In this exclusive extract from The Whole Building Handbook: How to Design Healthy, Efficient and Sustainable Buildings by Varis Bokalders and Maria Block, we look at the increasingly pressing need to make buildings sustainable.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that environmental problems, including climate change, are a serious global threat, demanding an urgent global response. Many researchers and analysts warn that we have only a few decades in which to achieve sustainable development, to prevent catastrophic environmental changes. The design and methods of construction of our built environment – our homes, workplaces and cities – have an enormous impact on both the global environment and locally on the communities that inhabit them. Creating a sustainable built environment is therefore a crucial part of the transformation needed to achieve true sustainability.

Environmental changes and impacts

Human activities and the technologies we use can cause many problems. Our extensive use of fossil fuels and hazardous chemicals pollute the atmosphere, water and soil – the essential commodities for our survival. Burning of fossil fuels discharges carbon oxides (COx), sulphur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which affect the climate and the ozone layer, and contribute to acidification of soil and water. Many current human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and massive deforestation, cause increased CO2 and other 'greenhouse gas' levels in the atmosphere. This creates the enhanced greenhouse effect, heating up the average global temperature and causing climate change. Calculations show that a temperature increase of 1.6–6°C is possible, which would lead to a 15–100cm rise in ocean water levels. There will be a shift in climatic zones over a large part of the Earth. Extreme weather conditions such as storms, floods and drought will become more common. The social and economic impacts of climate change could be huge. In 2006, Sir Nicholas Stern, former Head of the British Government Economic Service and Adviser to the Government on the economics of climate change and development, wrote a report on the economics of climate change. He reported that stabilization of CO2 levels requires that annual emissions be brought down to at least 80 per cent below current levels. The cost of action was estimated to be limited to around 1 per cent of global GDP each year if adequate action were to be taken immediately. Since then, Stern has revised this up to 2 per cent of GDP because global warming is happening faster than previously predicted. If no action is taken, the cost could be between 5 and 20 per cent of GDP each year, now and forever. And it will be difficult or impossible to reverse the changes.

Population growth and our overexploitation of resources also cause massive problems. It is currently believed that oil reserves will last for 30 years, natural gas reserves for 70 years and coal reserves for 250 to 300 years. Fresh water is scarce and unequally distributed, groundwater reserves are being used up, and water is being polluted so that it is undrinkable, meaning that water management will very soon be one of the world's greatest problems. Arable land is a limited resource: fertile topsoil is being lost because of erosion and agricultural land is being destroyed by salinization, water logging and the building of cities on arable land. The seas and oceans are heavily over-fished; without a decrease of current fishing, many fish stocks will disappear. Considerable deforestation is taking place in many parts of the world, especially in the tropical rainforests. Biological and genetic depletion is increasing both on land and in the water. Cheap fossil fuels have made possible a growth in population that is without historical precedent. According to predictions, the global population will increase from 6.7 billion in 2007 to 9 billion in 2050. How large a population can our Earth support?

Sustainable development

The 1987 Brundtland Commission's report, Our Common Future, at the request of the United Nations, established an ethical principle that should be self-evident: 'We must satisfy our generation's needs without destroying the opportunities for future generations to satisfy their needs.' It was the Brundtland Commission that launched the concept of 'sustainable development'. The task the United Nations gave to the countries of the world was to merge technology, economics and sustainable development with a new lifestyle based on equity. It is thus a question of ecological, economic and social sustainability. Human survival and human welfare may depend on our success in transforming principles of sustainable development into a global ethic: 'thinking globally and acting locally'.

Conventional economic practices take no account of vital natural assets that have no monetary price, such as clean air, clean water, nature, etc. A country's wealth and well-being is typically judged by its GNP. A re-evaluation of the GNP concept, where negative environmental effects are included as minus amounts in a country's welfare – a green GNP – would be a better measure of national economic development.

In balance with nature

Planning a sustainable society requires a holistic approach in which we learn from and cooperate with nature. Our planet and its ecosystems is a complex whole where plants, animals, people and micro-organisms all form an integral part: everything is connected to everything else, nothing disappears, everything must go somewhere. We can take from this some fundamental principles for environmental sustainability, including: renewable resources must be managed in a sustainable way; non-renewable resources must be recycled; air, water and soil need to be kept clean and biodiversity has to be maintained.

Lifestyle

Transition to sustainable technology and renewable energy sources is not enough to achieve sustainable development. We also have to change our lifestyle. There is a huge difference in lifestyle and resource use between poor and rich countries, and between poor and rich people within countries. If all of the people in the world had a lifestyle similar to the average person in the European Union, four planet Earths would be needed to satisfy everyone's energy and resource needs.

Western lifestyles result in consumption of energy and resources in three main sectors: transport, food and housing. To achieve a sustainable society we have to change how we travel, eat and live. This includes using less petrol, eating less meat, living in energy-efficient buildings and changing our focus from quantity to quality, from material consumption to non-material well-being.

Sustainable building

A very large proportion of the energy used in the world, and the greenhouse gases that are released from this energy use, is connected to the building sector. It is clear that no move towards sustainable development can go ahead without radical changes in architecture, construction and spatial planning. We are now seeing a huge drive to conserve energy, increase efficiency and create zero-carbon buildings, all of which are vital in reducing the environmental impacts of buildings. But building sustainably must also take a broader approach, including the whole impact of a building – on the environment, people's health and social wellbeing – throughout its whole lifetime. In order to build truly sustainable buildings and cities, architects and planners need to think holistically and have a comprehensive grounding in all aspects of sustainable building.

About this article

This article is an extract taken from The Whole Building Handbook: How to design Healthy, Efficient and Sustainable Buildings by Varis Bokalders and Maria Block. Published by Earthscan in association with RIBA Publishing. Copyright Earthscan January 2010.

It is a compendium of all the issues and strategies that architects need to understand to design and construct sustainable buildings for a sustainable society. The authors move beyond the current definition of sustainability in architecture, which tends to focus on energy-efficiency, to include guidance for architecture that promotes social cohesion, personal health, renewable energy sources, water and waste recycling systems, permaculture, energy conservation - and crucially, buildings in relation to their place.

To order a copy of The Whole Building Handbook: How to design Healthy, Efficient and Sustainable Buildings externallink by Varis Bokalders and Maria Block, please visit RIBA Bookshops externallink, who offer an unrivalled range of the best architecture, design and construction books from around the world.