When office workers sat down at their desks in the new Bloomberg European headquarters in 2017, they weren’t just working in a regular office. Located in central London, the building’s architects claim it is the world’s most sustainable office building. It features half a million LED lights which will cut energy usage by 40%, conserves rainwater collected on the roof and creates its own power onsite which could cut CO2 emissions by up to 750 tonnes per year. The Bloomberg building is just one of the many famous sustainable architecture developments completed in recent years.
A sustainable high-rise building that integrates greenery.Bloomberg’s European HQ is part of a global trend towards more environmentally friendly building. As the need for a rapid response to climate change is becoming ever clearer, more and more firms are implementing strategies for sustainable architecture. How is this playing out in the construction industry?
Sustainable architecture definition
Sustainable architecture is an approach to design which aims to minimise or eliminate any environmental damage caused by construction and throughout a building’s lifecycle. It incorporates a number of interrelated concepts, including energy usage, environmentally-friendly materials, designing ‘with nature’ and also encourages sustainable lifestyles by end-users.
Sustainable buildings are not new. For most of human history, most buildings were highly sustainable, using only locally sourced materials. However, a rapidly expanding global population and demand for more comfortable homes in the 20th Century led to many building practices which are damaging to the environment. However, in recent decades we have seen ever more architecture firms incorporate sustainability into their designs.
Although sustainable architecture is to be welcomed, it has sometimes come in for the criticism of ‘greenwashing’. In these cases, designers have overexaggerated environmental benefits. We should interrogate all “green” claims, and architects and contractors need to prepare to provide supporting data.
Why do we need sustainable architecture?
The construction industry today has a serious impact on the natural environment. Studies have shown that:
- Around half of the UK’s CO2 emissions come from buildings
- Almost half of waste in the world’s landfills comes from the construction sector
- Construction generates a quarter of air pollution and 40% of drinking water pollution
- The global construction industry uses 40% of the world’s energy
As a result, we need strategies for sustainable architecture in order to address these issues. However, this is about much more than simply conducting environmental impact assessments. Instead, it requires a whole new mindset across the construction industry. In short, everyone from architects to contractors needs to find multiple ways to reduce waste and improve energy efficiency.
Strategies for sustainability
As architects, engineers and designers have become increasingly conscious of the environmental impact of building, a variety of national and international standards have been developed to encourage more sustainable design. Perhaps the most widely used standard in the UK is the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) which independently gives buildings a green rating.
That said, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach – different strategies will be appropriate in different settings. Some of the most common techniques and strategies for sustainable architecture include:
This is about designing buildings which use as little energy as possible. Many new buildings are already highly energy-efficient and include features like triple glazing on windows, awnings and claddings that provide shade and cooling (thereby eliminating the need for HVAC systems), use of appropriate insulation materials and more.
Electricity and heat are both cheaper and cause less ecological damage if you produce them as close as possible to the user. Sustainable buildings increasingly use energy from solar panels on their roofs, local wind turbines, ground source heat pumps, and more.
Renewable or sustainable materials
Sustainable architecture emphasises the use of renewable sources of building materials. This includes sustainably sourced wood, low carbon footprint alternatives to cement, recycled construction materials or the intentional use of reusable materials that experts can extract when demolishing the building.
Better waste management
Buildings designed to encourage users to minimise waste are another way to approach sustainability. This might include the use of on-site anaerobic composters, vacuum toilets (like those found on aeroplanes) to reduce water usage. Alternatively, ‘grey water’ collection is another efficient use of waste, reusing water from kitchen sinks on plant beds, for example.
Encouraging more eco-friendly living
Sustainable design is also about encouraging residents to reduce their carbon footprints. A housing development might remove parking spaces, provide ample free bicycle storage or work with the local council to improve connections to bus routes.
Using the most energy-efficient technology
Throughout the building’s lifecycle, sustainable architecture emphasises using technology that reduces waste and energy. That might be the use of BIM software to improve efficiency, site inspection tools that help identify and fix problems without unnecessary driving and travel or the choice of LED lightbulbs that use far less energy than traditional lighting.
A sustainably designed building is also one that complements and supports surrounding ecosystems, rather than damaging them. This might include features like ‘living walls’ and roof gardens that provide flowers for pollinators. It might also include the use of bioswales around buildings and other features which encourage rainwater to drain into the water basin rather than running into drains.
An innovative example
There are many famous sustainable architecture projects around the world, but one recent standout is the HoHo Vienna, the world’s tallest wooden high rise. Located in Austria’s capital, the 84-metre tall structure includes a hotel, apartments and office space. Though it might look like any other building externally, it’s made largely from renewable fir wood.
Besides using an authentically renewable building material, the structure also supports nature. Austria’s forests produce some 30 million cubic metres of timber each year, of with 26 million are logged. This means an additional 4 million cubic metres of timber are ‘added’ to the forest each year, thereby capturing more CO2. This means that designing wooden buildings like HoHo Vienna could help combat climate change directly.
The building’s developers were also keen to use the latest technologies to improve efficiency. For instance, the main contractor on the project used PlanRadar to communicate with workers about mistakes. As a result, the team solved problems quickly, travelled less and avoided unnecessary over-ordering of materials, thereby reducing waste on the project.
A new approach for architecture
The growing number of strategies for sustainable architecture is certainly a welcome development and provides inspiration for a future where construction works with nature, rather than against it. While there is still much to do before sustainable architecture becomes the norm, there is more guidance, know-how and tools available than ever. As a result, architects can increasingly put sustainability at the heart of their designs.
PlanRadar was founded in 2013 and provides innovative mobile-first software solutions to the construction and real estate industries. Our app is available on all iOS, Android and Windows devices. So far it has helped more than 7,000 customers in over 44 countries digitise their workflow.