Sustainable architecture is yet another buzz word to reach the lips of the modern eco-citizen. But what exactly is it?
Well, sustainable architecture refers to a building, or group or buildings, that implements three key pillars – sustainable materials, sustainable energy, and sustainable development spaces.
With that being said, understanding how sustainable architecture (and design in general)actually works not only requires a firm grasp of what it aims to achieve, but the many problems it seeks to solve, too.
As such, if you’re keen to explore what the phenomenon is in more detail, I welcome you to read my explainer.
What problems are we looking to solve?
In order to set the scene, it is important to first understand why I believe that sustainable architecture is the future. While the threat of an ever-growing reliance of non-renewable energies such as crude oil and natural gas are equally as important, the underlying concept of sustainable architecture is concerned with building process itself.
The reason for this is that – as per the United Nations Environment Programme, buildings are responsible for an estimated 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Not only this, but they are also responsible for producing surplus of 20% of the world’s solid waste, and the consumption of nearly 25% of all drinkable water.
These figures are not only alarming, but a REAL danger to the world as we know it today. No longer can we ignore the damage that we as everyday consumers are indirectly accountable for.
In full recognition of these ongoing threats to Planet Earth, innovative architects are now coming up with real-world solutions in the form of sustainable housing.
The idea is simple; By utilizing design strategies that focus on sustainability, not only can buildings reduce the amount of damage they are causing to the environment, but they can reduce energy consumption by a considerable figure.
In order to explore this further, let’s take a look at the three main pillars of sustainable housing – sustainable materials, sustainable energy, and sustainable development spaces.
Sustainable materials: What to consider?
First and foremost, although the importance of sourcing and using sustainable materials during the end-to-end building process is imperative, a globally recognized certification body is yet to surface. Instead, there are literally hundreds of small-to-medium organizations that implement their own standards, and thus, the information is often complex and contradictory.
For this reason, it can be difficult to quantify with any certainty which specific building materials should be used in order to meet the goals of sustainable architecture. Nevertheless, the information contained within this opinion piece is based on years of independent research, which at the very least should point you in the right direction.
Let’s start with recycled materials.
An interesting starting point is recycled plastic. Global pressures on plastic consumption has really taken-off over the past couple of years – and for good reason. With an estimated 400 million tonnes of plastic produced each and every year, a mouth-watering 40% of this is for one-time use.
The problem with this is that 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean annually, subsequently leading to an estimated 100,000 plastic-related animal deaths.
However, when proper procedures and safeguards are in place, plastic is an excellent material to recycle. In fact, did you know that a group of smart-cookies have figured out how to produce concrete from recycled plastic?
Not only does this alleviate the need to dump plastic in landfills, but it will inevitably reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While we are on the subject of concrete, have you ever come across a material called Ferrock?
This relatively new building material resembles the characteristics held by concrete. In fact, Ferrock is even stronger than concrete, subsequently making it an ideal option for those looking to source sustainable materials.
Without getting too technical, Ferrock uses a number of recycled materials within the production process, such as steel dust. Two of the stand-out benefits of using Ferrock is that it is not only carbon-neutral, but it also has the capacity to absorb carbon dioxide during the drying process.
As an added bonus, Ferrock is significantly cheaper to produce than concrete.
If you read my recent article on sustainable furniture, then you’ll remember me discussing the importance of utilizing eco-friendly, renewable and sustainable materials during both the production and supply chain process.
One such material that is often used in this respect is bamboo.
However, did you know that bamboo has actually been used in construction for over a thousand years? The problem is, this usage is only being utilized on a very, very small scale. That was until the growth of the sustainable architecture movement.
In a nutshell, bamboo can be used as a direct replacement for rebar and other concrete-related materials. Not only is it renewable and locally sourced, but it is a hell of a lot stronger than many people are led to believe.
Much like in the case of Bamboo, Rammed Earth is also a highly sustainable material that has been around for centuries, albeit, it has also failed to make its way over to the mainstream construction industry.
The material is developed exclusively from natural raw materials, including but not limited to lime, earth, gravel and chalk. When used effectively, Rammed Earth can be utilized to construct walls, floors and even foundations. This makes it a highly versatile material to use during the sustainable architecture journey.
In terms of its relationship with energy consumption, Rammed Earth’s footprint is limited to just the quarrying of natural materials, and the actual transportation process itself.
Not only are Straw Bales highly affordable and sustainable, but they are also an excellent material to consider during the housebuilding process. For example, Straw Bales can act as a useful substitute for plaster, concrete and gypsum – three commonly used materials used to build walls.
On top of utilizing eco-friendly materials, Straw Bales also possess a remarkable ability to insulate homes.
It is important to remember that the cost of Straw Bales can vary depending on where it originated from. As such, end-users should attempt to refrain from ordering from manufacturers located far away, as this will of course leave a carbon footprint of its own.
So now that I’ve covered some of the most notable sustainable materials that should be considered during the sustainable building process, in the next section I am going to explore the second key pilar – sustainable energy.
I briefly discussed society’s heavy reliance on non-renewable energies such as crude oil and coal earlier. I also touched upon the energy-inefficiencies of traditional building structures.
As a result, sustainable energy is a key precursor of the sustainable housing concept. Let’s breakdown some of the main options currently on the table for developers.
While admittedly, this might sound somewhat obvious, but solar energy should sit at the core of any sustainable housing project. In fact, solar energy isn’t suitable just for sustainable architecture projects persay, as it’s something that we can all utilize within our homes – regardless of its size.
Nevertheless, sustainable architecture takes things to the next level, not least because the design process starts from the ground-up. In other words, instead of having to purchase and install individual solar panels on to a pre-constructed building, sustainable houses will be built specifically with solar energy in mind.
With benefits such as eco-friendliness and a reduction of electricity costs clear to see, opponents of solar-based buildings will often argue that designs appear somewhat ugly.
However, I would disagree on this.
In fact, there are a significant number of fully-erected projects that look awesome from the outside – all of which are jam-packed with solar panels.
Whether it’s the Science Pyramid at the Denver Botanic Gardens, or the J. Craig Venter Institute, there are heaps of examples that support my viewpoint that innovative architects are now able to combine sustainability WITH beauty.
Check out this list of 10 Buildings That Prove Solar Can Be Beautiful.
When it comes to regions that experience long-periods of hot weather, look no further than Geothermal power. In its most basic form, this super cutting-edge technology takes heat from a building, and subsequently feeds it down to specialist pipes located at the base of the site.
Next, the pipes will go through a natural cooling period, and thus, reduces the temperature in the building. All of this can be achieved in the most eco-friendly of manners, and thus, has virtually no reliance on energy-inefficient air conditioning units.
If you thought that this was innovative, guess what the technology does in the winter months? That’s right, it effectively does the same thing, but in reverse!
By utilizing natural heat that is found below the ground’s surface, Geothermal power will send the heat back up into the building. This has the desired effect of heating your home without needing to use non-renewable fossil fuels.
Alongisde solar energy, we also have the chance to obtain clean energy sources from the wind. This somewhat invisible energy source first grew it’s routes thousands of years ago, via the utilization of basic wind-machines.
The technology has of course grown significantly over the past few years, with wind turbines even powering large-scale ships. This is one of the overarching reasons that some sustainable housing projects are looking to favour wind power over its solar counterpart, especially those situated in harsher climates.
It is also important to note that wind turbines can now be purchased by everyday consumers. In fact, certain countries such as the UK even offer grants to help with the costs of purchasing the required equipment.
Nevertheless, it is estimated that wind power has the chance to reduce electricity costs by 50%-90%, depending on the specific location. Those based in remote locations would benefit greatly, not least because conventional electricity costs are typically higher outside of cities.
Although Biomass is loosely linked to solar, it is actually a completed unique energy extraction process. For those unaware, solar energy is conveniently stored by plants as a means to absorb carbohydrates. Biomass technologies can then extract this solar energy to help fuel sustainable housing projects.
Certain plant species, such as Agave, can be grown without requiring any form of irrigation. This means that the plant can grow in super dry climates throughout the year, subsequently collecting solar energy along the way. Interestingly, Bamboo is also a useful collector of solar energy, as it can achieve a maximum growth rate of 48 inches in just 1 day!
I don’t want to bog you down with too much technical information on the solar extraction process that Biomass technologies facilitate, although, if you do want to read more about the phenomenon, you can checkout a really useful guide here.
Sustainable development spaces
So now that I’ve covered materials and energy, the third key pillar of sustainable architecture that I wanted to discuss with you centres on sustainable development spaces.
So what exactly is a sustainable development space? Well, the concept has a specific focus on the outdoors. In other words, it aims to provide communities situated in urban cities with the required green spaces that are fundamental to achieve a high quality of life.
This can include anything from parks and sporting facilities, as well as recreational and wellbeing areas.
Believe me, as somebody that spends a lot of time in urban Asian cities, I can tell you that the availability of green spaces is minute. Sure, most cities will have a number of green areas to enjoy, but in comparison to the wider population, there just isn’t enough.
As per a recent study by the World Health Organization, it is estimated that a lack of access to recreational areas accounts for a whopping 3.3% of global deaths. You don’t need to get your calculator out to realize that this is a figure of significant size.
But why is this?
Firstly, we as a society all need respite from the hustle and bustle of urban city life. From a mental health perspective, green spaces provides us with the opportunity to improve our well-being. On the physical side of things, green spaces also ensure that we have the required facilities to engage in regular exercise. This in itself can result in a reduction of city-life stress.
In terms of dealing with urban pollution, sustainable development spaces can also assist. For example, by growing trees alongside the sustainable housebuilding process, we have the chance to accelerate the production of oxygen. In doing so, we can help filter-out ever-growing air pollution in city centre areas.
This also links back to the previous section on Biomass technologies, insofar that the growing of plants will lead to further opportunities to extract solar energy.
It is also important to note that the development of green spaces will allow us to grow local, organic food supplies. Rather than relying on food imports that originated from a location thousands of miles away, green spaces will enable city centre communities to live a more self-sufficient existence.
Even in cities where space is virtually non-existent, innovative architects are coming up with new and exciting ways to provide housing residents with the green and sustainable spaces they so desperately need. For example, there is a number of ‘Garden Skyscraper’ projects located in the city of love – Paris. These high-rise buildings operate like a vertical forest, insofar that they are packed with trees, plants and other green delights.
The Italian city of Milan is also home to a number of similar projects. Notably, award winning architect Stefano Boer designed a pair of high-rise residential buildings that now contains 800 tress, alongside thousands of plants. This further highlights my argument that even in circumstances where space is severely limited, we can still come up with innovative ways to reach the long-term goal of sustainable living.
Sustainable architecture: The verdict?
I hope you have enjoyed my article on why I believe sustainable architecture is the way forward. As I have discussed throughout the article, I argue that the future of sustainable housing requires three main pillars.
This includes the utilization of sustainable materials during the construction phase, the installation of sustainable energy technologies to provide buildings with the renewable fuel they need, and the availability of sustainable development spaces. By ensuring that these three pillars are followed to the ‘t’, innovative architects have the chance to make a real difference to the future of society.
As I have argued vehemently and in forceful passion throughout my article, we currently possess all of the required skills, materials, and technologies to make sustainable architecture a reality.
Even in cases where urban city locations have a severe lack of space – there are still things that we can do to ensure building projects remain sustainable and eco-friendly. This has become evident in places like Paris and Milan, where a number of skyscraper buildings have access to high-rise green spaces.