Originally interior designers’ and architects’ primary concern was simply to address a client’s practical and aesthetic needs. However with the increasing awareness of global warming and climate change sustainable design has become a growing concern for both designers and their clients. Today sustainable considerations within design have become an integral part of our design language and key to the design of the future.
It has never been more important to design our buildings and interiors responsibly with consideration of how our work affects the environment. Rising temperatures and tides are a reminder of the negative affect that we, as humans, are having upon our Earth, and with buildings and construction being one of the biggest contributors to this innovation is key as designers to finding solutions to mitigate these emissions. Ever increasing population size is encouraging us to rethink ways in which we can reuse buildings, rather than building more into our decreasing green spaces; the mountains of methane producing landfill sites are forcing us to come up with ways to reduce waste and deal with it in a more sustainable way; the emissions produced due to the high carbon footprint of many of our goods is encouraging us to use more innovative, locally sourced materials and to rethink construction methods.
Firstly, its is important to say what we mean by sustainable design. Recent advances in construction materials, particularly with regard to thermal conductivity, have meant that heat losses have been drastically reduced and, with the Building Regulation reflecting this change, buildings are becoming more efficient as a matter of statute. Other considerations include: making the best of natural light. Modern glazing is not only efficient in terms of heat loss, butting ‘solar gain’ can provide free energy; choosing sustainable materials for construction along with energy efficient materials gives a ‘win/win’ situation providing natural and/or recyclable materials and increased performance; using the building’s thermal mass to absorb energy and balance demand; using renewable technologies within the design process. This could include the use of biomass boilers, group or air sourced heat pumps, photovoltaic cells and raincoat harvesting. It does, however, require financial incentives for designers from central government to provide subsidies in the form of reduced taxation on sustainable materials and feed in tariffs. Something the current government seems to be less than concerned about.
In a 2008 TED Talk about ‘green architecture’ Norman Foster stated that “As an architect you design for the present, with an awareness of the past, for a future that is essentially unknown” and therefore “The Green Agenda is probably the most important agenda and issue of the day.” (Norman Foster, 2007, My Green Agenda for Architecture) The ‘Green Agenda’ which Foster speaks so passionately about discusses how, as designers, we should be creating environmentally sustainable architecture, that pushes society towards a greener future. Foster argues that for a building to fit into this agenda and to be considered sustainable it should not only produce low emissions and have little impact on the environment but should also be future proofed by anticipating changes in technology that would change the way in which we use buildings in the future. Architecture has, therefore a societal role here, in that, if we show a commitment to a more sustainable environment through our buildings, this should, in turn affect the attitude of those people who live and work in them. By creating an adaptable building, considering future requirements and technologies, buildings will be able to be reused for different purposes without disruption to the existing site or having to relocate to a new, updated site. The Willis Building by Fosters Associates is a prime example of this adaptability and future proofing. In 1973 when the building was first in use, the offices were filled with typewriters but today of course every desk space contains a computer. Because Foster Associates foresaw a possible technological and functional change within their building it has been allowed to remain practically the same as without compromising the requirements of the occupants where as competitors were required to build “new buildings for new technologies” (Norman Foster, 2007, My Green Agenda for Architecture).
Foster continuously presents his passion for the ‘Green Agenda’ within his designs over the last fifty years by designing efficient and ecologically conscious buildings, setting an example for green architecture across the globe. Most recently the Bloomberg Building in London has been named the most sustainable office building in the world. The BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) building sustainability assessors have awarded the newly completed headquarters an outstanding rating for it’s ‘environmental, social and economic sustainability performance’. BREEAM, established in 1990, is a standardised method of rating a the sustainability of a building and covers a range of issues, not only those related to energy efficiency, but also pollution, well-being, waste, ecology management processes. This building earned it’s 98 percent sustainability rating for it’s innovative water, lighting, power and ventilation systems which are designed to “utilise waste products, respond to the building’s external environment and adapt to its occupancy patterns” (Foster + Partners, 2017, Bloomberg Press Release). The building relies very little on conventional ventilation and cooling systems due to the building’s distinctive bronze ‘gills’ which can be opened and closed to naturally alter the environment of the interior, whilst blocking out the city noise from the street, contributing to the building’s 35 percent reduction in energy consumption compared to other office blocks. The building also uses a quarter of the water consumption by collecting rainwater from the roofs and recycling water from sinks and showers, saving 25 million litres of water each year.
However, despite the company bragging about the vast amounts of money spent on sourcing local material for construction, the architects imported around 600 tonnes of bronze from Japan and similar quantities of granite from India meaning that despite the fact that the building operates under low emissions, the building’s construction was comparably unsustainable due to it’s large carbon footprint. However, as these future proofed buildings have a long ‘shelf life’, the impact over the long term is relatively small. This is the the argument for using concrete, for instance, in construction. This is a material that needs enormous amounts of energy in its manufacture, but because it will be around for a lengthy period, the impact on the environment is lessened. On the other hand designers should be conscious of construction materials that are more environmentally aware due to technological advancements and innovative design.
Previous to Foster’s 98 percent BREEAM rating the title of the world’s most sustainable building was held by PwC’s (Price Waterhouse Cooper) office space at One Embankment Place. When faced with the need to do away with their leaky old office building the company decided to retain the original site and refurbish it to withstand their current and future needs with a sustainable and responsible attitude. The company worked with the architects and interior designs TP Bennet who design with an a similar ethos to Foster’s ‘Green Agenda’ to “create environments that are low impact to build, efficient in use, easy to care for, pay their way and are flexible and durable enough to last a lifetime or two.” The result was an innovative building which now emits 40 percent less carbon than buildings of a similar size and produces 60 percent less energy and 20 percent less heat. Many argue that the building itself has also contributed to a more positive work ethic because of the building’s flexibility within it’s open plan spaces and airy atrium which floods the building with natural light.
Through the design of many elements of the building the architect’s have been able to make the people occupying the space more conscious of the natural environment and their own energy consumption. Interactive screens in the reception and around the building display the offices’ current energy usage and where the energy is being used. TP Bennet also installed a spacious staircase within the atrium which encourages workers to move vertically within the building without the use of lifts, contributing both to a reduction in energy and as well as benefiting the health of the people using them.
By rethinking the needs and design of this old building the company have saved on average £250,000 a year in electricity, gas and water costs and has had a dramatic decrease in their carbon emissions and energy usage, proving the case for the reuse of buildings from a business point of view as well as the advantages for employees and the surrounding communities. Alongside this TP Bennet have not only designed an office building which is sustainably conscious but also were conscientious in the construction of the building. Unlike Foster’s most sustainable building 95 percent of One Embankment Place’s construction materials were responsibly sourced from local sites and 96 percent of the waste from the construction was diverted from landfill sites. (Not sure if I need this paragraph?)
Organisations such as BREEAM and LEED (BREEAM’s American competitor: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) have emerged with ways of rating and assessing a building’s environmental impact because of the pressure the design and construction industries have come under to be more sustainable. However the reliability of these organisation’s methods have been questioned and studied due to the difficulty in quantifying and measuring sustainability. The BREEAM method has been criticised for it’s measuring technique using criteria scoring, as some categories are deemed subjective, meaning that the results could vary depending on the assessor. A 2012 study into the accuracy of BREEAM’s measurement of sustainability found that there was ambiguity in the assessment manual and at times requires the assessor to interpret the criteria. It also found that there was an ‘inflexibility in the approach’, for example in the ecology section the manual requires the assessor to give a score based purely on the quantity of plants rather than their quality. One advantage of BREEAM over it’s competitors it that it requires it’s employees to be fully trained in the scheme before assessing a building and reporting back the BRE. However if, as the evidence from the 2012 study shows, the trained professionals find the assessment of buildings against their criteria unclear then how are designers and architects expected to tailor their designs towards BREEAM’s guidelines?
As well as being concerned with energy consumption and and reducing waste TP Bennet aim to “create spaces that are attractive, healthy and life enhancing”, valuing aesthetics and human interaction as highly as social and environmental considerations. However, this brings to question the role that our awareness of sustainability plays on the aesthetic outcome of our designs. In a 2009 interview the architect Peter Eisenman stated that the term “‘green’ and sustainability have nothing to do with architecture. Some of the worst buildings I have seen are done by sustainable architects” suggesting that the sustainable architecture is all substance and no style, as if beauty and sustainability are mutually exclusive. In 2010 Vanity Fair conducted a survey asking fifty two leading architects to determine the ‘greatest buildings of the past 30 years’. The winner, by a long shot was Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. This particular architect however has been criticised for being flamboyant and wasteful by fellow architect James Wines who complained that it takes “60-80 percent more metal and steel and construction than it would to enclose that space in a normal way … Mind-boggling waste.” The 2010 survey shows how far the ‘greatest’ design of the previous three decades were from the ‘greenest’ designs as few of the projects from the list had any focus on sustainable, innovative design.
So can building’s be good for the planet and still be considered great architecture? At the beginning of 2017 the online design and architecture magazine, Dezeen, produced an article discussing the ‘top ten buildings to look forward to in 2017’. Despite the seven year difference between the Vanity Fair survey and the Dezeen article, the more recent list featured very few buildings with a sustainable initiative. The Dutch architecture firm MVRDV was featured for their plans to transform a disused high-line in the city of Seoul, South Korea into an elevated public park as part of the city’s ambition to become one of the most eco-conscious cities in the world. By taking on this project the city have been able to avoid the demolition of the old elevated road as well as creating a space which encourages walking and cycling throughout the city and boosting their ecological status with the introduction of 254 species of trees, shrubs and flowers.
Norman Foster’s design for the Apple Campus 2 also featured on the Dezeen article’s list which was boasted at it’s time of construction as being “the greenest building on the planet” (Tim Cook, 2014, Climate Week conference, New York). Jerry Yudelson, president of the Portland, Oregon-based Green Building Initiative, explained that Apple “wanted to show that high levels of energy and water efficiency and high levels of aesthetics are not incompatible. Sort of like a beauty queen who can do higher math,”. With Apple’s drive to appear more environmentally friendly alongside Norman Foster’s green outlook toward’s his design the new campus is among some of the most green buildings in the world with it’s 3,000 solar panels stretching 70,000 square feet across it’s roof and it’s fresh air ventilation system. However these designs were the only examples on the list which had a main focus on sustainability.
The very nature of a building or object’s design and appearance can determine it’s longevity and therefore it’s sustainability. Lance Hosey states in his book, ‘The shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design’, “Who throws out a thing they find functional, beautiful, and valuable all at once? A more attractive design discourages us from abandoning it: if we want it, we won’t waste it.” Here he makes the point that even if something is designed in the most responsible way with the highest consideration of it’s impact on the environment it wont be sustainable unless it’s also beautiful because “How long will something last if it fails to excite the spirit and stir the imagination?” (Lance Hosey, 2012, The shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design). In other words the architect’s desire for sustainability should be at the heart of the design both practically and aesthetically for a building to show its green credentials for all to see; harking back to Frank Lloyd Wright famous axiom that “form and function are one”.
Despite the fact that buildings and construction are responsible for around one third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, sustainable building provides the most promising and relevant solution to reduce those emissions whilst also having a positive impact on society.
In conclusion, we have seen that the green agenda is firmly in the minds of architects and designers. This is, not only because legislation is understandably forcing the issue, but also many architects are clearly aware of their social responsibility when designing and creating a large object that will be around for generations. They should also be aware that todays’ buildings will need to evolve with unknown future restraints and that, even now, a strong sense of future-proofing should be acknowledged. Finally, the criticism that paying homage to to the needs of the environmental debate, will be detrimental to to the aesthetic of the design, proves to be spurious. We should be proud that architects are putting these issues at the heart of the design and to demonstrate the importance of checking the affects of global warming and future limited resources by wearing our green credentials firmly on our sleeve.