Sustainability & Building

There is a something of a contradiction between sustainability and building.

Resources are needed to build a new project – even one that will be sustainable once built. In turn, energy is needed to run a new facility so the by-product of any new project is waste that wasn’t being generated before.

So in wanting to create sustainable projects architects need to minimise the impact of each new project on our non-renewable resources. This difficulty is something architects confront each time they design a building as there is always an environmental price to pay. Being more sustainable than your neighbour might give us a warm inner glow, however we can’t ignore the fact that every building has an environmental impact.

In my view the simplest way architects can reduce the overall impact of their projects on the environment is to build buildings that will endure well into the future.

Will buildings built today last 100 years? I doubt it. More and more we build for the short term and for commercial gain. Most buildings are designed to last 20 to 30 years. Often the design process is compressed in terms of time and resources and the pressure on consultant fees leads to poorly conceived building solutions. Planning considerations, the desire for bigger buildings and more complex service requirements mean that buildings are increasingly weighed down by stuff.

Will the occupants of buildings being built today enjoy fresh air, light, warmth in winter and cool temperatures in summer? Not really, in many cases. We expect our buildings to operate within narrow ranges of internal temperature and light level so we rely on mechanical systems to heat and cool along with electric lighting to deliver these outcomes for occupants.

Where do the materials come from? Increasingly, materials and equipment are being imported from overseas. Local industries are diminishing and there is a greater reliance on lightweight and easily transportable materials in the building industry. Reliance on project managers and value management means that architects have less control over the materials that are being used.

Using materials that have substance and durability, that can withstand the effects of sun, wind and rain, enables buildings to endure. Uncomplicated spaces that offer flexibility to occupants by virtue of their simplicity and character enable buildings to be adapted time and time again.

What toxins are present in the fabric of today’s buildings? This is the great unknown. What we do know is that on many building projects, specified materials are being substituted for sub-standard alternatives. We simply do not have the insight to know what the effect of many new materials will be on human health in the longer term. What we do know is that poorly ventilated spaces with less access to natural light and air mean that indoor air quality is diminished and that this leads to health problems.

Can today’s buildings be easily maintained? Buildings today are bigger and more complex, meaning that the maintenance of any part of a building requires a more sophisticated approach. Where capital investments are not readily available, maintenance items are ignored.

Are the sustainability features an add-on or are they integral to the building? Very often it is the former. Sustainability features are added to poorly built buildings. In the pursuit of star ratings we see building elements that might not be considered as integral being superficially added to the fabric of buildings. This may or may not be a problem however the addition of solar systems and rain water collection needs careful integration to function effectively.

Are buildings safe to occupy? We hope so, however recent events in the UK have us questioning the integrity of building materials.

Which trades and skills are used to build projects? Again, too often building principles that hark back to craft traditions aren’t being heeded where they could provide insight into how buildings respond to environmental conditions. For instance, inherent in how bricks are laid, or windows are positioned, is an understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

Architecture at its core is an enduring art. It is not a fashion. It is made for the ages.

What is remarkable about architecture is that by creating spaces that enrich the human spirit, we create buildings that are worth preserving. Architecture is the framework for human experiences and these experiences are enriched by environments that are responsive to the needs of people.

Architects create buildings in which it is worth investing time, energy and resources. This is not an accident – it is the tradition of architecture. It is something we see in the very best architecture from ancient times to the present day. We see it in the buildings that we love in our local environment. Buildings like the Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn, the Sydney Opera House by Utzon and Grand Central Station in New York. We see it in the work of great architects such as Glenn Murcutt, Peter Zumthor and Geoffrey Bawa – work founded on principles of light, space, materiality, structure, place and function.

Buildings that are beautiful, well built, functional and light speak to the human spirit.

These are the buildings that are sustainable by virtue of their enduring qualities and regard for the people they serve.

In these circumstances, the contradiction between building and sustainability becomes less of a problem.