy consumption, and use of human resources.

Sustainable architecture is reflected in a building’s materials, construction methods, resource use and design in general. The design must also facilitate sustainable operation during the building life cycle, including its ultimate disposal. While it has to be functional and aesthetically superior, the space has to be constructed with the mind-set of achieving long-term energy and resource efficiency.

Sustainable architecture is also referred to as green architecture or environmental architecture. It challenges architects to produce smart designs and use available technologies to ensure that structures generate minimal harmful effects to the ecosystem and the communities.

If you are not from the construction world, it may be difficult to get your head around this concept so giving an over simplistic example at this stage may be necessary.

Imagine that there is a plot of land that you think is conveniently located for you to build your house. The problem, however, is that there are 100 trees planted on it and that these trees are the last of their kind. If sustainability is not a concern, what you’ll probably do is cut down all the trees to clear the space and use all the lumber to build your house – not caring if nobody else gets the chance to use the same kind of trees in the future.

This is the opposite of sustainable architecture. Sustainable architecture means putting environmental factors into consideration:

  • Is there a nearby piece of land you can use instead?
  • How can you use some of the wood from the trees without completely depleting the entire plantation so others can also benefit?
  • Could you perhaps still build your house in the space without cutting down all the trees?

These are just some factors that should be considered when approaching the sustainable concept in design and construction. Sustainable architecture needs to recognise the existing natural resources and environmental conditions in the construction site and how to incorporate these into the build.

Why is sustainable architecture important?

Cleantechnica

“Buildings and construction account for more than 35% of global final energy use and nearly 40% of energy-related CO2 emissions.”

-UN Environment, Global Status Report 2017

While metropolises are continuously expanding, the Earth itself is not getting any bigger. This growth has a huge impact to the environment because the process of developing new habitats for our communities constantly requires a huge chunk of our natural resources. The Earth is not an unlimited well that can replenish itself to match the pace of modernisation.

According to the UN Environment Global Status Report 2017, building and construction account for more than 35% of global final energy use and for nearly 40% of energy-related CO2 emissions. While these numbers are lower than those in 2010 due to a higher awareness regarding sustainability, there’s still a long way to go.

Designing a building’s form and appearance can no longer be carried out in isolation. Building services, fabric and controlled fittings are now all intrinsically linked. A delicate balance now needs to be made between a building’s form, function and interactions with its surrounding environment to be considered sustainable development.

In implementing sustainable architecture whether in new or old builds, there are accompanying environmental, economic and social benefits.

Environmental Benefits of Sustainable Architecture:

Economic Benefits of Sustainable Architecture:

  • Reduction in long-term costs and dependence on traditional energy sources
  • Improvement in productivity of inhabitants
  • Upgrade asset & property values
  • Competitive advantage

Social Benefits of Sustainable Architecture:

  • Improve the living conditions, health and comfort of inhabitants
  • Improve air and water quality
  • Minimise demand on local utility infrastructure

How to achieve a sustainable design?

Brad Kahn on Flickr

It is easy to throw around the term “sustainable design” when talking about a new construction project, but in reality, ensuring that a building design is indeed sustainable is a complex process.

There are several ways and means that have to be considered when designing a sustainable building which include materials, energy, resources, space planning, weather, and many other factors. It is a detail-oriented practice that requires experts who are in touch with the latest methodologies and techniques that are proven to be effective and cost-efficient at the same time.

The planning phase takes utmost importance. At the very early stages, architects who specialise in sustainability must create a game plan that incorporates environmental mindfulness into the various aspects of the construction process. They must be knowledgeable on how to maximise the use of innovative materials and advancements in construction to ensure that the end-result will be effective.

Voluntary sustainability standards are available to help assess and compare the level of sustainable design and construction a building achieves. In the UK projects can apply for a BREEAM Certification. This is an international scheme that provides independent third-party certification of the assessment of the sustainability performance of individual buildings, communities and infrastructure projects.

What this means is that in order to achieve the highest BREEAM sustainability standards, a property owner must make it a priority to consult with experts who can provide sustainability-related advice when undertaking a design and construction project.

Achieving the highest level of sustainability standard requires significant consultant involvement during the earliest RIBA Design stages to ensure sustainability issues are addressed and embedded with the project and not just an afterthought on the scheme.

Overcoming challenges in applying sustainable architecture

Brad Kahn on Flickr

Sustainable architecture benefits everyone – individuals, businesses, communities, the economy and the environment. It is true that more and more countries are leaning towards sustainability, but the progress achieved is still not able to keep up with the unceasing demand for resources.

There are also challenges that may hinder the advancement of sustainable architecture and one of the biggest obstacles is monetary cost. While a sustainable structure might save you more money in the long-term, there is still the common belief that sustainable materials and methods are way more expensive than traditional resources.

This is not always necessarily true, and that’s why involving sustainability experts early in the design process is a critical decision. Working with a design team that understands the complexities, demands, and challenges of constructing a sustainable building will be able to better offer proven solutions that can deliver both the required environmental benefits and cost-efficiency.

For expert advice on sustainable architecture, contact Barker Associates to find out how they help your project.