#41 A Sustainable Built Environment

Clockwise from top left: Design District, Greenwich; Parc Hadau, Pontardawe; Townhill Campus, Swansea; Gwynfaen, Penyrheol

While my research work is focused on Active Buildings and the development of a process to enable adoption of the Active Building concept in building projects (a process that can be applied to any new concept by the way), my doctorate is in the Sustainable Built Environment (D.SBE). So, I have been reviewing how Active Buildings fit into this wider context.

An Active Building is an environmentally responsive building, responding to:

The Natural Environment: through use of passive and active solar energy and/or other renewable energy sources; through its relationship with the site it occupies – wind direction; shading provided by vegetation; use of natural site features for cooling, noise attenuation, provision of energy, or protection from pollutants

The Built Environment: creating communities of connected buildings that can share resources, such as energy generated by the buildings, or green spaces between them; improving air quality in and around buildings through less emissions; and providing a sense of community

The Energy Environment: the energy network the building connects to – balancing supply with demand, controlling export and import of energy to and from the grid, to ease grid pressures; connecting electric vehicles, which can help balance energy supply and demand through use of smart charging regimes

Owner occupiers of Active Buildings will have lower operational costs; lower carbon footprints; better visibility of their energy use; and improved building performance (due to the collection and use of data), which in turn will help them to remain in the building and use the cost savings for other areas of their lifestyles.

All buildings are interventions into the environment and into communities; and considering them in this way will help ensure that they not only utilise their environment, but actually enhance it. They should not be a burden on any aspect of their environment, whether natural, built or energy. In terms of the energy environment, I came across an interesting article this week which put low energy buildings and local energy generation at the heart of a Net Zero ready reformed electricity system, illustrated as an Energy Onion, which starts with consumers and works out to the wider electricity network.

As we recover from the global pandemic, we must use the knowledge and experience we have encountered over the last 3 months to change the way we think about the built environment. We must not return to the ‘business as usual’ approach of designs based on what we have done previously. We have an opportunity now to reset and to think about how the built environment should look in the future, the importance of good quality green spaces around buildings, embracing the natural environment and working with it, not against it.

I recently watched an interesting podcast about designing for the future. The interviewee, Architect and Urban Planner, Hannah Corlett (founder of architectural firm HNNA) made an excellent point that routine makes us robotic and prevents us from stepping out of our comfort zone, instead allowing us to keep doing things we’ve always been doing. This is so true in construction where designers often design projects based on previous ones that are perceived to have been successful. We have been given time to think differently, to reset, and to use this as an opportunity to live our lives better and to build back better. While the disruption to our routines was unexpected and due to a devastating virus, we are now faced with the opportunity to change our future. We are still not meeting climate change targets (and won’t unless we seriously reduce carbon emissions and find ways to sequester carbon), so desperately need to change the way we live, to look after the planet more. To quote Corlett, we should “think ahead, while questioning what’s in front of you.”

As an example, many designers, who have traditionally occupied offices, often paying high rents to be in the optimum urban location, have now realised that they don’t need to pay for an office building for all of the time, but could rent space according to their needs at different times. This would not only free up money that would have otherwise been spent on long-term rental agreements but would reduce stress and could stimulate creativity by offering a variety of different work environments. A new community of uniquely designed internal and external spaces, known as the Design District is currently being constructed in Greenwich, which has just this model. As well as creating a vibrant, shared community of spaces, it will offer flexible spaces for people to use as and when they desire, providing opportunities to share resources, such as equipment or even staff – promoting sharing, collaborative working, creativity and innovation. Companies will be able to support each other, collaborate, and be more flexible, which will ultimately aid and nurture creativity and cross-disciplinary working practices.

Creating these sorts of cooperative spaces would also lead to reductions in energy consumption (spaces would only be heated, cooled and powered when occupied); reduce transport (if there are a variety of these spaces within communities, people would no longer need to commute sometimes long distances into a central office space); and potentially reduce waste, from reduced consumption due to shared resources. Without the restrictions of rent and commuting, designers (sticking with this example) could spend more time on what they should and want to be doing, they will be less stressed, have more time for family and more time for health and wellbeing.

Combining the Active Building approach with this cooperative thinking would create a truly sustainable built environment, where the buildings would also share energy, alleviating pressures on the surrounding energy network as well as the building owners, who could choose to either donate excess energy they generate to their neighbours when they don’t need it, or sell it back to the grid as another income generator. Let’s hope we see this model being used more in the future, to provide more of these shared, resource efficient spaces, not only for designers, but for all industries.

A sustainable built environment must balance economic, social and environmental issues – the three pillars of sustainability – for the benefit of all and it is encouraging to see schemes like the Design District doing just that. Other examples include residential schemes currently under development in Wales by Sero Homes, Coastal Housing and Pobl, all of whom are leading the way in Net Zero housing.

Published by jorclarke

I am an Architect, currently working at SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre, Swansea University, and studying for a Doctorate in Sustainable Built Environment (D.SBE), which is focused on developing an Active Building Design Guide.

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