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Mapping challenges for the future of sustainable architecture

Green walls and solar panels are no longer considered adequate for making a building ‘green’. Architects suggest the process must start from the inside out.

What is sustainable architecture, truly? When someone asks this question, what do you think of?

Like most people, my response would probably be something like: buildings designed to incorporate a vast amount of plant life and open space, features that would hopefully neutralise the structure’s carbon emissions.

Energy efficiency and the use of sustainable materials during the building process would also come to mind. But this is only a small part of what goes into sustainable buildings.

Mario Cucinella is an Italian architect who is helping to redefine the meaning of what sustainable architecture is. While elements of greenery are important, he believes a deep understanding of a location, plus the social and cultural elements of its community must be considered and incorporated into design.

For example, in places where there is a strong sense of community, Cucinella believes that if design doesn’t involve the people, new builds could be rejected as social spaces. They’ll likely be knocked down or need restructuring to be more useful to the communities, a process that makes them less sustainable over time.

So what are the key challenges for creating truly green architecture? To answer this, let’s think about the way buildings have been made in the last few decades.

Looking at architectural processes of the past

In the past, buildings were constructed from local materials using age-old architectural techniques. Many regions constructed their buildings with unique structures, crafted to withstand environmental factors such as heat, extreme storms, and other patterns in weather.

These designs were practical, serving the needs of those living in them, while also incorporating resources that preserved the natural surroundings and facilitated cultural ways of life.

The efficiency of these techniques are apparent in some of the most long-standing structures on Earth – the Colosseum, basilicas, the Egyptian pyramids – which have remained in tact for thousands of years.

This method of long-term construction changed drastically as people gave up life in their local areas and moved to metropolitan cities. It is estimated that by the time we reach 2030, sixty percent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas.

To meet the requirements of a growing urban population, planning had to change – and fast. The use of technology in design and increased preference for sleek, modern building aesthetics led to big changes in the ways that buildings are made.

Speed of construction became the priority, with cultural designs and longevity going out the window – which is pretty sad when you think about it.

New, modern-style buildings made from concrete and glass only last for about 200 years. In this short period of time, they use an immense amount of energy in both building and running phases. In fact, a UN report stated that construction and architecture sectors account for 40% of global energy consumption and 39% of CO2 emissions.

Many leaders in design believe that incorporating sustainability into the future of builds is non-negotiable. If we are going to care for the earth and support the natural world, we must consider new ways to design more simply, making life healthier and more efficient in the long run.

If a human can outlive a building – and in many cases, we do – there’s clearly a huge disconnect in the way we’re thinking about design.

So, what are the perceived obstacles for future sustainable designs?

Benchmarks for what makes a building sustainable are not set in stone.  Many suggest that a universal framework must be put in place to quantify true levels of sustainability – measurements that companies could then strive towards.

The addition of green walls in and around buildings and installation of solar panels on top of old buildings are now viewed as controversial objectives for measuring ‘greenness’.

Instead, the guts of the building – materials used for construction, water management, electricity, and heating methods – need rethinking for buildings be considered as environmentally friendly.

Additionally, initial costs of constructing buildings that are sustainable may not be appealing to contractors – who are mainly interested in sales over ecological impacts. Therefore, experimenting with new designs are frequently viewed as off the table when speaking with investors.

One of the key steps in combatting this will be training students to design with environmental impacts in mind. Once in their career stage, architects will have to do the job of educating clients about the ways innovative designs save on long-term cost, with negligible differences in initial investment prices.

Finally one of the biggest challenges is bringing eco-friendly designs from the planning stage into mainstream reality. Once sustainable projects begin being built on a large scale, such projects will no longer seem like part of an imaginary utopian world.

Having successful examples to build on can encourage future projects in the industry and create buyer demands for more like them.

What are some practical ideas for sustainable design?

To decrease the environmental impact on the landscape and surrounding environments, design teams have come up with a few methods.

In the construction phase, long lasting, and recyclable polystyrene moulds that concrete is poured into can make up walls, reducing the need for globally sourced natural resources such as steel, copper, and bricks.

The moulds provide insulation and offer a considerably quicker solution to traditional methods of building, like bricklaying. This method has already been implemented successfully for housing projects.

Other top priorities include incorporating heating and ventilation in ways that save energy in the long term. Simply placing windows to face the southern side of the build will enable homes to capture optimal amounts of warmth from the sun – which honestly, sounds like a no brainer.

Even further, solar panels can be incorporated to heat water for showers and provide electricity, while also storing power for later use. Recycled glass can be reused for new, skyscraper type builds.

Gathering knowledge of the available resources in local environments and the needs of local communities before developing designs are also being presented as a priority for sustainable architecture.

Ultimately, there is no shortage of design creativity or existing methods for developing sustainable buildings. What is missing is an overarching inclination towards implementing these proposals on a large scale. However, the only thing fuelling this is the fear of financial failure.

Since modern buildings generate almost half of all CO2 emissions, it’s time for more contractors to take the leap and invest in a greener future. Those who already have produced stunning results.


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