In the past there has been a perception in some quarters that "green" buildings are worthy but dull. This is a misconception, and good design and sustainability can indeed go hand in hand, with a wide variety of approaches to design and technical issues available.

In this exclusive extract from Sustainable Architecture, edited by David Turrent, we introduce how buildings have a major part to play in combating climate change.

A design approach focussed on resource efficiency and minimum environmental impact is not incompatible with visual delight. Sustainable architecture can "lift the spirit" as well as help save the planet.

So, what do we mean by "sustainability" in the context of architecture? In its broadest sense sustainable design should address the "triple bottom line" of social, economic and environmental issues: social in the sense of community engagement and inclusiveness; economic in the sense of long-term growth and prosperity; environmental in the sense of local and global impact. In addition, the sustainability agenda as far as it affects the built environment generally embraces the following key topics: energy and carbon dioxide emissions, water conservation, waste recycling, materials sourcing, associated transport and biodiversity. Energy efficiency and the need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (principally carbon dioxide – CO2) is the area in which architects and other design professionals can exert most influence to help combat global warming.

There is no doubt that huge amounts of energy are wasted in buildings. The new Building Regulations Part L (2006) will raise standards marginally, but they will still trail woefully behind Scandinavia and parts of Canada where high standards of thermal performance have been the norm for the past 20 years. We are now seeing higher standards of thermal insulation being applied in UK buildings as well as the integration of renewable energy technologies – increasingly required as a condition of planning permission.

Water is becoming a scarce and expensive resource, especially in the south-east. Designers now have access to a range of water-conserving measures that can be specified in buildings, including waterless urinals, spray taps, rainwater harvesting systems and grey water recycling systems. At site level, rainwater attenuation or infiltration as part of a sustainable urban drainage system (SUDS) is now often a statutory requirement to reduce surface water run-off.

The process of demolition and construction generates large quantities of waste, approximately 19% of total waste in the UK. Much of this is destined for landfill. Better site management and increased use of off-site manufacturing offer ways of reducing this, and more stringent targets are gradually being adopted by the industry. Increased recycling of domestic waste poses a challenge for architects to design more elegant and practical storage solutions, both internally and externally. The specification of materials also comes under closer scrutiny, in particular the sourcing of timber from accredited sustainable sources and consideration of the embodied energy of construction materials. Transport is another important topic – does the development encourage or discourage car use and are adequate cycle storage facilities being incorporated? And last but not least, does the development provide access to green space and in what ways does it propose to enhance local biodiversity?

Buildings have a major part to play in both mitigating and adapting to climate change. This represents a huge technical challenge for everyone involved in the construction industry. Buildings need to be more robust environmentally, more flexible and much more efficient if CO2 emissions are to be reduced in line with government targets. For clients and their design advisors there are six important lessons that emerge:

  • Set a clear sustainability brief and manage expectations throughout the design and delivery process and on into the use of the building
  • Focus on getting the basics right - reducing demand should be the first priority before considering technical options for energy/resource supply
  • Establish ambitious targets from the outset – inevitably there will be some watering down as the project develops
  • Build in simple facilities in order to monitor the performance of buildings in use
  • Recognise that, for a variety of reasons, operational energy performance is likely to fall short of design predictions
  • Common problems include: excessive air infiltration, too much glazing, poorly functioning control systems and avoidable waste.

About this article

Extract from Sustainable Architecture edited by David Turrent.

Copyright RIBA Publishing October 2007