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Constructing sustainable futures

Mia Clement discusses the role of architecture in the climate crisis and the importance of sustainable building practices.

Green design has many related names and concepts associated with it besides sustainable development. When I think of green design plants, solar panels and grass roofs come to mind. But green design branches out further than that. Some people place the emphasis on ecology and have adopted terms like eco-design, eco-friendly architecture, and even arcology to represent green design ideas. Eco-tourism is a 21st-century trend, even if eco house designs might appear to some extent a bit non-traditional, there has been a boost in green design approval and building work as we look to adapt and work with nature rather than against it.

Green architecture, or green design, is the approach to building that minimizes the harmful effects of construction projects on human health and the environment. The “green” architect or designer attempts to integrate nature by choosing eco-friendly building materials and construction practices – this is key in the decarbonisation of society and promotion of sustainability as we mitigate climate change.

Some buildings or architects take their cue from the environmental movement, most famously inspired by Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ and the narrative of direct human influence on our surroundings—earth-friendly architecture, ecological architecture, natural architecture, and even organic architecture all of which keep nature in the centre of project management and construction. Biomimicry is used by architects who use nature as a guide to green design. For example, the Expo 2000 Venezuelan Pavilion has petal-like additions to the main body of the building that adjust to control the temperature inside the building. 

Climate change – new ground for green buildings

“Buildings account for nearly 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions”, according to Architecture 2030. Add in other infrastructure and everyday activities, such as transportation, that are associated with buildings, and that number grows drastically. By building green, we can reduce the impact our buildings have on contributing to climate change while also building resilience into our homes and as a result our communities. LEED v4.1 standards and certification acknowledges the extensive impact buildings can have on the environment and gives special consideration to climate change with its focus on reducing carbon within production processes.

High-performing green buildings with low carbon intensity, particularly LEED-certified buildings, provide the means to reduce the climate impacts of buildings and their inhabitants, acting as a stepping point or blueprint for other projects. A 2014 UC Berkeley study found that by building to within LEED standards, facilities “contributed 50% fewer GHGs than conventionally constructed buildings due to water consumption, 48% fewer GHGs due to solid waste and 5% fewer GHGs due to transportation”. LEED then rewards carbon emission decisions about building location, with credits that encourage compact developments and connection with transit and amenity networks, helping to lower greenhouse gases associated with transportation and building infrastructure.

When a building consumes less water, the energy—and greenhouse gases—otherwise required to treat said water from the source to the building are avoided or reduced. Additionally, less transport of materials to and from the building cuts associated fuel consumption. These strategies significantly reduce the carbon footprint of buildings and occupants beyond what energy efficiency alone can do. Providing inhabitant feedback with systems like Arc, which “showcases a building’s environmental efforts and performance, can drive further reductions”. Green buildings can be part of the vital part of the solution in combating climate change and technological advancement.

Looking to the future – building a better future

Green buildings create healthier spaces for people, use less resources and save more money. These projects are helping to raise the quality of life itself in populations spanning every corner of the planet and create lasting, measurable change in our communities. 

Sustainable architecture is at the front and centre of new green building and renovation projects around the world. It has the potential to significantly benefit both the humans who occupy urban spaces and the surrounding environment.

Sustainable architecture represents a pivotal opportunity to revolutionize zero carbon building by standardizing highly energy-efficient structures, renewable energy, and even carbon offsetting, where required. But it also supports housing, employment, and various other benefits.

Energy efficiency – sparks fly

Sustainable design and construction will typically include some combination of renewable energy sources, energy-efficient lighting and heating, good use of natural light, waste reduction, water efficiency, and effective insulation. Construction and design will also typically include a full lifecycle assessment to ensure the building retains optimal sustainability for as long as possible, not just during construction itself.

Green economic growth – go green or go home

In addition to its potential as a mitigator of climate change, the industry also represents an opportunity to support green economic growth through employment opportunities and create more sustainable and high-quality housing. Both of which are in high demand and low supply, particularly in the U.S. and the U.K.

The buildings and construction sector currently provides up to “10 percent of national employment in the U.S. and up to 15 percent of GDP” found from statista database, more than finance, transportation, utilities, and public administration. The construction industry also provides housing, mobility, water, and sanitary infrastructures. According to UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme focusing on national, international and individual changes in carbon consumption), it also “represents the physical context for social interactions as well as economic development at the micro-level.”

Urban Heating – raise the roof

Innovative architectural design and sustainable construction projects can actively reduce urban heating (which increases energy costs, pollution, and heat-related illnesses), and even produce additional renewable energy via wind and solar technology. Person-centred design can also help improve public health by emphasizing the wellbeing of those inside and around buildings, for example, by maximizing the amount of daylight that penetrates interiors.

Green in Oxford

The Sustainability page on the University of Oxford highlights key features for a variety of buildings in Oxford.

These include:

  • Ground source heat pump systems (Earth Sciences, Blavatnik School of Government, Beecroft, Said Business School and Andrew Wiles buildings).
  • Thermal labyrinth (Big Data Institute).
  • Combined heat and power (CHP) engines (NDM, Kennedy, Beecroft, Castle Mill phase 2, Summertown House and OMPI buildings).
  • Green roof (Andrew Wiles, Earth Sciences and Blavatnik School of Government buildings).
  • Solar panel installations (over 2,000 panels across the estate). 

Oxford is a centre of innovation, research and now the improvement of buildings in sustainability through the University Sustainability Strategy through the adaptation of current buildings and the green construction of new ones.

This is a prime opportunity for Oxford to learn from past mistakes in the building industry, and not only reducing carbon emissions by reaching net-zero, but working towards the future of carbon negativity – taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and adding nothing to it. The future of Oxford city and University looks green in its buildings.

Image Credit: Blaine O’Neill / CC BY-NC 3.0

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