Are we becoming more sustainable? Sustainable homes and sustainable architecture

Some Thoughts on Sustainability?

Some Thoughts on Sustainability?


As a society do we really understand what it means to live sustainably? We are exposed to abundant information, and a nearly constant background noise of climate change but does this manifest itself in helpful change or simply become hijacked by those who wish to sell us expensive solutions.


As I’m sure we all know, the way in which our buildings are used and lived-in impacts heavily on the energy used, the same way that the fuel consumption of our cars is most heavily impacted by how we drive them. Windows open and heating on is not a sensible way forward for our buildings, and yet I still see this regularly. The electrical items we use are more efficient than they used to be, but the number we have appears to keep growing. Each might be modest in its power consumption, but they all add up. Those that are wifi connected will always be ‘on’, so there are a lot more appliances on standby than there was say 20 years ago. I’ve tried hard to find some useful and decipherable statistics on this without much luck. Available UK Gov information(1) suggests that comparing 1970 and the present day our households use roughly the same energy, but this has steadily reduced since a peak in 2005. So maybe we are turning the tide? Domestic hot water is often the ‘elephant in the room’ as you can’t avoid it and it uses a fair bit of energy to create, whichever way you look at it. The problem is that as a society we’ve had access to relatively cheap and available energy for a long time and we have grown accustomed to living to these limits.


Sustainable homes and sustainable architecture


But sustainability in relation to our buildings has many perspectives, and we will all think about this subject differently. These are some of my personal thoughts on sustainability and construction.


One size won’t fit all
Every building project is different and ‘standard’ approaches can’t be assumed. For example, Passivhaus won’t suit everyone or every scenario, but it does provide a standard measure of performance and requires in-use proof for accreditation. So it’s a great approach if the project is concentrating on in-use energy consumption. If the project is sited in a sensitive location with low in-use energy demands, more of the emphasis might be on the use of sustainable and natural materials.


Robustness and reuse
Designing and constructing buildings that are robust and have potential repurposing, upgrading and refurbishment in mind makes the most of both the expended embodied energy and that to be used in the future. So, we need our buildings to be flexible, adaptable, and well built, so they stand the test of time. This is possibly a challenge for some modular construction techniques, requiring greater consideration at the outset.


Keep it simple
Our buildings should be intuitive to live with, not highly complex and requiring very specific set-up and control. The better they perform ‘naturally’ the less they will require active servicing solutions such as air-conditioning, and the less that can go wrong or be incorrectly set-up. This requires a careful balance because allowing user control is an important factor in providing occupant comfort and wellbeing.


Sustainable homes and sustainable architecture


Appropriate materiality
We should be mindful of the materials used. I’m not an anti-concrete activist, it has its place if used where it can provide long term benefits such as thermal mass, longevity, and acoustic performance, but it shouldn’t be a default. We can do fantastic things with timber which can be truly renewable and doesn’t come with the high embodied energy issues related to the extraction and processing of concrete and steel.


Our existing housing stock
I think that one of our biggest challenges in the UK is possibly the huge existing stock of late 19th Century and earlier 20th century housing, much of which dates from before the use of cavity construction and is often arranged as dense terraces. We can’t just carry out mass clearances as we did post WWII when we cleared out the slums, and it would be uneconomical for many to bring these dwellings up to modern Building Regulations standard. Currently if you have solid construction external walls, which accounts for more than 8.4 million homes in the UK, and you’re not on any kind of government benefit scheme it’s completely down to you to pay the bill to upgrade this poorly performing construction. As a result 91% don’t have solid wall insulation(2). Hopefully this situation will improve in the coming years as it affects a lot of us. We need better incentivisation and simple/reliable ways to get things done.


What can we all do?
I think an approach to improving how we live and how our buildings perform is do what we all can, and equally, think more about how we use our buildings. For instance, do we need hot water provision throughout a building? How many people actually wait for the tap to run hot before commencing to wash? We could reduce the infrastructure for where it’s necessary and reduce the energy used in delivery.


Sustainable homes and sustainable architecture


We could zone our buidlings more thoughtfully, because often we only require certain areas to be kept at higher temperatures. We can consider if all parts of a building need to be indoors. By this I mean that connecting areas of circulation could be external but undercover, as with a cloister. This approach could provide benefits for multi storey apartment developments which can suffer from summertime overheating, especially in dense urban areas, and could deliver project cost savings.


There are inexpensive ways in which we can improve our buildings and homes. For instance, positive input pressure systems can provide useful amounts of internal warmth, and improve ventilation rates, on cold but sunny days. An external trellis or canopy can provide summertime shading to larger areas of glazing to reduce internal heat gains at relatively low cost. Careful consideration of landscaping can help to provide shelter and shade, as well as reducing external surface temperatures around the building perimeter. I believe that at some level we all know and appreciate this thinking as we live in and modify our environments. But for new-build situations it requires the thought process to be applied from the outset in an holistic fashion.


The usual catalysts for major change tend to involve the ‘stick’ rather than the ‘carrot’. This manifests itself in building regulations and energy prices. But most of us can do something to get ahead (or at least keep up with) the curve, if we think about what we are doing and whether we can live a little differently. At ADG we work hard to understand not only what the client wants, but also to identify how they live, work and play, both now and in the future. In this way we help our clients to make informed, considered choices that will help them to operate more efficiently and sustainably into the future.


(1) Data provided by Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy: Energy Consumption in the UK
(2) Data provided by The House of Commons: Energy Efficiency of UK Homes.

Dale's experience spans a wide range of project sectors, sizes and stages and has particular interests in environmental design and earth-sheltered construction. His favourite projects reuse and breathe new life into under-loved existing buildings.