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Long-haul thinking for building designers

Prediction has become a significant theme in sustainable design – not least because of the growing reliance on performance modelling software to inform design choices and validate sustainable design decisions. But what do you do when you need to think further ahead? Get Sust investigates.

Predicting the future is a popular pastime in January. For a few weeks at the beginning of a new year, the air buzzes with talk of resolutions, and our newspapers rustle with predictions for the year ahead. Most New Year resolutions are small-scale personal promises (often to drink less and exercise more), doomed, as we full-well know, to early failure. But two news items at the start of 2012 lend a new perspective to the topics of 'resolve' and 'predict'.

The first is the UK government's long-awaited resolution that it will go ahead and build 'HS2', the high-speed rail link that will first bring Birmingham 20 minutes closer to London by 2026, then continue northbound in a yet-to-be-confirmed track across the Pennines. The second is the much less widely discussed 40th anniversary of the 'death of Modern Architecture' which, according to architectural historian Charles Jenks, was when the bulldozers moved in on the Pruitt–Igoe Modernist housing project in St. Louis, USA, in 1972.

There is, and will continue to be, a heated debate over the environmental and social impacts of the decision to build HS2 (which goes far beyond the scope of this article), but in the context of 'prediction' it is the argument over the economic and business case that sticks out. How can they confidently predict the economic benefits this project will bring? How can they know whether, in 20-odd years time, business people will still be travelling to meetings in such numbers? Won't information and communications technology have dramatically changed the way we all work by then?

The answer is, of course, that they can't predict such things – at least, not with much degree of certainty. But that's not a reason to call the whole thing off.

Massive multi-billion-pound infrastructure projects aside, the tendency to seek certainty and for evidence-based decision-making is an emerging issue for the wider construction sector too.

So far, efforts to increase the energy efficiency and sustainability of our building stock have primarily focused on the short-term. This is appropriate, given the urgent need to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases and to avoid depletion of natural resources. Thus we have seen new standards and targets introduced, Building Regulations amended, a wave of design tools aimed at modelling building performance and a slowly growing number of post-occupancy studies to assess and report on outcomes with the aim of feeding back lessons into the design process.

Many of the sustainable buildings on the drawing board today, though, will still be around in 50 or more years' time and the one thing that we can say with certainty is that we don't know what sort of challenges the environment will be throwing at them.

Where once we may have looked to the past to inspire our designs and inform our plans for the future, everything these days is unknown territory – from financial systems to seasonal weather patterns. And where construction materials and methods have been adopted and established over centuries of practical testing, we are now facing the likelihood that even the behaviour of the ground the buildings stand on cannot adequately be predicted. It is good news, then, that there are some construction professionals already getting to grips with long-haul thinking.

Bill Gething is one of a number of sustainable design experts engaged in the difficult task of encouraging fellow designers – and, more importantly, their clients – to ensure that current designs can meet or adapt to future climates.

"Trying to convince clients to design for future climates is very difficult. It is a much more difficult sell than mitigation," says Gething, who is currently writing a book that will review and analyse the outcomes of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) project Design for future climate: Adapting buildings which began in the summer of 2010.

The TSB provided £2.5 million to fund some 26 projects in the first year, and a further £2.4 million earmarked for 24 projects that were given the go-ahead in 2011.

The competition offered up to £100,000 to clients or design teams so they could develop adaptation strategies for new-build and refurbishment projects that were at the pre-planning or detailed design stage, or which were already on site. Successful projects needed to have already made a commitment to sustainability and low-impact design, for instance aiming for a BREEAM 'excellent' or 'very good' rating.

According to the competition guidance, designs to meet an 'adaptation' brief should address technologies, systems and processes in the areas of:

  • Comfort (such as internal temperatures, energy management and indoor environmental quality)
  • Construction, including foundation stability, resistance to driving rain, fixing methods, resistance of materials to ultraviolet radiation and the construction process as a whole
  • Water management, including conservation, drainage and flooding
  • Occupant behaviour and building management.

"Some of the projects are already completed and final reports have been submitted," Bill Gething says. "Many have focused on overheating, partly because this is something where there is sufficient hard data to test against. For weatherproofing and related aspects – storm damage, flooding and so on – we have less firm data to work with."

Nevertheless, lessons are already being learned. "Looking at future comfort quickly highlights the poor performance of current new designs!' says Gething. "We tend to rely heavily on modelling and, even though it is improving, modelling tools vary. It's even possible that some are just too perfect; in practice, people don't behave in the way the models predict."

Across the TSB projects design teams and their clients have taken a very broad range of positions on what sort of climate to design for. Some have gone for a very optimistic view on the basis that this level of change must be allowed for as an absolute minimum, others have tested the other end of the spectrum; a much more challenging (but arguably more realistic) scenario.

Design teams have also explored what elements of a new building need to be addressed when it is first constructed and what can be left to be dealt with later as part of a building's future maintenance cycles, as the effects of the changing climate become evident. Incorporating future adaptation in the initial design has produced some interesting design solutions, Gething reports.

In general, most of the projects have concentrated on passive measures to moderate indoor temperatures, even where comfort cooling is planned. Others, such as a project for the new King's Cross campus of Central St Martins College of Art and Design, have investigated harnessing novel nanotechnologies to enhance daylighting while at the same time reducing solar gain – surely the Holy Grail of building design!

Another early lesson of the TSB projects is that the likely climate impacts on deep plan buildings are lower than expected, because internal energy use and gains outweigh what is happening at the envelope. In this case, savings in the energy consumption of lighting and equipment are a powerful adaptation strategy (as well as reducing the emissions that drive climate change in the first place).

Along the way, other business lessons are emerging from the TSB projects, in terms of holistic design, team working and project planning. Which, all together, should put Gething's forthcoming book (to be published by RIBA Enterprises) high on the 'must read' list for sustainable construction professionals.

In the meantime, the TSB original report (also written by Bill Gething), Design for future climate: Opportunities for adaptation in the built environment provides an excellent starting point for would-be long-haul thinkers.

There is also an RIBA-led group, Building Futures, which has a remit to 'address the big picture' covering not just building design issues, but wider questions of professional practice and design technologies.

Elsewhere, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) is driving forward discussion of adaptation at the larger scale, aiming to assess and develop new ideas as part of this global challenge. Top of its seven-step commitment, Planning to live with climate change, is 'promote behaviour change'. The RTPI's primer on urban design and climate change, written by Stephen Lorimer of UCL Energy Institute, notes that the most recent government-backed urban design principles (the Manual for streets) date back to the mid-2000s and did not adequately take account of future climate change. That, and the need to rethink urban design in terms of resilience to changes to the ground, water and atmosphere, are among the objectives of the RTPI's climate change network.

Bill Gething also points to behaviour change and a culture shift as a user-centred approach to adaptation. For example, cities in the south of France (where temperatures already frequently reach the predicted UK highs) are quite different from the UK norm. Could Marseille-style architecture and culture catch on in London? We shall have to wait and see.

But the 40th anniversary of the Pruitt–Igoe demolition adds two further lessons to learn for the future. First, that it is never easy to be at the forefront of developments in design or technology, but we inevitably have to rely on radical thinkers and, more importantly, 'doers' to lead the way and accept that some experiments, no matter how expensive, may fail to deliver. And second, to remember that designing for adaptation or deconstruction should be a crucial element to any sustainable design, so that no project, no matter how radical it proves to be, will entirely go to waste!

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Written January 2012




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