Why Architects should be more Sustainably Conscious
Common Misconceptions – What is “Green” Building?
The terms ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ design are often used interchangeably as if referring to similar building standards and environmental outputs. The scope of sustainable design, however, covers a far greater, more detailed scope of considerations, analysis, and prerequisites than that of green building. Unfortunately, sustainability is often devalued and distorted due to the commercialisation and marketing of the green ‘movement’.
The recognition of a building’s design as ‘green’ is based solely on its ability to reduce harmful impacts on the environment using more efficient, active, energy systems. The implementation of these technologies provides its users with energy at a far lower cost through renewable sources (e.g. installation of solar panels and wind turbines). However, in turn, that lower cost tends to make tenants less mindful of their energy use. This increases efficiency, lowering costs and increasing demand and rate of consumption – a phenomenon known as “Jevons” Paradox. The design of green buildings is concerned with the methods of energy supply once constructed and in full operation, while the impacts of pre- and post- construction are ignored. In this way, it misses the past and future component of environmental consciousness, as well as the ‘people factor’ of architecture.
Sustainable Design and the 3P’s: People, Planet, and Profit
“As an architect, you design for the present, with an awareness of the past, for a future which is essentially unknown” – Norman Foster
Sustainable design encompasses all elements of the environment within the past, present, and future. Often referred to as the ‘triple bottom line’ method or TBL, it looks at a building’s environmental impact as it pertains to the social (structure and networks), environment (built and natural), and economic situation of its context. To achieve sustainability in architecture we must consider the concept of energy in this manner – more broadly, covering all its consequential and embodied factors.
Hidden Energy Consumption – How Green becomes Mean
Mainstream green technologies and methods often embody many hidden energy expenditures which negate its initial green agenda. Examples of these situations are:
Relocating a company’s headquarters to a new ‘green’ building, further from access to public transport and outside of the general area of employee residents requires new embodied energy due to travel alone. This is known as “transportation energy intensity” and is capable of erasing the energy gains of the new building.
Using construction materials such as bamboo flooring may be considered ‘green’ as it is a renewable source. However, the amount of fuel consumed, and pollution caused by the transport of this item by ships and trucks from far out places like China invalidate its stance as a sustainable material as it now becomes a contributing factor to global climate change.
Bottom-line – Sustainable > Green
This goes to show that we cannot continue to believe we are being ‘environmentally conscious’ when we continue to exclude the TBL method and pre- and post-performance factor from the equation. If our means of material sourcing, construction methods and predicted lifecycle and productivity of a building are mediocre, we cannot lace the issue with external energy systems and call our actions sustainable. This counterproductively, if anything, brings the overall energy consumption to an equilibrium rather than combatting climate change. With buildings producing more than half of the world’s carbon output, their designers must shoulder more responsibility.
Here are a few considerations to bear in mind when attempting to achieve sustainable design:
- material sourcing: using local materials or those which require minimum transport energy
- up-cycling building materials
- site and energy sensitive construction methods
- utilizing the natural environment: e.g. planting trees for solar shading, using
- green roofs for insulation, rainwater collection
- considering user transport routes and access
- proper strategic arrangement of windows and rooms that can substantially reduce
- the need for artificial light, or expensive high-end window treatments – therefore reducing economic costs.
- using reclaimed land
- restoration projects/repurposing existing buildings
- considering contextual economic status – building for necessity, not overconsumption
- flexibility – designing spaces that can be adapted through time with change in purpose and owners
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